Here's an interactive post! This is a piece of nature writing from my final portfolio in Writing for Public Ministry.
The tree stood at least two stories taller than my new house and I imagined the roots digging their way to the small river a block away or at least to the roots of the maple across the street. In my head, I could see the two root systems intertwined and coiled around one another deep inside the earth. I couldn’t identify this tree. The leaves were new to me—shaped like a fan with curved edges and a soft V cut out of the top. Each leaf was covered in thin, raised lines that started at the stem and fanned symmetrically out to the edge. On that August morning, the day I first saw the tree, the leaves were a dark green and they filled the branches. I stood against the thick trunk and stared towards the sky. Deep, shaded green filled my vision. I called my landlord and discovered that this tree was a ginkgo.
In eastern Asia, the ginkgo tree is sacred. I had moved to Indiana to attend seminary, to explore the holy mystery of life and I had been gifted with a holy tree. In China, Japan and Korea, ginkgos are planted on the grounds of temples and palaces. And here I was, in Indiana with a sacred tree. My house took on a new aura. Walking up my front steps and under the canopy of leaves, I was greeted with holy breath. I looked up and saw the leaves reaching down for me. The base of the thick trunk is about four feet from my walkway, but strong branches grow horizontally over it about ten feet up. From these horizontal branches hang thin branches, full of leaves. I can grab them, examine them—brush my face along them as I enter my home.
I sit and watch the tree regularly. The image of it has become a part of me. But I want more from it than its beauty—even more than its shade. I want the tree to speak to me. I want it to tell me stories. I want to hear about the people who have lived in this house, about everything that has happened on this street. I want to know how old the tree is. I sit at its edges, lean against its base and look out at the world it sees—simple wood homes filled with families, shouting, wiggling teenagers walking home from school and cars hurriedly trying to get somewhere. Some of my neighbors have lived on this street for almost fifty years. I wonder if the old, old man next door remembers when this tree was young, when it was more vulnerable than it seems now, but I discover there’s no way he could have. The ginkgo is sometimes called the grandfather-grandchild tree because it takes three human generations to mature. It’s a name that causes me to wonder about who planted the tree in my yard, at least three generations ago, and what it meant to them when they did. Did they know that it was a holy tree?
Of course, I will never get the stories I want from my tree. Even though many people use ginkgo leaves to help improve their memory, my tree doesn’t have a human memory. It doesn’t record and remember information the way I do. It doesn’t know the stories I want it to tell me. But that doesn’t mean the ginkgo is without stories. I admit they are not stories that matter to the tree, at least not in the way stories matter to me. But the ginkgo has stories. I’ve read about four ginkgo trees in Hiroshima. They were about a mile away from the point of impact when the atomic bombs were dropped in 1945. Yet they survived. Everything around them was destroyed, yet they stood. And the following spring, they blossomed. They still stand, strong and alive. Because of these four trees, the ginkgo is known in Japan as the bearer of hope. Near these bearers of hope are plaques containing prayers for peace. After learning of these Japanese ginkgos, I walked under my tree and told it the story of the hope bearers. I embraced its trunk and prayed for peace.
Sitting on my porch where the walls are waist high, I can’t see the bottom of the trunk. The ceiling cuts the view off just as the first strong branches start to pull away. And the columns on either side form horizontal edges, giving my view a photographic shape. The tree stands four or five stories tall and my first floor view keeps me separated from the thickest, leafiest sections. I don’t know most of my tree. Even when I’m walking toward my house, able to see the entirety of the tree, I rarely look up. It’s the bottom that continues to get my focus—the trunk and the low, canopy-creating branches I know best. I live under the tree and walk atop the buried root system almost unaware of the heights the dark green leaves are reaching for.
I watched as the leaves gave way in the fall. They changed fast. It didn’t seem possible to keep up with their ever shifting shades of color. At first, the deep green fell out of the leaves, almost as if it was dripping down into the grass. But the leaves refused to lose it all, they simply held the color in a more electric light. They became lime. But electric lime has to move, it has to go somewhere. It dissolved, no longer dripped, but simply disappeared or was swallowed. Goldenrod formed along the edges of each leaf and squeezed out the last stubborn bits of green. All that was left was an ochre color that couldn’t quite be called orange. But then the leaves brightened, somehow turning the exact shade of marigolds. And then they gave up.
