Nyssa Sylvatica

It’s raining outside, a soaking March rain, and my countryman stands there in the garden getting wet. This is fine with him after these days of blue sky and winter dryness, I suppose, since he is rooted in this country as I am not, he being a blackgum, the tree known to science as Nyssa sylvatica. Some will contest what I believe, that it is the only one in Japan, yet I have searched, and I think what I think. It stands there alongside the water-darkened terrace, slender branches horizontal and reaching. Each branch slowly drips tiny prisoner skies, each sky white against the comfortable gloom of the garden beyond. Or maybe it’s I who am comfortable, sitting inside warm and dry, looking out into the damp and hearing the rain on the roof overhead. And thinking of the tree s story, for it is mine also.

The family I grew up in was an army family. Every year or every second year my mother would wrap the plates in newspaper, pack them in crates, and the movers would empty the house right down to the echoing walls. And wherever an officer could be posted, I was soon afield, reconnoitering the terrain, avid for the birds and plants it might hold. The slopes above and below our house in Seoul offered ring-necked pheasants that scared me when I flushed them, aggressive chestnuts that popped in our fireplace, and ominous caves left over from the war, which were forbidden and were inhabited, my friends said, by the ghosts of enemy soldiers. The fathers went hunting, and I did not mind the killing, as it meant that I had the doves, warm and limp, their dying eyes orange, in my hands where I could inspect them at leisure. It was a child’s world, and we left it behind one day in the wake of our ship, the Korea of the bare hills and the morning calm, and the Korea of a war yet to come.

Flying fish writhed silver and frantic on the deck, and then we walked down a gangplank to a place where nobody wore gray rubber shoes turned up at the toes, and no groups of people gathered around us in little villages to touch our hair and clothing. My mother realized eventually that we could see Mount Ranier from the window where she did the dishes, and I arrived home one day with some special flowers hidden at the bottom of my Red Arrow wagon under the broken and fragrant branches of what might have been Chinese plum. I was escorted to the owner’s house and still remember his grim non-smile, a half century ago, as I said I was very sorry and would never do that again.

Not to him, of course, but the following year we moved to Illinois. It was fresh territory, regarding which no self-limiting promises had been made. My new base of operations was a white frame house near an Elm Street which was paved in brick and had real elms along it. I haunted the neighborhood, oblivious to property rights, and prowled the other sides of border shrubs and picket fences, looking for nests and thereby honing the ire of certain of our neighbors. (“Norman Farrell, you get out of that tree and leave those poor birds alone!”) There were elderberry bushes along the cindered alley in the back, a huge catalpa across Healey Street from us, and sour red cherry trees beyond, which existed only for my amazing sour red cherry appetite. A compulsive trespasser, I usually had one eye on the windows of the house whose yard I was violating, timorous that a curtain might flick and someone come out, a citizen not so enthusiastic by half about catbirds in a spirea bush as I. Yet there was one someone I had not reckoned with.

How I learned that the lady had an Audubon book I cannot say, but she did. I would materialize unannounced on her porch, asking if I could look at it, and Mrs. Fuelleman would hold the screen door open wide, drawing me in as if I had been specially invited. She oversaw the washing of my hands and next got the book and propped it up on a card table in the sunroom. Then she withdrew, and I was alone and no longer in Champaign. I had gained the innermost of sanctums, page after watercolored page of plants and of unimagined birds, where bobwhite panicked from their covey below an attacking hawk, and herons fished 19th-century rivers whose background trees leaned primevalley out over mysterious shallows. A turn of a page, and passenger pigeons were no longer extinct but there below my eyes in rich persimmon and muted blues. I was a 7-year-old confident that I could still find one somewhere, not far from Healey Street.

Winter drew closer that year, and it brought a new baby brother for us, and then it brought Christmas Eve. My parents were whispering busily in the living room after checking to see that my sister and I were asleep, and I, who was learning deception, lay in bed feeling that something special was about to be. I awoke in gray daylight and made my stealthy way to the tree and saw the best present, left unwrapped atop all the others in their festive papers, lying opened for me who couldn’t wait. It was the Audubon book. It wasn’t a usual present for a second-grader, and I didn’t know my father had violated his budget, and I turned its pages for as long as I dared before sneaking back to my room and falling asleep again. And when my father and my mother called us out to see the presents and they stood smiling to see my reaction, I failed the deception test. I had already seen the book, but I didn’t know what was in the wrapped presents, and I went directly to them.

