A Pine Tree’s Winter Dream

A bright green pine tree adorned with starry lights floats dreamlike in a nighttime sky
“A Pine Tree’s Winter Dream”, 9in x 12in, acrylic on canvas

We knew the orphaned tree wouldn’t be getting any presents for the Solstice, Christmas, or any of the other celebrations that crowd the calendar in late December. Since we were going to be around for the holidays, we decided to visit the woods and bring the tree something nice.

“It’s a miracle the little pine survived that forest fire,” you said.

“You mean that, statistically, it was highly improbable.”

You gave me your I just said that look. “And now that it’s living in the Grove for Displaced Conifers with all the other orphans, it can’t be having a merry holiday season.”

We had gone to see the pine a couple of times after it moved to the Grove, far from its devastated home, and would have adopted it, but it was well into sapling stage — six feet tall, school age, and growing rapidly. Our yard wouldn’t be big enough.

Regarding a present, I thought we could give it a solar-powered train set, but you thought a bag of mulch would be more practical.

“That’s like getting socks for Christmas,” I said. 

We went back and forth, arguing over the merits of fun presents versus sensible ones. I was adamant about the train set; you insisted on something useful.

Finally you said, “What if I get you the trains and we give the tree a well-made cloak?” 

“Well… sure. As long as someone gets a train set. And I’m willing to bear that burden.” Though I also imagined I’d look rather dashing in a cloak. I mean, what guy doesn’t? A shame they’re out of fashion in our social circle.

But a young tree can always use a sturdy wrap for those extra chilly days in the forest, when the wind blows in from the north and whips the snow all around. We found a dark green cloak of weatherproof wool, embroidered with a map of the constellations in gold thread that seemed to shine from within. I was envious. It was far beyond our budget, but we knew the pine would be pleased.

On a bright day just after the Solstice we drove out to the mountain, parked next to a snow-covered pasture, and climbed toward the forest a mile up the hill. The snow was a foot deep, which slowed us down, though we still expected to be home by nightfall. I carried the heavy cloak under my arm, rolled up in a bundle and tied with a red ribbon.

“We’ve never been there in winter,” you said, as we looked for familiar landmarks to guide us through the woods.

“I suppose it’ll still be in the same place.”

Over the years the Grove for Displaced Conifers had adopted hundreds of orphans to be raised by older guardian trees. The youngsters were mostly evergreens who needed year-round care and attention. However, several deciduous trees — now bare and hibernating — were also included among the dependents, due to a ruling by the woodland council that had forced the Grove to accept a wider diversity of applicants, though it kept the original name.

We didn’t find the pine in its usual spot — just a large hole, as if the tree had recently uprooted itself and left.

“Maybe it’s been assigned to a different section,” I suggested. “Or moved to get more light.” But none of the other trees could tell us where it had gone.

We searched the forest for hours, with no luck — our friend was nowhere to be found. That worried us. The sun had set and the light was fading. Then the treetops started to sway and creak as cold air whistled through the branches.

“I don’t like this wind,” you said. “Not after the trouble it’s been causing lately.”

We had heard reports of the wind running around and vandalizing decorations all over town — blowing wreaths off doors, pulling Christmas lights down, toppling Santa figures in front yards — simply misbehaving in a most unjolly manner. No one knew why.

“Let’s go back to the Grove,” I said. “Someone wasn’t being honest.”

We finally cornered a guilty-looking runt of a fir who admitted the truth. What we learned made our hearts sink.

The confident young pine had run off to join a live Christmas tree farm, in the hopes of finding a friendly home where it could spend the holidays and fulfill a cherished dream. It planned to return to the woods after New Year’s, but we knew what too often happens when a family takes in a live tree and has nowhere to plant it later — chop it up and toss it to the gutter for the yard-waste trucks to collect with all the other discarded trees. We shuddered at the thought.

“We have to go get it,” you said.

“I know where that farm is. We’ve driven past their nursery.”

We headed back through the woods and out to the open hillside. Dusk had turned to purple darkness and stars were filling the sky. Behind us the wind continued to provoke the trees, which thrashed their branches about in protest. The quarter moon offered to light our way as we started down toward the car.

We had barely gone a hundred yards when we heard a whooshing sound and the wind slammed into our backs, nearly knocking us over. It came around for another try. We braced ourselves for the onslaught, taking a wide stance and leaning forward. But the clever wind swooped upwards instead, lifting us off balance and dropping us to the ground.

