Trees have been my teachers. I may have learned the most from an avocado tree I planted as a small girl.
We called it my tree, because I was the one who had dug the hole and carefully planted the slippery globe into the hard, dry earth. I remember myself as a dirty little girl in pigtails, my body bent like an elbow, as my three-foot frame inspected the miniature, one-foot sapling. My seed was growing!
My home in the Inland Empire was 30 to 35 miles east of Los Angeles. Our street, like many of the burgeoning towns that eat into California east of LA today, was commandeered from the lemon and orange orchards that once were ubiquitous in this part of California, and our developments were sculpted from them. Rich earth had fed those trees, and we, the residents of the developments that caused their demise, inherited that good earth. This former orchard soil was well prepared to nurture my avocado seed into its own bright existence.
I knew nothing of our soil’s composition, though. I planted the slippery globe from the yellow heart of this fruit into the dry soil of my backyard because I believed in seeds.
And then, I waited.
I don’t remember the day it emerged, but I do recall my crouched child-frame, inspecting its tender, one-foot beginnings.
We were oblivious, the tree and I, to the vicissitudes of life, and to my avocado tree’s limited chance to survive, much less thrive. Yet this stalwart tree lived longer than the two larger ones that my parents planted in our backyard when they purchased our home in 1950.
My avocado tree grew beside the “turtle yard” on the west end of our back lot. After my father died in 1986, the last of our family’s tortoises were given away to a tortoise preserve, and the honey suckle covered chicken wire fence that enclosed their yard was ripped down, but my avocado tree survived both the shovel and the sheers.
My tree grew through a thick ivy skirt edging the base of the six-foot high brick fence my father had constructed to enclose our lot. The ivy’s tendrils climbed high into the tree, but my tree arched its branches further still, finding breathing room and surviving. It endured for the remainder of the 56 years my mother lived in that house, and I hope it does still.
Through the 19 years I lived there it never bore fruit. A few years after I went away, though, it managed to become pollinated without human grafting. Bird droppings, with specks of avocado in them, may have found their way into a tree wound and “inseminated” it.
My mother called one day with wonder and excitement in her voice. “Gail, your avocado tree has fruit! It’s growing real avocados!” she exclaimed, excitedly.
Two small nodules were all she saw, but they were indeed fruit. They grew, I received one in the mail and ate it, and it was glorious. My avocado tree bore fruit every succeeding year, presenting my mother with large luscious avocados season after season.
Truthfully, this tree had no need to justify its existence. It provided shade to birds and attractive greenery to all who saw it. It had blessed me by its emergence, its growth, and its health. Its very life was a gift. That it survived was enough.
Perhaps we too have no need to justify our existence; perhaps our mere seed-spawned lives, lived out humbly and humanely, are our own planter’s pleasure.
Trees, like other living creatures in this ecosystem, seek to survive; when they can, amidst countless difficulties, they also find ways to thrive. My tree thrived on its own, really, with little to assist it. I take pleasure in that. And comfort.
I have thought often about survival and the art of thriving. My husband John died unexpectedly when we were both 47, and I became a widow as well as the single parent of a 13 and a 9-year-old overnight. During the next few years, I often felt like Tolkien’s Frodo, worn, wounded, and weary. I yearned for my own garden escape—a Rivendell or Lothlorien where I could retreat and be refreshed.
To most of us, mere survival is insufficient to give life meaning. As Thoreau said, “most men live lives of quiet desperation,” and most, I think, are not resigned to doing so. We seek to thrive as well as survive.
Trees that do not thrive frequently do not survive, either. Wilted, they succumb to disease, or hemmed in by more successful siblings, they lose the competitive advantage for water or nutrients, and they slowly die.
Trees look tough, but they are vulnerable. Today, trees face new challenges in their quest to survive and thrive. Countless entire species of trees are endangered.
They are threatened to near extinction by human actions such as deforestation, over-logging, urbanization, pollution, non-native invasive insects, climate change, and much more. But the mere fact that they are here as part of this interconnected ecosystem is certainly enough to justify all of our united efforts to protect them.
And the trees that we save can be our teachers.
As the avocado tree that I planted as a small child might well point out, a seed, small, unyielding, embedded in hard, dry soil, broke forth roots, emerged trembling into the world and, despite minimal tending, through some unexpected encounter, bore fruit, remaking the possibilities of life. Clapping with laughter and joy.