In the Early Spring

A grove of evergreens in the morning light, with snow covering the ground
“In the Early Spring”, 16in x 12in, acrylic on canvas

We were in the woods collecting sap from donors. The Forest Service likes to maintain a well-stocked sap bank for emergencies, in case a tree gets injured and needs a transfusion. Most of the trees are happy to donate a pint for the annual Sap Drive, especially when they each get a cookie afterward. 

“We should volunteer to help,” you had insisted. “We know those woods.”

“Do we get cookies, too?” I figured it doesn’t hurt to ask.

It was early spring, when daytime temperatures had crept above freezing and snow still covered much of the ground. We dressed warmly. You brought your woolen mittens, knitted for you by a great aunt. I had my old ski gloves, bought at a thrift shop. We hardly wore them though, since we needed the dexterity of bare fingers to do our job.

The procedure was simple: Get the health form signed — you had some on a clipboard — slip the needle up under the bark, let the sap drain into the container, and it’s done. Hand over a cookie and remind the tree to absorb plenty of fluids. 

Easier than tapping sugar maples for syrup. They can get rather touchy about the whole thing, as I learned one March in my youth. “You want what?” they’d protest. “For your pancakes?” Then I’d tell them about milking cows, to offer some perspective. But that’s another story, from long before I met you.

By mid morning we had already collected a few gallons, which we pulled behind us on a wooden sled with the rest of the supplies.

“Why did you skip that pine?” I asked.

“It’s afraid of needles.”

I chuckled. “Well that’s a bit ironic.” You didn’t see the humor.

We thought it would be pleasant work — walking through peaceful woods, working for a good cause, and chatting with a lot of nice trees. We hadn’t counted on being accosted by sap bandits. I mean, who ever heard of sap bandits, until now? But everything of value has its thieves, I suppose.

“Wait a second,” you said. “There are people about.” I sensed it too. We paused and listened.

A bearded man in a greasy winter coat and moth-eaten cap stepped out into the open. He was followed by a dozen ragged bandits who circled around us, clutching an assortment of crude weapons — long kitchen knives, rusty farm tools, a broken pickaxe, an antique revolver. The gang looked mean enough, in spite of their shabby appearance.

“We’ll be taking that now,” the leader said gruffly. 

You and I looked at each other, confused. “What?” I mouthed silently to you. You shrugged.

“Hand it over!” he bellowed.

You dramatically held out your clipboard to him. “But it was my mother’s,” you said, with a perfect note of pathos in your voice. I almost broke out laughing.

“No. Not that. The sap! We want all you got.”

“Sap?” we both said. I whispered to you, “Who steals sap?” Another shrug.

“Right. Let’s have it.”

“What could you possibly want it for?” you asked him. “It’s not meant for syrup.”

“We’ll be the judge of that,” one of them replied, brandishing his weapon threateningly, a pitiful gesture given its dilapidated condition. Still, I wouldn’t want to be skewered by a rusty pitchfork.

I noticed the anxious rustling of trees around us. We just needed to distract the outlaws for a moment. 

“Look,” I said, diplomatically, “we’re here in a lovely forest. The sun is shining, the day is bright, birds are… well, we haven’t seen many birds, but they’d be singing if they—”

“Just shut yer trap!” He didn’t care for my picturesque narrative.

You caught on to my stalling tactic, as the trees grew more restless, and chimed in, “We really don’t have that much yet. But if you wait a while, I’m sure we’ll have—”

“You too! Stay quiet, please.” Why was he polite to you and not to me? 

The axe-wielding thief took a step toward the sled. “Let’s just see what we’ve got— Hey! Who did that?” An impatient blue spruce had laid a branch on the fellow’s shoulder and shoved him aside, knocking him into a snowbank, where he stared wide-eyed at his attacker and cried, “Keep away from me!”

The bandits were so focused on acquiring their loot, they forgot to heed the elements around them; namely, an entire forest eager to assist our cause. Nearby trees suspected something was wrong — we had stopped approaching them about donating sap. And they wanted their cookie.