We sprang to our feet and shook off the snow, which swirled about in a blinding flurry. I realized we weren’t dressed for this sudden attack of arctic weather, so I unrolled the cloak and tried to throw it over us. That’s what the wind was hoping for. It reached in and swept the cloak right out of my hands.

“No!” I made a grab for it — and missed. 

It flew a few yards, then got snagged on an old stump. A lucky break. I dove forward, slipped in the snow, then felt you scrambling beside me to help me up. The wind was shaking the cloth, trying to unhook it from the spur of wood. It wanted that cloak badly. So did we.

We both made a desperate lunge and barely managed to grab the hem. Now we were in a tug-of-war, tussling with the wind which pulled with all its might. Our fingers grew numb with cold and began to slip. You nudged me and said, “Ready?” We tightened our grips and threw ourselves backward, tumbling onto the snow, clutching the prize.

We wrapped the cloak around us and over our heads as we crouched close together. The wind was unwilling to give up. It grew stronger — howling like a hurricane — then assailed us with nimble gusts that tried to peel off our covering.

“I can’t hold this!” You had to shout against the noise.

“Don’t let go! We got this for the pine tree. I’m not letting some greedy squall take it.”

You were thoughtful for a minute. “Maybe all it wants is to get a present.”

“Well, sure, who doesn’t? But what has it ever done for…” I grew thoughtful too. You had a good point.

No one ever gives presents to the wind. Some pagans might make it a token offering in the fall, tossing leaves or snack-size edibles into the breeze during their autumn celebration. But the winter wind is thought of only as a nuisance — tempestuous, disruptive, and never on Santa’s “Nice” list. When it comes by, people turn up their collars, scurry inside, and slam their doors in its face. Hardly a joyful greeting in the spirit of the season.

And yet…

One untold story recounts how the skies were gray and cloudy over Bethlehem that winter long ago. The wind saw the problem and made a great effort to blow those gloomy clouds away, revealing a particularly bright star that attracted much attention, though everyone cursed the wind for rattling their shutters and upsetting the farm animals. It was chased off, and didn’t even rate a mention in popular accounts of the day. It’s been a little bitter ever since.

“So maybe that’s why the wind has been going after those Christmas decorations,” I said. “It just wants to be part of the festivities.”

“I suppose. But I doubt anyone will include it in their nativity scenes.” Another rude gust bumped against us. “Not when it’s like this.”

“Not until it learns to behave…”

“… or is shown a little kindness.”

I looked at you and you looked at me, huddling in the fragile refuge of our cloth shelter. The pine tree wouldn’t be getting its cloak this year. That gift could be put to better use, even if only as a small offering, a gesture of goodwill.

We unwrapped ourselves and stood up side by side to face the icy blast and greet the wind with cheerful hearts, gripping the cloak with hands held high above. It flapped behind us like a hero’s cape, rippling and snapping as the wind stroked it and tugged at it with eager fingers.

“Here!” you shouted, with a laugh. “This is for you!”

We let go and the wind caught up the cloak in its arms. We turned and saw the dark shape of the cloth twist and roll as it was taken up and away, its gold-embroidered stars glittering against the nighttime sky, until it disappeared over the hill.

I waved at the receding wind and quietly said, “Merry Christmas… or whatever you celebrate.”

Then all was calm. The trees nearby stopped swaying and settled down for the night.

“I think it liked our present,” you said, still gazing at the sky.

“Yeah. Better than a train set. Or a bag of mulch.”

You looked at me sideways, then laughed again. “Things work out. But we’re not done.”

We hurried down to the car. The tree farm was around the other side of the mountain, on the edge of town. By the time we arrived the nursery was deserted. A sign hung on the gate: Closed early due to windstorm, though the wind had long since passed by.

“If only we’d gotten here sooner,” I said with an exaggerated sigh, knowing full well we were going to break in.

After climbing the fence, we noticed a lot of damage. Some trees had been blown over, and were grateful when we set them upright. Each one stood with its roots curled up in a half-barrel container filled with rich soil. Live trees were in demand that year — especially firs — but not a young pine with visible burn scars.

We found our friend, alone in a corner and dismayed at being unsold, unwanted. Not the Christmas it was hoping for, but you and I had another idea.

“We’ve come to take you home,” I said, patting a branch, “for the holidays.”

