Like most people, I have a particular tree that I remember from my childhood. It was a blue-tinged spruce (Picea pungens) that stood defiantly green through the long months of bitter winter. I remember its needles as sharp and angry against the white snow and gray sky; it seemed a perfect role model for the stoicism being cultivated in me. In the summer I hugged it and climbed it and talked to it, and fantasized that it knew me and that I was invisible when I was underneath it, watching ants carry dead needles back and forth, damned to some lower circle of insect Hell. As I got older I realized that the tree didn’t actually care about me, and I was taught that it could make its own food from water and air. I knew that my climbing constituted (at most) a vibration beneath notice, and that pulling branches off for my forts was akin to pulling single hairs off of my own head. And yet, each night for several more years, I slept ten feet away from that tree, separated only by a glass window. Then I went to college and began the long process of leaving my hometown, and my childhood, behind.
Since then, I have realized that my tree had been a child once too. The embryo that became my tree sat on the ground for years, caught between the danger of waiting too long and the danger of leaving the seed too early. Any mistake would surely have led to death, and to being swallowed up by a seething, unforgiving world capable of rotting even the strongest leaf in a matter of days. My tree had also been a teenager. It went through a ten-year period where it grew wildly, with little regard for the future. Between ages ten and twenty it doubled in size, and it was often ill prepared for the new challenges and responsibilities that came with such height. It strove to keep up with its peers and occasionally dared to outdo them by brazenly claiming the odd pocket of full sun. Focused solely on growth, it was incapable of making seeds yet prone to fits and starts of the necessary hormones. It marked the year as did the other teenagers: it shot up tall in the spring, it made new needles for the summer season, and it stretched its roots in the fall, until it reluctantly settled into a boring winter.
From the teenagers’ perspective, the grown-up trees presented a future that was as stultifying as it was interminable. Nothing but fifty, eighty, maybe a hundred years of just trying not to fall down, unpunctuated by the piecemeal toil of replacing fallen needles every morning and shutting down enzymes every night. No more rush of nutrients to signal the conquering of new territory underground, just the droop of a reliable, worn taproot into last winter’s new cracks. The adults grew a bit thicker around the middle each year, with little else to show for the passing decades. In their branches they stingily dangled hard-won nutrients above the perpetually hungry younger generations. Good neighborhoods, rich with water, thick soil, and- most important-full sunlight, give rise to trees that reach their maximum potential. In contrast, trees in bad neighborhoods never achieve half of that height, never have much of a teenage growth spurt, but focus instead on just holding on, growing at less than half the rate of the more fortunate.
During its eighty-odd years my tree was likely sick several times. Unable to run away from the constant barrage of animals and insects eager to dismantle it for shelter and food, it preempted attacks by armoring itself with sharp points and toxic, inedible sap. Its roots were the most at risk, smothered and vulnerable within a blanket of rotting plant tissue. The cost of maintaining these defenses came out of my tree’s meager savings that were intended for happier uses: each drop of sap was a seed that didn’t happen; each thorn was a leaf that wouldn’t be made.
In 2013 my tree made a terrible mistake. Assuming that winter was over, it stretched its branches and grew a new crop of lush needles in anticipation of the summer. But then an unusual May brought a rare spring blizzard, and a copious amount of snow came down in just one weekend. Conifer trees can stand heavy snow, but the added weight of the foliage proved too much. The branches first bowed and then broke off, leaving a tall, bare trunk. My parents euthanized my tree by cutting it down and grinding out its roots. When they mentioned it on the phone months later, I was standing in the dazzling sunshine, living more than four thousand miles away in a place where it never snows. I think of the irony that I fully appreciated that my tree was alive only just in time to hear that it had died. But it’s more than that-my spruce tree was not only alive; it had a life, similar to but different from my own. It passed its own milestones. My tree had its time, and time changed it.
Time has also changed me, my perception of my tree, and my perception of my tree’s perception of itself. Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life. It has also convinced me that carefully writing everything down is the only real defense we have against forgetting something important that once was and is no more, including the spruce tree that should have outlived me but did not.