A grove of trees crowded in, sweeping back the bothersome thieves, who tumbled onto the ground or staggered out of the way, unable to resist the force of nature that separated them from their unattainable treasure.

“Sorry!” I called out through the dense cluster of trunks. Why was I apologizing? “You picked the wrong people to mess with!” That made me feel better.

“Not like we did anything,” you said. 

No, but we did have a special relationship with the trees not shared by others. That counted for something.

“We’ll be back! We’ll get you!” came the leader’s reply, as they picked themselves up and scampered off. Get us? More likely they’d be pounded into mulch if they returned. This forest doesn’t like troublemakers.

“That was a bit harrowing,” I said.

You brushed aside my lingering concern. “How many more can we do before heading back?”

I checked our supplies. “We have a few dozen cookies left, and three empty gallon containers.”

“Well, as long as no one wants to steal those, we’re good for a while.” You turned to the group of waiting trees and waved your clipboard. “Who’s next?

I looked around uneasily, worried now about cookie bandits.

Arboreal Acrobat

In the circus spotlight, a graceful tree swings through the air like a trapeze artist
“Arboreal Acrobat”, 8in x 8in, acrylic on canvas

The tree circus was not the success the organizers had hoped it would be. We attended anyway, since one of our friends was performing, a birch we had known as a sapling.

“Too bad they can’t have elephants,” I said, as we walked into the main tent.

“Nobody wants to see animals being exploited anymore,” you replied.

“What about clowns? They seem somewhat ill-treated. Don’t we care about them too?”

“They’re clowns. It’s their job to suffer.”

To keep up with the demands of newly-enlightened audiences, circus owners tried innovating with novel forms of entertainment. Anything but animals. I rather liked the Kitchen Appliance Circus, though you found it a bit mundane. 

“How hard is it for a toaster to toss bread like that?” you had asked. “They’re designed to pop the toast out.”

“No,” I replied, “the trick is in the way the blender catches it, then flings it over to that chrome gizmo with the detachable blades.”

Still, you had a point. The typical circus-goer simply finds kitchen gadgets too familiar, even the upscale devices from Germany. Solid engineering though — those Krups performers hit their marks with the precision of a machine, as I pointed out to you.

“They are machines,” you chided me.

“Putting it that way takes the magic out of the experience, don’t you think?”

But we knew the whole idea was doomed when the ringmaster announced the Parade of Refrigerators, and we saw the stout creatures proudly resisting as they were prodded, pulled, and whipped into line by their merciless trainers. A cringeworthy sight. Ultimately though, the parade lacked the majesty of elephants marching trunk-to-tail around the ring. I miss seeing elephants.

But we wouldn’t miss the tree circus for anything. Cirque des Arbres they called it, or something grandiose like that. Trees, however, are not as agile as advertised. The audience was soon bored, and many of the spectators started grumbling.

“Well, what do they expect?” I demanded. “Double flips from the trapeze? With those roots?” 

“People these days don’t appreciate arboreal artistry,” you said. I ran that phrase around in my head a few times — arboreal artistry. Wish I had your way with words.

The show had opened with a musical sequence, “The Wind in the Pines.” Enormous fans blew against a stand of evergreens — some of which were actually firs — as the branches swayed and rustled with the gentle theme of a pastorale. Unfortunately, the audience was in the mood for something more Wagnerian.

Things went downhill from there.

The pantomime act involved a tired plot where a hard-nosed ironwood tree evicted a family of willows, who wept at losing their home, while the townsfolk — played by a cast of aspens — stood quaking in fear. In the end, the homestead was saved when the villain was routed by a strong-limbed oak and his sidekick, a short Japanese maple.

“Well, that’s a bit racist,” you said. The players left the arena to scattered applause.

“At least there weren’t any clowns.” But I had spoken too soon.

A company of human performers, including the luckless clown, and a band of birches, including our dear friend, took their places in the center of the ring. 

The orchestra struck up a waltz, while the daredevil aerialists climbed the trees, firmly gripped the narrow tops, then flung themselves outward feet first, swinging from one side to the other, until finally bending the birches right to the ground, where the acrobats nimbly landed, released their grips, and took a bow. All except the clown, who “forgot” to let go and was hurled into the air when his birch sprang back to its upright and natural position. We didn’t notice where he landed.