While you went to find a garden cart, I jimmied the door of the sales shack and got the key for the gate. We wheeled the pine tree out, then I went in to lock up and return the key — and leave some money on the desk — before climbing back over the fence. The three of us squeezed into our car and drove off.

Back at home we moved a couch and made room for our guest by the front window. I added a layer of mulch to its soil, then took our Christmas tablecloth and wrapped it around the base of the pine, covering the container, while you draped a string of starry lights over its bright green needles. It was happy to be so festively adorned.

I was sorry we didn’t have the cloak to give it, but you went to the closet and brought out a large package — after removing the name tag — and presented it to the tree. My train set. I nodded in approval. 

As we were setting up the tracks under the pine, the wind came by and jiggled the windowpanes. We smiled and waved, but didn’t invite it in.

The Forest of the Future

A cone-shaped mechanical tree stands in a clearing surrounded by evergreens
“The Forest of the Future”, 16in x 12in, acrylic on canvas

When we went out for a hike that morning, I didn’t expect I’d end up dangling from a metal contraption sixty feet high in the middle of the night while being shot at. You were mad and said I got to have all the fun, but I wasn’t the one who clobbered the two guards.

We had been passing through Colorado and you suggested we take a detour. On the western slopes of the Rocky Mountains stands a friendly little forest we like to visit from time to time.

“It’s been forever since we’ve been there.”

“Well…” I thought for a second. “At least six months.”

I’ve lost track of how often we’ve visited, but we recognize many of the trees and they recognize us, though some are still wary of people after all the logging that used to go on there. We got a room in town and the next day drove up into the mountains.

We were walking along a dirt road when we came to a clearing and saw several construction workers and some heavy equipment — a flatbed truck, cherry picker, and a mobile crane with telescoping boom holding up the biggest artificial tree we’d ever seen — a cone-shaped eyesore, five stories high and thirty feet wide at the base. It bristled with hundreds of thin cylinders or rods poking out all over, each of which held clusters of devices, sensors and leaf-sized solar panels.

“I don’t think they’re with the Forest Service,” you said.

“Looks like they’re installing that thing.”

We watched the proceedings for a moment. The metal tree was set into place and released from the crane, which retracted its boom, backed out onto the road, and rumbled away belching fumes. The cherry picker truck moved in and a technician was lifted in the bucket to make adjustments on the external devices, while the rest of the crew worked around the base. 

One guy stood off to the side, wearing slacks and a polo shirt. He seemed to be in charge, so we approached him.

“What is all this?” you asked. “Some kind of Christmas tree?”

“We’ve never seen anything like this before,” I said. “We come here a lot.”

He regarded us with interest.

“Oh, you like trees, do you? Well you’ll love this one.” He was brimming with enthusiasm, eager to tell someone about the greatest thing since sliced bread. “We’re from Arbortronix Corporation. Have you heard of us?”

“No, I don’t—”

“Course you have. Small company with big plans, that’s us. And what you see here is our latest invention.” He made a grand gesture toward the metal monstrosity gleaming in the noonday sun.

“It looks sort of… treelike,” you said, trying to be polite.

“Absolutely treelike! In fact, better.” 

“What could be better than a tree?” I asked. 

He turned to me. “Looky here. Trees get water from their roots, transport it up to their leaves, and let it evaporate into the air. And do you know what that’s called?”

“Sure, evapo—”

“Evapotranspiration! Bet you never heard of it. Sounds technical, right? And if it’s technical, a machine can do it. And we’ve got just the machine! It’s the X109 Totally Automatic Computerized Arboreal System, complete with sensors for moisture, wind, light, gamma rays — you name it. Plus converters for air and water. Equipped with GPS, so we can always track its location.”

“But what’s it for? Why do you need it when there are all these real trees here?”

“Yeah,” I added. “They all seem perfectly capable of handling the usual tree responsibilities.”

“Capable? Bah! Inefficient, slovenly, overpaid. Why, half these trees hibernate in the winter — just shed their leaves and go right to sleep, then make the evergreens take up the slack. And they still expect full pay and benefits? Hah! We can’t afford those kinds of work stoppages, not if our forests are going to compete in the global economy against all those hard-working Asian trees, not to mention the Germans.”

“Wait,” you said, “are you talking about replacing the trees?”