One November morning, I awoke to the sound of rain. Except it wasn’t quite the sound of rain. It was soft and padded in some way. It was a sound I’d never heard. It was like what you would expect snow to sound like if snow made noise when it hit the ground. My ears loved it. I sat up, peeked through the blinds, and was startled by what was there. I jumped out of bed. I walked out my front door, clothed in pajamas and looked up in amazement as every leaf fell from my tree. It was raining yellow gingko leaves. My walkway was covered in gold. There were thousands of lines and shapes forming and changing as the leaves fell on top of one another. I sat down on the steps and lay back, feeling the comfort hundreds of leaves can provide. I stared up into the branches—my canopy was slowly becoming bare. I could see patches of sky and light. The leaves rained continuously for hours. It took all morning for the branches to shed their cover and expose themselves.
The ginkgo tree is often called a living fossil, which means it’s a living organism that’s found in fossils, but has no other close living relatives. Scientists think that the ginkgo biloba tree, my tree, is the only species left in a family of trees that dates back almost 300 million years. My tree is older than the dinosaurs! As I watched the golden leaves fall, I couldn’t help but imagine a giant Tyrannosaurus Rex watching the same golden rainfall millions of years ago. With this thought came an overwhelming reminder of my smallness. I am but a tiny speck in the history of the world. My life takes up no more than an itty-bitty portion of the planet. Sitting on a pile of leaves, looking up at empty branches, I wondered what it all meant. I picked up a leaf, yellow and veiny, still supple and full of life. How long until it dried and would crumble between my fingers? I held it, one out of thousands—then dropped it and scooped up handfuls. Golden leaves covered everything, my field of vision blurred. The sidewalk around my house was gone; the grass had disappeared. Half of the street was a golden mosaic.
Most of the leaves fell that morning, but there were a few stubborn ones that refused to let go. They lasted less than a month and soon my leafy canopy was gone. My tree had been stoic, lush and dark green for months. It had stood, deeply rooted and constant as I transitioned through the beginning of seminary. In less than a month all the green had fallen away and in one day almost every leaf had given up. I walked towards my house and looked up at the empty branches. I saw vast linear patterns etched against the grey sky. But as the days grew colder, I forgot to pay attention to the sacredness of those patterns and simply ran towards my door. I became mired in my studies and dependent on the warmth of my house. My world shrank and I neglected my tree.
I had come from the evergreen state, the land of pine and spruce. The land of moss filled trunks supporting branches of needles and cones. I had come from trees that avoid the drastic changes of the gingko. Trees that are sacrificed every winter and decorated with tinsel and light in warm living rooms. My ancient gingko escapes this fatal glory and continues its stoic, isolated stance through the bitter cold of Indiana winter. A winter that refuses to give up until it has chilled every last human bone and people have resigned themselves to the fact that springtime no longer belongs to them. Bundled and miserable, I trudged under my leafless canopy for months. It was incapable of giving me warmth and I was therefore unable to slow my pace, to remember the golden rainfall. Some days the branches were dry, dully holding themselves up as placeholders for the next generation of leaves. Other days they sturdily supported inches of snow and reminded me that they lived for more than leaves.
One day, I came home under the cover of a blue, wintery sky and was amazed to see my tree covered in diamonds. Every branch shimmered. Wherever there was a small, raised shoot on the branches—the part where the leaves would eventually grow again—water had collected and frozen. The tree glowed and glistened in the sunlight. I felt as if it were calling for my attention, as if it were demanding that I finally stop and feel the holy breath underneath its barren canopy. I did. I walked around it and then sat on the ledge of my porch, the place I had first examined it on an August day not long ago. I tried to remember the unknowing I felt then, the warmth, the mystery that surrounded this new tree. I looked at it now with familiar love. Yet, I knew I didn’t have all its secrets. It held the mystery of rebirth, the hope of spring. But it was still winter and the beauty of those diamonds could not fight off the cold. I started to shiver and thanked the gleaming branches for their greeting. Then I went inside and began to wait.