“One could do worse than be a swinger of birches,” I said, quoting Robert Frost.

“Tell that to the birches.”

It was a clever routine that gained the crowd’s grudging approval, but was humiliating for the trees. Our friend looked miserable.

We endured a few more acts, until they hustled an ensemble of rainforest trees into the arena to serve as props for “a team of intrepid explorers” — more human acrobats — who clambered up the vines to “conquer the Amazon with amazing antics,” as the circus program described it. 

“Who says ‘antics’ anymore?” I asked. You just stared glumly into your popcorn bag. We got up to go wait by the performers’ wagons.

“They could have had monkeys swinging through the branches,” I suggested. “Or flying squirrels leaping from tree to tree, maybe doing somersaults, with little red capes on.”

“More wretched animals.”

“Yes, okay. But trees and animals get along, mostly. And why not add more color? Have some scarlet macaws roosting among the leaves — or blue cotingas, even. Everyone likes birds.” You didn’t bother to respond.

Our friend the birch shuffled back to the wagon. We tried to be supportive, but what can you say to someone who’s just had his dignity crushed for the sake of ticket sales? No matter what, one species or another gets exploited in the name of entertainment.

That all-human, no-animal circus from Montreal — with its fancy French name — seems like a good idea. The employees are performing by choice, the audience enjoys a guilt-free show, and everyone’s happy. Of course, if the human artistes were captured by aliens, carted off to another planet, and forced to perform twice a day, complaints would be filed, I’m sure. The elephants would have a good laugh, though. A bit of la vengeance, non?

We crowded into the wagon while our friend cleaned off his makeup. 

On the wall hung a small painting, the cheap kind sold at carnivals. A graceful tree swings through the air in a daring feat of acrobatics, radiant and poised in the circus spotlight. This was the birch’s dream, even if no tree could manage such a trick. Better to aim high, I suppose, no matter who or what you are.

Plus, one thing always leads to another. 

Our friend soon quit show business to pursue other aspirations. He dyed his leaves a deeper green, trimmed off some excess twigs, and moved to Denver to work as an artist’s model. Plenty of nature painters there, apparently. And lots of demand for photo-ops with celebrities on Arbor Day.

He’s associating with a more respectful, tree-admiring crowd now.

We haven’t been to any more circuses.

Forest Light

A tree with large pointed leaves glowing like stained glass stands against a dark-green forest
“Forest Light”, 8in x 8in, acrylic on canvas

The boat we had commandeered was too slow. “It’s built more like a tugboat than a racing skiff,” I said. “We won’t get away at this rate.”

“What’d we expect?” you asked. “It’s not meant for speed.” You stood at the wheel next to the captain as we made our way upriver. 

“I know. But it’s better than being chased through that.” I pointed at the thick jungle crowding in along the banks. 

“Anyway,” you said, kicking aside a bottle that rolled by your foot, “wasn’t this boat your idea?”

I shrugged and went back to stowing our gear.

Okay, we didn’t “commandeer” the boat. “Hired” would be more accurate. As to our means of barter, I’ll only say the captain was quite fond of rum, which we did commandeer — by the caseload — from an unguarded shack in a rebel hideout, which also provided us with crates of weapons and explosives. We had no need for those, but we decided they were safer with us than in the hands of the thuggish guerrillas who had overrun the area and were terrorizing the villagers.

Give peace a chance, we thought — by diplomacy if possible, or theft if necessary. We weren’t diplomats.

And we weren’t exactly thieves either. We added up the cost of the above-described goods — at black market rates — and considerately left a wad of folded banknotes on an empty box in the shack. Now, it wasn’t our fault the local currency was losing half its value by the day, due to a ravaging inflation. The government was simply inept at basic economics. We figured the rebels would understand.

They didn’t, and we soon heard the buzz of a nimble speedboat skimming over the water and quickly approaching. Why couldn’t we have commandeered that? I wondered.