“Every last one of them. This forest employs more than two-hundred thousand trees, based on our last census, though not all are of working age. Each X109 can replace enough so-called ‘real’ trees to eliminate eight thousand tree-hours per seven working days, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars each year on employee insurance, salaries, and profit participation.”

“I didn’t know trees got insur—”

This,” he said with another sweep of the hand, “is the Forest of the Future! Totally automated and operated from a central location. No more time clocks, no more personnel department. How’s that for efficiency?”

“It sounds rather dystopian,” you said.

“Better,” he replied, not understanding the word. 

“The X109 costs just a few cents an hour for electricity. It lasts indefinitely, doesn’t get diseases, isn’t bothered by insects, and won’t lose branches in a windstorm. It doesn’t go on coffee breaks, complain to management, or take maternity leave. It provides higher rates of transpiration and better erosion control — and it doesn’t drop leaves all over the place, so no need for a janitor to sweep them up… or whatever happens with them.”

“You seem pretty eager to replace nature with machines,” I said.

“The stockholders demand progress. The world demands progress. Out with the old, in with the new!”

I noticed that the pines and firs around the clearing were trying to look busy, puffing themselves up to appear as fully green and productive as possible. No one wanted to be replaced. The deciduous members of the forest — who were mostly bare by this time of year — had slunk away, doing their best to remain inconspicuous.

“That machine can never outperform a tree,” you said. “It can never take pride in its job.”

“We don’t need pride, we need the work to get done!”

“But a tree has value, a tree has worth,” I said, like I was quoting from a trade union’s pamphlet.

“Value? Yeah — as firewood!”

Things were getting heated. I was starting to imagine how my hands would feel around the neck of this scrawny salesman. The rest of the crew had turned to watch, and they weren’t on our side.

“The trees won’t put up with this,” you said quietly, giving him a steely-eyed look. “They’ll go on strike, shut the whole forest down.”

“What’s that to you?” His mouth curled into a Grinch-like smile. “Don’t worry, they’ll get their severance deal. Now why don’t you leave us to our business? We have to get this test run going, to see how the X109 does. Our investors are coming for a demonstration tomorrow.”

Test run? I looked up at the contraption, then felt your fingers digging into my arm. We were both getting ideas.

“So if it does okay…” you said.

“Then we give the redundant trees their termination notices and start making more of these beauties — get the replacement process going, make our investors happy. Now, if you please?”

We wished him luck, without a trace of sincerity.

“I think that’s just a prototype,” you whispered to me as we walked away. 

“Yeah. What a shame if it completely failed. The investors might get discouraged.”

“I don’t like the way he said severance, like it was a pun. They mean to cut down all the trees. We have to do something — tonight.”

“But first, a little reconnaissance.”

We found a place at the edge of the clearing where we could spy on the setup process for a while.  The worker in the cherry picker had removed a square plate near the top of the cone and was fiddling with something inside, probably the control panel. Others were filling in dirt around the base, covering up pipes that served as mechanical roots for the tree.

A Jeep pulled up and two guys got out — security guards, with sidearms. They set up a campsite about fifty yards off. We figured they’d be patrolling the grounds that night and included them in our list of obstacles, then we headed back to town to pick up a few items.

Around midnight we returned, keeping off the dirt road and walking silently through the woods. On the way, you collected fresh pine needles, rotting oak leaves, and slivers of bark from a spruce. You crushed them between your fingernails and put them into a jar, mixing them with some store-bought ingredients that included lavender oil and a few herbs.

“In case we have to put the guards to sleep,” you explained. “It’s a sort of disremembering elixir — when it works right. Learned it from my grandmother.” 

You let the mixture steep for a half hour or so — the time it took us to reach the clearing — then strained it into a spray bottle. You aimed it at me. “Should I try it out?”

“I’m forgetful enough as it is, thank you.”

You shoved the sprayer into a water-bottle holster you wore on your hip, like a gunslinger ready for action. I was envious — I hadn’t come armed. But I did carry a few hand tools, since I was to be the one who’d climb the mechanical tree and make a few choice adjustments on the control panel. 

We left our daypacks in the woods, taking only what we’d need, and crept to the clearing to see if the security guards would get in our way. We wanted to disable the tree without anyone immediately suspecting sabotage — it had to look like a design failure, or incompetence — so the guards couldn’t know we’d been there. They sat by their tent in the glow of a lantern, talking in low voices.

“I bet they patrol every hour,” you whispered. 