The Pentagon summoned my dad to spend two years within its corridors, and my own changed surroundings were honeysuckled woods which began at our very back yard. Even better was my new friend two doors away who inherited me and my visits. She was an old-time Virginian and a landscape painter whose house smelled of honey—her husband kept bees—and on her walls were oils of neighborhood scenes, particularly of the way the area had been before it got built up with brick houses like ours. “Oh, Nellie,” a friend had told her, “I wish I could see the world through your eyes!” She taught me to see through mine, and led me to the yellow moccasin flower she had once transplanted to the north side of her house, where it presided in the company of a reverential Jack-in-the-pulpit.

I asked her to give me art lessons and she obliged, placing on the picnic table an earthenware jar made by “country people” and providing me with charcoal and a sketch pad. When she came back and surveyed my poor, attenuated effort, she praised it, then turned the paper over, deftly executing the fullness and the matte sheen of the original as an example of how it might better be done. I didn’t get around to having more lessons, but her butterflyweed went orange in a clump easily 3 feet across, and she made apple pie and blackberry pie, and never seemed not to have time for a boy and his interests.

In 1954 I was 12 and wisely telling people I didn’t want to go to Europe, that I wanted to stay in the States. But army brats move where their families do, and while we went house-hunting that fall, we had a suite in a cream-stuccoed hotel above the river and below the castle and eye-to-eye with the baroque and beautiful face of Salzburg. I soon came to discover that woodpeckers could be green, and chickadees have yellow breasts, and my Austrian friends joked about my big, heavy American bicycle as we pedaled to the mountain to climb a waterfall they knew of. In the woods, they indicated wild cyclamens, scented and delicate, growing out of the moistness of years of fallen leaves. In that new old world, a yard was a Garten, and a Garten was invariably surrounded by a wall or a hornbeam hedge, and there was no sense of humor if you entered a Garten uninvited. The city hugged its busy river running green over smooth white stones, and there were beckoning paths everywhere in the adjacent hills. As winter retreated, hepaticas stared back in blue innocence, and from the direction of where Mozart had once lived, I heard a cuckoo one morning. It was my first cuckoo, and after it did not call anymore, I went inside and entered it in my book of sightings, even though I had not actually seen it.

I am not aware of when the phantom first insinuated itself into my life, and certainly at first I did not even recognize it as such. It seemed a given to me that the Army was the only place for the son of an Army family. My father had followed his own father, and there was no reason for me not to follow mine. No reason, except that for me, an Army career meant living in agreeable places where I could find moccasin flowers or European blackbirds with their bright yellow bills. I never considered what the job would entail, and I didn’t consider it because I was selectively lazy and because the hour of reality was so distant. I resented the aptitude tests the guidance office at school gave—with their questions. Would I cross the street to avoid someone I didn’t like? I lied and said I wouldn’t. Would I rather be at a lively party than at home with a book? I said I would. The tests didn’t have a chance and neither did I.

By college I knew that the Army was not my destination, but I didn’t know what was. Another Benjamin from “The Graduate,” I wanted a special future, and like him I had no notion of how I was going to make it happen. Teacher? I longed for an end to classrooms. Business? I didn’t see myself working to sell people things they might not want or need. Biologist? The formaldehyde smells of the lab and the dryness of method put me off. My buffer of four years dwindled unsympathetically to one, and classmates depressed me with their job interviews and their excited talk of actual plans. The phantom was gaining substance, and I supposed maybe I would just naturally cease to exist before any decision really had to be made. I walked my final semester with the cold hand at my back, pressing me toward an abyss for which I had no parachute.

A parachute never arrived, but I got something much better, almost a Jacobs ladder. One evening I was sitting out on the porch of my boarding house at school, studying for a psychology final by leafing through a book about U.S. national parks. Then I came to a photograph. It was of a ranger showing a group of visitors through the mute cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde, and I didn’t turn any more pages but just sat rocking in the early summer twilight, the book resting on my lap. Without any bridge of thought, I knew what I wanted to do. I went into the house and wrote it down on a pad of paper for my landlady, who was deaf and did not read lips easily. When she understood, she looked at me, her hair all wispy and white, and exclaimed, “Why, that would be splendid!” and I was sure it was so. The phantom was gone.

