It’s a train-wreck of a tree. What chaos that cottonwood must have caused when it fell: the thunder-crack of its trunk splitting, the roar of its leaves and branches rushing downward, the shaking of the earth when it hit and crushed the saplings beneath it. And the dust. The fine, gritty dust of the river bank rising like smoke to hang shimmering in the sunlight.
By cottonwood standards it must be an old tree, maybe 100 years. It was one of the giants in the bosque along the Rio Grande. Its crown is broad. Its trunk is several feet around. I can lie on it comfortably with room to spare and look up at blue, desert sky through the leaves. The tree’s own leaves–that’s the amazing thing.
This tree–this train-wreck of a tree–is still alive.
By whatever miracle, the fall, even the wound in its trunk, didn’t kill it. Its core is sound, or at least sound enough. Its roots still dig deeply; xylem and phloem still carry their elixir to and from every branch-tip. The crown has begun to grow upward toward the light from where it lies on the ground. New shoots have sprouted from the base.
Make no mistake: this tree is in distress. But in the nine years since I moved to Albuquerque and began coming to call on it, I have watched it bud and leaf and flower, its long red catkins sending pollen flying on the wind. Nine years or more after the cataclysm, the tree still lives. None of my photos does it justice. They convey either the massive size or the damage or the tender new growth, but not all three. Maybe a wide angle lens could do it, but not an ordinary one. The tree’s story is that complex. That rich.
What a story, that crash. I suppose it’s typical to focus on that and not on the hundred peaceful years that came before. Stories are all about events, all about plot lines. Crises and denouements, tension and resolution. Disaster. Overcoming. Even the most subtle stories are about action and movement. Human stories have worked that way for millennia, and believe me, I see their appeal. They just don’t do justice to this tree. Perhaps they don’t do justice to us.
The cottonwood–what about that first century? Not just the magic of its seed finding water to germinate and grow in a dry land, or its first, whippy shoot branching out one summer into a crown. But the rest. The year when its roots deepened and its crown spread. The next year, and all the years following, when they did the same. The leaves that turned golden every autumn and clung every winter; the way their waxy sheen caught the light and glittered with every breeze. The generations of birds that nested and fledged in it. The whiptail lizards that rustled invisibly in the litter at its base. The hundreds or even thousands of lives that found shelter in its reaching arms.
And what about the years since it fell? What about the on-going suffering, the painful effort to thrive, the new leaves bursting forth each spring? All the things that make that mighty crash matter: they are backstory or epilogue.
Human stories thrive on drama. They are about going forth and conquering or failing utterly. They are about personal adventure and one-time, cathartic release. Growth depends on the overcoming of obstacles in a three-act structure.
Tree stories are about adapting and enduring. They are about ecosystems, symbiosis, interdependence. They are about cycles and continuity. Growth is a slow process of deepening. A tree’s life is generally not about events. It stands by while others take wing. But its roots are strong enough to crumble stone.
I’ve become fascinated with the difference between these two kinds of stories–the ones about progress on a plot line, and the ones that deepen in cycles–as I continue to think about chronic illness. I’ve been ill with ME/CFS/CFIDS/SEID (the name changes often) for almost two decades, and you’d think I’d have grown accustomed by now. In many ways I have. But each new phase of life presents its own challenges, and the whole idea of chronic anything….well, the idea is that it never goes away. A multi-system illness like ME, which affects the nervous, immune, and endocrine systems, requires constant management, especially in the absence of effective medical treatment. It limits your possibilities for action. Your stories become a tree’s stories as much as an animal’s. You don’t go forth and conquer your illness–you adapt and habituate.
I’m also becoming aware, though, of how much others’ lives are affected by the kinds of stories we tell:
- The disabled, whose three-dimensional individuality gets washed away by inspiration porn.
- The families of those with serious illness, expected to be “saints and martyrs,” but whose healthy lives get bent around disease.
- People with other serious illnesses, from myasthenia gravis to cancer to depression, who are blamed for their conditions as if they were “sinners.”
- Cancer patients, who are “fighters and warriors,” but who may struggle with permanent emotional and physical side effects after the slash and burn of treatment.
- Combat veterans who return home to a military, political, and civilian culture that calls them heroes but doesn’t want to hear or understand (or learn from) their pain.
How often do we apply conquerors’ metaphors to those in crisis? They are expected to go forth, fight their battles, and then return triumphant. Story over and done. But it doesn’t always work that way. No end credits roll partway through a life. The story continues. Ramifications grow.
We tend to turn away from complex aftermaths, I find, as we do from the long, slow emergencies of chronic conditions. Animals have that option: to run from distress–or to face it down, snarling. When we can’t fight or flee, we become discouraged. So we fight or flee the person whose distress troubles us instead.
But doing so has consequences. Individual attitudes of dismissal or avoidance translate to large, cultural attitudes. They turn into a systemic lack of research and resources and to the perpetuation of harm.
I think we forget that we–and others–can live with chronic distress and endure it. We may not want to believe that people cannot conquer every problem by might or force of will or good behavior. We may be terrified to realize that the most important things to us are beyond our control. But it’s true nonetheless.
So is this: we can adapt to dire straits, even perpetual loss, and find joy. There is a lifetime’s worth of hope in that.
Don’t get me wrong. I would love to conquer my illness. I would love to leave it in the dust and scamper happily away with all my old energy of body and brain to enjoy a new adventure. So far I can’t. But not all good stories feature conquering heroes. Not all problems fit onto that plot line, or into mythic tales of saints and sinners. We cannot shoehorn real lives into the stories we want them to tell. They are more complex than that. More rich.
That magnificent, fallen, living cottonwood will never heal. Its trunk will never be whole; it will never stand upright again. There is nothing anyone can do to help it. Yet its buds are fattening again this spring. It is in unconquerable distress, and life “leaps greenly” within it. Both these things are part of its story. They are part of our own stories, our communities’ stories. We may not love both parts of the story equally, but we, too, are large enough to give them both room to speak. We are sturdy enough to embrace complex truths.
We are strong enough to tell the stories of trees.