I nodded. We had encountered enough security guards to know the typical routines. You kept watch over them while I snuck off for my rendezvous with the X109.

There wasn’t much of a moon that night, but the camp light provided enough of a glow to see by. The sensors and solar cell arrays sprouted out of metal cylinders the size of wrapping-paper tubes. I hoped they were strong enough to hold me, since I planned to use them as a ladder.

Climbing up was tricky. I had to lie flat against the surface of the tree to crawl under the clusters of devices, while keeping my weight evenly distributed on the cylinders to avoid breaking any. It took me longer than expected, and that delay nearly got me killed.

The control panel was toward the top where the cone became steeper — almost vertical — and the sensor arrays were spaced farther apart, giving me fewer footholds. I got myself positioned with my feet spread wide apart, steadying myself with a hand on a sensor rod to the left of the panel. I slid the wrench out of my back pocket and loosened the four bolts holding the cover. 

“What the hell am I going to do with this?” I asked myself, once the cover was free.

It was about a foot square — slightly curved — and weighed several pounds. Tossing it to the ground was out since I’d need to put it back on when I was done. I tucked the bolts in my pocket then shoved the thick metal plate inside my coat, where it rested against my stomach, balancing on top of my belt. I mentally kicked myself for not having planned that detail.

I put my headlamp on the dimmest setting, pulled out a screwdriver, and set about the delicate work of undetectable sabotage. 

A short while later I heard the oo-oo of an owl — your signal that the guards were on the move, making their rounds. My watch said one o’clock. I hurried to finish making an adjustment — reversing the valves in the pipes under the tree, if I interpreted the labels correctly. Just then a flashlight shined at me from below.

“Hey, Sam, look at that. What’s he doing there? Hey, you!”

“Stop or we’ll shoot!”

I glanced down, but their light blinded me. My right foot slipped. I twisted to the left, dropped the screwdriver, and grabbed the sensor rod with both hands. Then my other foot slipped, leaving me hanging there, facing the guards, unable to get a foothold. The rod started to bend.

“Hands up!” 

My hands couldn’t be any more up. I dangled there, arms straight above me, knowing if I let go I’d crash through all the sharp metal sensors and solar cells below, which would slice my skin to shreds.

“Last warning!”

“Careful, Sam. Don’t wanna damage the tree.” I had to agree with that guard. He seemed more sensible.

“Never mind. I’ll get him down.”

I heard a shot and a device near my head split apart. A lucky miss, though a shard of metal had stung me on the cheek. Before I could surrender or enter into negotiations, he fired again. I felt a punch in the stomach as the bullet ricocheted off the metal plate under my coat. Lucky again, but I was sure the next shot would get me.

“How’d he get up there?”

“Maybe he’s got a ladder.” The flashlight aimed toward the base of the tree.

With the light out of my eyes I looked down and could see them standing side by side, guns in hand. Then you came up from behind, holding a thick branch like a club. You brought it down onto one guard’s head — thunk — at the same time kicking the other guy in the back of the knees. His legs buckled. While he tried to regain his balance you clubbed him as well. Another thunk, wood against skull.

They were both down — not seriously hurt, just momentarily stunned. You pulled out your bottle and sprayed each one in the face, giving them a dose of the elixir that would send them into a deep sleep, after which they’d remember nothing from this night. You waited a second, then sprayed them again for good measure.

You called up to me. “I didn’t want to do that.”

“I know.” I was struggling to regain my footing.

“But you’re having fun I see.”

“Give me a few more minutes. I’ll help you get them back to their tent.”

It took more than a few minutes. First I had to pull myself back up into position without slipping. Once I was steady on my feet again I set my headlamp on full brightness — no need for stealth now — and reached into my back pocket for another screwdriver.

I slid out the console labeled ‘transpiration’ and reversed a couple of wires. “I wonder what this will do,” I said under my breath, then submitted other controls to a similar treatment. Once done, I took the metal cover from under my coat and reattached it. The dent didn’t show too much. I gave it a loving pat for saving my life. 

After climbing back down, I joined you and we carried the two guards to their tent, where we laid them on their cots. One was snoring.

We searched the ground by the tree and removed any evidence of our having been there, including the dropped screwdriver and the two shells from when Sam the guard shot at me. You had even cleaned his gun while I was finishing up with the control panel, and replaced the two cartridges from a box of them you found in the tent. As far as they were concerned, neither one had used his gun. We weren’t sure how they’d explain the bumps on their heads.