“Splendid,” she said, and she was correct. Splendid for others like me also, and as the number of career rangers was quite small, vacancies were both scarce and coveted. Furthermore, entry into ranger-hood was either via a degree in a natural science (my French major was not going to give me carte blanche) or by experience as a seasonal ranger. The Park Service sent application forms, and I bent over the kitchen table fantasizing about summers in Yosemite and the North Cascades, or maybe Grand Teton National Park, where I would spend my free days on a fir eminence looking out over the plains until the real plains wavered and imagination took over. I dreamed of the West, but the letter which came was from much closer, from my own state of Virginia, and it invited me to spend seven months as a seasonal at Shenandoah National Park.

This is how I came to stand up on the Skyline Drive on April 5 with a key to my trailer in my pocket. “Go 30 miles north,” they told me at headquarters, “and you’ll find it, sure.” There were no other cars on the road, and the day was leaden and cold, the sun going down angry through a break in the overcast sky. A thin mewing slit the raw breeze, and then I followed the rufous tail of a hawk skimming down the slope until it negated itself in a hollow below. The air was quiet, the bare trees gray and noncommital. There was no warmth or softness anywhere, and I stood on the asphalt, untried and new, an untried seasonal ranger, but I had a foot in the door. It was my park.

In that year of 1965, the road to my parents’ home on Tuesday passed a line of trees, 10 or 15 of them, and there was a place to pull off where I could have enjoyed them at no miles an hour, but I never did. Always it was the pleasure of recognition, then a rapid receding in the rear-view mirror. I was thinking ahead to my mother’s fried eggplant and her tomato-and-bean salad and to sitting around the table with my family. Then after all that, late on Thursday night, the trees were but a rush of dark forms to the left, only 25 minutes from my trailer and bed and the start of another week. I never walked beneath them or tried to learn who it was who planted them or when that might have been. Today it is far too late to thank that person, yet the trees were so big when I knew them that it must surely have been too late even then. I took them for granted, but they turned the other cheek and have come to represent one year and then a second in the uplands of the Blue Ridge. They were, of course, blackgums, the Nyssa sylvatica of this story.

I loved the park. It gave me my first wild turkeys and first wild columbines (where had I been all my life?), and I was photographed a zillion times posing with nice people’s kids. I went jogging down a service road at dusk, and when I stopped to rest, my ears wouldn’t stop pounding, worrying me quite a lot until I realized it was a ruffed grouse drumming in a nearby thicket.

Eventually I had a four-room cabin, which I shared with a squatter blacksnake oozing through the framework. A bear caught the scent from my unwashed dishes in that cabin when I was away and let himself in through the window screen, leaving his muddy footprints to thrill my friends later. And one morning I woke up early, still within the limits of night, and went out shoeless through the dew on the grass. There before me on the western ridge sat the moon, enormous and scribbled on in amethyst, and I stood water-footed within its circumference, willing it never to set. When the ridge was all there was, I turned and walked back up to the road and was then startled to see, low beyond the haze and the quiet mists of the piedmont, a sun of no passion and no heat, the red rubber ball of the rueful hit song that summer.

The other seasonal rangers came in June, and we burned candles at both ends because all of time stretched out ahead of us. Someone discovered purple-fringed orchids reigning privately above the Drive, and I ate my first morels (“mergles” to the maintenance man who had gathered them), and dated briefly a girl who was a descendant of one of Virginia’s early governors. I loved Shenandoah, I liked the visitors who came to enjoy its summits and hollows, and I believed in the Park Service and my small role in it.

The two seasons in the park vanished, and then 10 others, and not a few things had changed. When I came home to my parents’ house for Christmas, it took 22 hours, door to door, and it was not from a park. My uniforms had been interred for a decade in an old footlocker, interred with the dreams of a younger me, lightheaded with the illusion that I had found the perfect job. I couldn’t bring myself to open the trunk and look at them, and neither could I think of getting rid of them because they were all that was left of the splendid occupation which I had abandoned but which would not abandon me—those gray shirts and green trousers and the heavy jacket with the park service arrowhead sewn on the sleeve.