“We might need those explosives after all,” you said, which surprised me. Still, I had to agree. 

We were outnumbered and completely defenseless in our lumbering boat. Except, of course, for the impressive arsenal we had seized, which was enough to arm an army. But we weren’t an army — merely two capable, though slightly distraught, adventurers. Plus one happy, and somewhat unaware, river-boat captain. At least he could still pilot the boat.

This would be interesting, I thought, and rather out of character for us.

We had been following the tale about a rare tree that was rumored to shine like a cathedral window. I suppose that meant the leaves looked like stained glass. We’d have to see for ourselves.

That’s how we happened to be in the middle of a jungle war between some unruly guerrillas and a hapless regime that couldn’t maintain passable roads. We saw a lot of men — and too many boys — in rumpled camouflage uniforms, carrying rifles or machetes, and always frowning. No one seemed pleased about anything here, even when the weather was pleasant. 

“Why couldn’t the tree grow somewhere less troubled?” you had asked, frustrated at these political squabbles that often get in the way of our expeditions.

“I know. It’s like, who thought of putting all those holy sites in the Middle East?”

No, it’s not like that at all!” You pressed your lips together. “But I get your point.”

Our boat had reached a long, straight part of the river and we caught sight of our pursuers rounding the bend behind us. We’d soon be an easy target, once they got in range.

You were prying open the crates, taking a quick inventory, and pulling out anything that seemed promising. I gathered up the items you set aside — “What are these?” “Russian anti-tank grenades.” “Oh.” — and set them down at the back of the boat, carefully.

We started discussing strategy, but the speedboat was closing in fast, so I said, “Let’s just try one of these to see how they work.” “Okay.” And before I knew it, you had grabbed a grenade, pulled its pin, and heaved it into a high arc that landed it a few meters ahead of the rebels. With split-second timing the grenade exploded just as it touched the water. Where had you learned to do that?

No matter. It worked.

The speedboat swerved, spun around in retreat, and hurried back downriver. The rebels had decided we were too formidable a foe — heavily armed, annoyed at being chased, and in no mood for negotiations. Damn right. Not bad for a couple of nature lovers, though I was secretly disappointed about not getting to toss a grenade myself.

We celebrated with a few sips of rum. The captain kindly finished the bottle for us, and left it rolling around on the deck with the others.

“Should we have been worried about harming any fish?” I asked.

You looked back at the river. “I’m pretty sure they scattered to safety when the boats went by.”

I was glad about that.

The next morning, the captain pulled into an overgrown cove and let us off. We had to hack our way through some vegetation, but the disorderly jungle soon gave way to a well-behaved forest that allowed for an easier trek. Still, we had to evade a leopard that caught our scent. And we were forced to make a wide detour around an encampment of poachers.

“Wish I’d brought one of those AK-47s we confiscated,” I said.

“You don’t know how to use one.”

“But I could look dangerous.”

“The leopard wouldn’t care.”

When we arrived at our destination, the afternoon sun illuminated the tree, whose leaves shone like windows in a Gothic cathedral. Rippling patterns of yellows and greens revealed the chlorophyll-charged life coursing through the veins. 

Even as the forest fell into shadow, the tree continued to glow with a golden iridescence that energized the air and bathed the ground in ethereal light. We felt the numinous presence of nature in the surreal motifs sparkling and shimmering in sublime harmonies of color permeating our senses.

At least, that’s what I scribbled in my journal, intoxicated by the mesmerizing display. It would take a better storyteller to relate the experience without all the flowery verbiage.

Emerald-green seedpods the size of walnuts lay in piles beneath the tree. Evolution, it seems, had not provided a way to help them spread far, unless some creature we weren’t aware of did the job. But too many seeds were left to decay where they fell, unable to achieve their purpose. No wonder the forest — and the world — wasn’t full of these stained-glass trees.

I gently touched a low branch. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see one of these every day, in the morning light?”

“They might do well among the aspens,” you said, “if they can stand the winters. It’s worth a try.”

I didn’t argue. You had already picked up a handful of seeds and were tucking them in your pockets.