“Next time,” I said, “we should bring a bottle of whiskey or something, so we can make it look like they got drunk and passed out.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Though I wouldn’t want them to get fired for it.”

“No, that would be unjust.”

We needed to perfect our subduing-the-guards strategy, since we seemed to run into that situation a lot.

The following day we violated a rule and returned to the scene of the crime, mostly because we wanted to finish our hike. To avoid being recognized we wore street clothes, sunglasses, and wide-brimmed hats. We weren’t worried though — the investors would be there, the press had been notified, and even the public had been invited to this groundbreaking experiment in forest innovation. Sure enough, by about ten o’clock a crowd had gathered at the clearing. We had to park a quarter mile down the dirt road.

The X109 was a sad sight. 

It leaned at a precarious angle. The ground had gotten soaked — don’t ask me how — and several root-pipes stuck out of the mud, squirting water. The thousands of leaf-sized solar cells drooped in wilting clusters, unable to receive sunlight, forcing the machine to drain power from its backup batteries. A greenish layer of slime was spreading over the once-gleaming surface, oozing from millions of pores designed for taking in air. Again, I won’t admit to knowing how the intakes became outputs.

“What a shame,” you said, holding back a smile. 

I nodded, trying not to be too smug about my flair for sabotage.

Of course, we knew the technicians would figure out the problem eventually. The real damage was to the company’s reputation. The unveiling of the prototype was a public relations disaster and Arbortronix lost the confidence of its investors. A group of them pushed their way out of the crowd, followed by our acquaintance from the day before. He was pleading with them.

“Okay, this didn’t work so well. But I gotta tell you about our next big thing. We’re going to replace all the crops with mechanized plants. Better for the environment. We’ll call it ‘Beyond Wheat’ — how about that?”

The investors waved him away and strode off toward their cars, shaking their heads and grumbling. The trees around the clearing looked on with amusement. The press had a field day. 

Later, Arbortronix was denied permission to run further tests on public lands. Private property owners also weren’t keen on giving the company access to their lands, not after all the bad publicity. A small victory for the forests.

“They’ll keep trying,” you said as we headed back to the car. “They think they’re part of a crusade to improve on nature.”

I stopped and looked off into the distance. “Then we’ll be there, all around in the dark. Wherever there’s a fight so hungry trees can eat, we’ll be there. Wherever there’s a logger beatin’ up a tree, we’ll be there. We’ll be in the way trees sway in the wind, and in the way they laugh when they’re dry and they know rain’s a-comin’. Wherever trees are tryin’ to make a decent livin’, we’ll be there to—”

“No we won’t. What are you talking about?”

“I’m just practicing my solidarity speech.”

“What are you — Tom Joad? I think the forest needs more than the good intentions of an Okie from the Dust Bowl era to fight off this threat.” You patted me on the shoulder. “But you did a pretty good Henry Fonda there.”

We changed into hiking clothes and walked into the woods. The trees were glad to see us.

Autumn Spirit

A tree winds its branches round in bright yellow and orange colors of fall
“Autumn Spirit”, 8in x 8in, acrylic on canvas

One autumn morning we found three yellow leaves arranged just so on the doorstep — a calling card delivered by wind to invite us out into the woods. Trees in the forest who know where we live send leaves by long-distance air — to say Hello or How fares your garden? or The oaks are turning, you must come see. This message included a request for help — the second leaf curled at the edge.

“Time to see the trees,” I said.

You composed a response and sent it by bird, to tell our good friends we were coming. 

Leaf-reading can be learned, though it takes persistent study. Look at the shapes, the arrangement, the colors — the syntax is perfectly clear. I’m talking about real leaves, of course, not tiny ones found in tea.

Few town dwellers know how trees correspond, and pay no heed to memos spread on the ground, grumbling instead about having to rake their lawns and clean the gutters. That’s okay — domesticated trees who live in the suburbs have little of interest to say. As long as they’re watered and fed, they’re content to laze in the yard and soak up the sun. They have that in common with cats. Or they loiter along city streets watching cars go by, then dare each other to stretch a branch up into the power lines for the fun of causing some mischief.

Trees like that would never fit in with the worldly-wise types in the woods. And besides, they—

“Are you ready to go?” you asked, interrupting my thoughts.

“Sure.” I put on my coat and stuck gloves in my pockets.