I had found there, in that Shenandoah where I had wanted to be, that I missed the people who came to visit and who then left to return to their homes in the city. They came and saw the nine bends in the river below and heard the owls in the campground at night, and they envied me who actually lived there in a grove of pitch pines below the ridge. They caused me to envy myself as long as I was with them, but when they gave me their addresses and got into their cars to begin the homeward trip to Long Island or to Fresno, I knew I would not see them again, and more and more, I felt lonely in that place whose name is said to mean “the daughter of the stars.”

On the last day of the year, my brother and I took a drive back to my one-time haunts, following the windings of the former highway which had been superseded by an efficient interstate. Along one of these sad, oxbow remnants, we came upon the trees, the same blackgums still, but different in winter and divorced from the mainstream. It was like entering a room to meet with a friend from long ago, and the friend looks and sounds so unlike what you knew. The name is the same, but where is the friend? We stopped, and I got out and walked under them, knowing but not quite feeling what they had been to me. On the ground there lay a black scattering of their shrunken fruits, and the squirrel in me pocketed a handful. These were among my things when I said goodbye at the airport.

In the Tokyo suburbs, a narrow anarchy of weeds militated between my building and the next, and I invested in a shovel, dug into the soil, and raised okra, a few tomatoes and blackgum trees. Actually, when these last came up, I had forgotten them and wondered what the line of non-okra seedlings could be. I didn’t know for sure until they put out their true leaves, but then I felt something special for them, and when I got married and rented this house, I brought the biggest one along with us. “The biggest” was 3 inches tall, and sometimes I had to go to the edge of our 9-inch-high terrace to reassure myself that it was still there.

Outside the light has gone and my wife has entered with coffee for me and drawn the curtains so nobody can look in. (If I were single, they would not be closed, but this is the concession of a free spirit to a happy marriage.) The tree is out there in the dark, 15 to 20 feet tall, and at the base, its bark is no longer smooth but adolescent and rough. In the time when red dragonflies are patrolling the long grasses, its leaves are lustrous and shapely, and toward Halloween, when we are trying to think of an original costume for our son, they are suddenly one day a conflagration of copper, airy and elegant in their quarter of our terrace space.

But we do not own this house, and someday we will have to move, and the room and the terrace and the friend outside will all pass from my protection. What then of the years of grading students’ papers at this table, watching the tree creep up and up—as tall as I, up to the top of the pergola, and now a man’s height above it? Every person should plant a tree, they say. Well, it’s planted and there, but what of the future? I looked for hope in Michael Dirr’s “Manual of Woody Landscape Plants,” about vegetative propagation, about taking part of it with us when we must inevitably go. He is not encouraging, but at least he vindicates my predilection for the blackgum, esteeming it to be of outstanding habit and surely one of our most beautiful native trees.

So it gets taller and will gradually be expending its main effort and delivering most of its effect out of view of this room, my chief vantage spot. I wonder: Should I let it grow and possibly produce seed before we leave? Or should I saw it off at the base and enjoy several years of new whips with overlarge glossy leaves? Could I actually saw it down? I had resolved to do so but now cling to its natural shape for yet another season. For when I see it, I am again in Virginia with the air humid and full of summer, the Blue Ridge urging from the distance. A ranger friend has just been given a cardboard box of baby pileated woodpeckers to take care of, and the guy in the next cabin knows where we can go to see a colony of Turk s cap lilies after work. My car radio has the Hollies detailing a boy s ploy at a bus stop, and I myself have 20 minutes to make it down to the entrance station to raise the flag and open things up for the day …

I hear the rain on the roof, not very businesslike rain any longer, but rain still, and I know my compatriot is out there even if the curtains are closed. Sometimes I see him and do not think of him, and sometimes I think of him and do not feel anything at all about this only Nyssa sylvatica in all Japan. But then something changes—the season or the weather or just something in me. I round the corner of the house and see bare branches, the color expiring on the flagstones below, and without warning, I am what I was and have again those things which are no more.

The rain is falling, and I sit comfortably in this room listening to its falling, listening and thinking of the friend outside, rooted in this country as I am not. But we share a past, and its story is my story also, of a time of two-lane highways and of tracks through the dew, the sun newly risen. And the moon! The moon the color of ginger ale, balanced full and knowing atop the ridges of West Virginia.

About the Author

Norman Farrell, Jr.

Norm Farrell teaches conversational English in Tokyo.

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