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unpublished fiction by Harry Willson
TREES AND BIRDS: Backyard Observations

Synopsis:  A collection of essay and stories based on a sharpened awareness of things close by, TREES AND BIRDS began as meditations on the visible and the obvious, but then went deeper. The observations began in the South Valley of Albuquerque, New Mexico. A mockingbird, then a parakeet, then a special robin/friend, sparrows, roadrunners, chickens, a walnut tree, cottonwoods, mulberries, ailanthus, peaches and apples -- the author was surprised and pleased with the richness of the variety so near an urban center, and moved by the depth of the lessons offered by these humble beings in Nature.


Everyone was cleaning out desks and lockers on the last day of school. It was really my last day, as teacher. One of the seniors, also cleaning up for good, brought five coffee cans into my room. "Do you want these?"

Each can contained a green stick, with two leaves each, in potting soil. "What are they?"

"My biology project."

"But what?"

"Walnut trees."

I was interested. Nut trees always seemed so exotic to me, so beyond my range of possibilities, for some reason. Like growing meat without having to kill something. "Don't you want them?"


"How about your folks?"

"Are you kidding? No way!"

Trish had never been as good a student, for me, as I thought she could have been. She had ability she wasn't tapping, that I hadn't challenged. World War I, and the Constitution of the United States, and the origin of capitalism were not topics that she could care much about, evidently. I had often wondered what would arouse her.

She was a beautiful young woman, but sad, somehow, mournful even, distracted often. Fellow students of hers told me she had chronic conflict with her family, but I had no direct knowledge of that, and wondered how they did. Perhaps she told them things.

Trish knew that her history teacher was also an organic gardener and interested in ecology. I had stated in class that sooner or later nut trees would have to replace cattle ranches as a source of protein for human consumption. So she thought I'd be interested in following up on her biology project. She had successfully sprouted five out of five seeds [walnuts!] -- now what would I do with them?

I took them home and planted them in different areas of the backyard. They did not do well. Two died in the transplanting. Another languished and then died before fall. I blamed myself, for not being assiduous enough with the watering. I moved the two survivors closer to the house, so that they would get more individual attention.

In the spring one of the two failed to revive in that outburst of fresh life. The other, however, sprouted leaves and grew several inches that year. For several years it grew only inches per year. Then one year, it suddenly grew several feet.

I became the laughing-stock of the family. The thriving walnut tree was only ten feet from the back corner of the studio, and walnut trees, my family informed me after looking it up, need a space thirty feet in diameter each!

It was too late to move it. I refused to risk killing it, by disturbing it. So I had to adapt to it, and make it adapt to me, by pruning it so that we could walk between it and the studio, to the irrigation pump. It allowed me to shape its growth, and then became tall enough to let us walk under its boughs, when we passed the studio.

It was behind schedule, but in its ninth year the cruel late frost, which devastates most tree crops around here, relented. In the spring what looked like strange green flowers provided the pollen. The female organs reminded an observer of human male facilities. A childhood expletive, no longer used or heard, came to mind: "Balls on a heifer!" Not one in a hundred knows what a heifer even is, anymore.

But we received from Trish's tree a half-bushel of fruit. The green skins dried and turned brown in the frost and withered away, leaving what I had never seen before outside a grocery store -- walnuts! We have all been deprived of direct experiences, one way or another, but I less so now, thanks to Trish's tree.

She never saw her tree. I talked with her several times at the university, where she was a student and I a part-time lecturer. She had married a plumber, and lived with him on week-ends in a trailer over in Navajoland, out in the unpaved wilderness northwest of Crown Point. She wanted me to know how cold it was over there!

"Are you happy?" I asked.

That quizzical little-girl look I'd seen years before came over her face. I could see it wasn't a question which was allowed out very often. "Uh, I guess so," she finally said.

I wasn't sure. Here's this beautiful woman, but such an enigma. "What're you studying?" I asked her.

"Oh, philosophy! I love it!"

Philosophy -- the love of wisdom. The origin of systematic thought. The professionals are off the track, temporarily, maybe, in my opinion, if I may say so -- but what do I know? Phenomenology? No, philosophy. Basic questions -- I loved that course ages ago. But what can one do with a mastery of --

"My folks don't like it, that I'm interested in philosophy. They say I'll never make a living in philosophy."

I had to smile. "Study it for the fun of finding out things," I told her.

"I do! That's exactly what I'm doing!" she exclaimed.

A strange memory flashed in my mind, triggered by her sudden smile. Students, and a few teachers, were inner-tubing on a fresh snowfall in the mountains. Three of us went down together, sitting up on one big tube. I was in the middle, between Trish's legs, and had someone else between mine. Dressed for snowgames in mid-winter. We slid down the mountain amid screams of laughter and struck a tree, hard. I heard Trish's ankle break. She laughed in her pain. The memory faded.

Philosophy. I looked at her, there in the University lounge, with Kant's CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON in her lap, and wondered why this overtone of sadness, that I saw in Trish.

A month later I learned that Trish had left her parents' home after some kind of misunderstanding, a disagreement about philosophy, I suspected, but I don't know. She drove toward Taos, for some reason -- it was Christmas Eve. That crooked up-and-down stretch of road, after one leaves the river bottom, had ice on it. Trish and her car slid off the highway and down an embankment. She died instantly.

So Trish is gone. That mortal sadness won out, over her smile and her philosophy. Perhaps it always does, sooner or later, looking at individual cases. But Trish's tree is just getting going. It is by far the most impressive thing on our place. It survived a rough start, and is now thriving and reproducing. I have three young saplings, which sprouted on their own. I have successfully moved two of them, so they will have space to grow without interference.

A philosopher ought to know what to make of all that.

* * *
© 1998, Harry Willson

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