We had been invited to an event that occurs throughout the forests at this time of year. Trees call it the Autumn Spirit — a celebration of giving and sharing that involves exchanging leaves, which are then scattered about or released cheerfully into the breeze. Outsiders just think of it as “Fall” — a time to enjoy the colors — but we know it holds a deeper meaning for the forest inhabitants. We were honored to be included, but wondered what the trouble was.

I looked again at the invitation as I shut the door behind us. “Must be a delicate subject, or they would have said what it was about.” Leaf-borne messages aren’t exactly private.

“We’ll find out when we get there.”

You drove, and an hour later we turned onto a narrow dirt road and parked near a hidden path known only to us. We shuffled our way through the red and gold carpet that covered the trail, greeting each tree we knew and meeting some we didn’t. We like to have as many friends in the woods as we can. I don’t mean badgers or foxes or deer. Creatures like that are too unreliable. Trees for the most part stay in one place, so visiting them is easier.

“Here’s the grove,” I said. We had reached the designated spot.

Oaks, poplars, aspens, cottonwoods and more stood about and joined in the exchange — even the evergreens, who usually like to hang on to their needles as long as possible so they can stay active through the winter, maybe because they don’t want to miss Christmas, though getting harvested as a holiday decoration has its drawbacks. Still, they contributed what they could.

We had no gifts of leaves to share, but our hosts assured us, as good hosts do, that our presence was a gift in itself. 

The atmosphere of celebration, however, was tempered by an unhappy group of trees standing off to one side, watching the activities with disapproval it seemed, or confusion. They had broad, pointed leaves and smooth bark. I couldn’t place the species, though they looked deciduous. Curiously, their leaves were still fully green, with not a trace of fall color in them.

You nudged me. “That must be what the problem is. They’re not getting into the spirit.”

“They’re not even observing basic conventions of nature.”

We stepped aside from the festivities to see what we could do. We could tell by their accents they weren’t from around here, not that I’m judging.

Turns out, they had recently come here as immigrants — resettled from the tropics I assumed — and had not adapted too well. They were unfamiliar with the local custom of letting one’s leaves turn colors in the fall and drop off onto the ground, exposing the limbs for all to see. 

How exotic, they thought, somewhat shocked. They never did that in the old country — show off with garish reds and yellows before completely disrobing. Must be an American thing. They certainly didn’t want their children picking up such habits.

No, we assured them, it’s quite natural among deciduous trees all over the world, in temperate regions anyway. They looked skeptical.

You turned to me. “You’re the botany expert, you explain it.”

I decided to skip the technical details about how the reduced amount of daylight at higher latitudes makes it difficult to photosynthesize and thus maintain foliage in the winter. They probably knew that instinctively. Instead, I got right to the key benefit of shedding leaves.

“In America,” I told them, “you get to go dormant in the winter. No one expects anything of you — just sleep all day, like teenagers. Maybe take up a hobby.” That got their attention.

They shook their branches in excitement. What a country!

I was about to say that other countries offer similar opportunities, but didn’t want them getting ideas. We need immigrants like them to settle here, both to increase our tree population and to perform some manual labor — condition the soil, prevent erosion, absorb carbon dioxide, produce oxygen, and provide an agreeable habitat for squirrels and birds. We don’t have a lot of college graduates lining up for those jobs.

Of course, the newcomers had questions about how the leaf-changing process worked, which the local trees couldn’t answer — they just did it naturally. Like asking a person how to make skin cells grow — I don’t even know that, I just do it naturally. But I’ve studied enough botany to explain the leaf thing, and obliged them in that.

The younger ones got it right away, and started showing each other how they could break down their green chlorophyll molecules and reveal their other pigments. A few even managed to turn some leaves completely yellow, to the astonishment and alarm of their parents, who still clung to their dark foliage, nervous about the whole leaf-shedding part of the operation. They’d need a little more time before adopting this strange custom. I sympathized.

Soon enough the youngsters were joining in the festivities, completely enthralled by the Autumn Spirit and easily getting along with their peers.

“I think they’ll do fine here,” you said.

The leaf exchange went on through the day, amid much laughter and kind acceptance. We were showered with leaves and tossed them about, as the spirit of the celebration inspired us. I guess that was our way of fitting in. We didn’t get home until well after dark. 

The next morning I looked at the yard, sighed, then got out the rake.