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Backyard Botany

It was a gift from Daddy’s friend Frank Simmons when we first moved out to Adabelle in 1974. It was supposed to be – “supposed to be” taking on the colloquial Southern meaning of “presented with the understanding and belief that it was” – a silver-leaf maple.

It didn’t take long for everybody concerned to figure out that it wasn’t, like a lot of things, what it was made out to be. It didn’t take long because a sycamore tree, which is what it was, will grow like a weed under the right conditions and, apparently, the backyard offered excellent conditions.

Over the years we decided that it was all just as well. That sycamore became an excellent climbing tree for Adam and Kate and the flower bed Mama made around its trunk burst forth in the spring with a wild mess of daffodils and red lilies that could have made a beautiful cover for Southern Living. We were never much for raking leaves at our house, so when the leaves, big as a grown man’s hand, starting falling and floating through the autumn sky we ignored the mess and just enjoyed the rustle and crunch as we walked through them.

I was always particularly enamored with the bark, the way it peeled off in long sheets and left the tree smooth and cool. It made me think of the Native American canoes in my elementary school social studies books and I imagined how it could have been used like papyrus to send messages or record stories. I didn’t know then that the peeling accompanied growth.

Years later, after I’d built my own house, I came home one afternoon to find Mama and Daddy in my backyard, huddled around a fingerling of a tree with a couple of bright green leaves sprouted at the top. “We brought you a sycamore,” Daddy pronounced as he stomped around the freshly-turned dirt with his work boot. “This all right?” he asked pointing at the tree and referring to the location. It was, of course.

That tree is somewhere around 15 years old now. Maybe a little older. I don’t know for sure. What I do know for sure is that it is old enough to have become an elegant and more than adequate shade tree for Sandhill and young enough to still look small compared to Mama and Daddy’s.

I walk under its branches every afternoon as I make my way around the yard and, at a certain point, looking from a certain angle, and when the field in between is growing peanuts not corn, I can see the other sycamore tree at the same time. The older house with the bigger tree and the newer house with the smaller tree. It reminds me of the elementary school primers with which we learned to read the words big and little, tall and short, old and new.

Opposites, our teachers told us. These things are opposites.

But our teachers were wrong. I am standing under my sycamore and one of its limbs has gotten tangled in my hair. I reach up to pull it loose, to brush away the fading leaves that fall across my cheek, and I realize that, in the context of living things, there are no opposites. Only movement. Little turns into big, short grows into tall, new will eventually be old.

Whatever it appears to be today, it may well be something else tomorrow. Or next year. The joy may turn into pain, the loss into gain. The silver-leaf maple may become a sycamore. It is incumbent upon us only to watch and listen, to pay close attention to the metamorphosis that is happening in every moment. Watch and listen and write it all down on the peeling bark.

Copyright 2017

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