Friday, June 30, 2006

From a gentle seed, we shall make a mighty tree

I have an orange tree. I planted the seed when I was about 7 years old. My family owns land in Florida and we used to drive up to the "estate" on weekends to enjoy two days of mowing grass, pulling weeds, potting plants, and generally relaxing with hard labor.

This is why I never went into the landscaping business.

My great-grandmother and grand-mother (don't ask why I hyphenate those words) were penultimate gardeners. They loved plants and trees and flowers and all sorts of living growing things. They might have been Elves or something in another life. There were always potted plants sitting around their homes, growing, thriving, waiting to be repotted and eventually planted permanently in the ground somewhere either in south Miami (where we lived) or up near Tampa (where great-great old Aunt Marie had bought part of a farm in the 1920s and sold off parcels to various relatives).

The drive up to the weekend retreat was a bit more stuffy than the drive down. It wasn't so much that we packed multitudes of people, dogs, cats, trees, plants, and bugs into one or two vehicles (I'm still amazed that my grandfather -- notice the lack of hyphen -- pulled off any 1-vehicle trips with the whole family aboard) as that there was a heavy atmosphere of expectation. My grand-mother always had an agenda.

The women would set about cleaning up the quarters and then fixing up the various plants and plantings.

The men (well, my grandfather, my brother, and me) would mow grass, shoot snakes, clear underbrush, and do enerally whatever my grandfather thought would please my grand-mother. I suppose he had a vision of sorts, but my mother actually said he hated the place and never wanted to live there. Of course, that was where my grand-parents retired eventually.

There was an old hammock strung between two trees that my brother and I used to fight over. We loved laying there in the cool shade, just watching the clouds pass by through the trees. And then one day I found a nest of spiders on the underside of the hammock. I wouldn't go near it again, even after my grandfather got rid of the spiders. Not that spiders in general ever really bugged me, but a whole nest of them? No thanks. So my brother got almost exclusive use of the hammock after that for a long time.

Years later when I went to visit my grand-parents, that hammock was still hanging between the trees. But no one had used it for the longest time. It was in horrific shape. How the beloved things of our childhood fall away.

My grand-mother not only loved potted plants and trees, she loved art. She and her mother and sisters all painted, mostly in oils, but they dabbled in watercolors and even did some pencil and charcoal sketches. The family art collection is packed up (hopefully well-preserved) and stored away, except for a few paintings that have found their ways into grand-children's homes.

Grandma went on a garden statue buying binge one year. She bought little white plaster statues of fauns and dryads and scattered them around the weekend property. I didn't realize it at the time, but she was creating an arboretum. We had trails walking through groves of trees with statues, flower beds, and curious bushes. My brother and I went chasing armadillos and gopher turtles (and the occasional box turtle) through the woods.

At night we hauled all the burnable trash out to a huge fire pit and started up a regular conflagration. As boxes, bushes, brambles, and weeds churned away in the flams, we roasted marshmellows and hotdogs and the adults would invite friends over to chat and reminisce about their days of yore and good times in lands I never knew and will never discover.

So what does all that have to do with an orange tree?

Well, how can you live around that kind of full Earth exposure and not want to plant something? Even little boys who fight with weapons and roam wild city streets in the dark of night eventually are overcome by the simple curiosity of "why do you plant all these trees?"

My great-grandmother explained to me that there was a certain joy in watching things grow. You start out with a seed today and soon you have a plant and soon after that you have a tree and it's something wonderful to behold. Her enthusiasm was infectious. Rick and I used to spend hours watching her paint her tigers and trees and rocks and flowers. So, I thought, "It can't take much effort to plant a seed." So I grabbed a seed from an apple or something we had at home.

"Oh, no, Michael, that won't do!" my grand-mother said.

"Why?" I asked.

"Because it's been irradiated," she explained. "It won't germinate."

Right. These were the merest of horticultural concepts and yet there I stood, completely dumbfounded. After all, in school they told us that the seeds grew into new plants.

"Wait until our next trip," Grandma promised. "We'll stop and get you a seed that will grow."

And sure enough, the next time we hit the road, we stopped at a roadside fruit stand and bought some oranges. They were pretty darned good oranges, as I recall. I used to eat oranges and tangerines by the bunch when I was a kid. We'd cut them up and suck the juice out of the slices. My grand-parents had bannana trees and a lime tree growing in their back yard. And a trio of coconut trees, too. Every summer we feasted on baby bannanas, cocunut kernel, and limeade.

So I picked my orange, and I ate it, and we saved the seeds. I don't recall why, but I think we laid them out in the sun for a while. And then we planted them in a coffee can. I think it was a blue Maxwell House coffee can. Doesn't matter what the brand was. All that mattered was that in a few days my orange tree sprouted.

That tree graduated from the coffee can to a real pot, and then up to a larger pot, and then one day my grand-mother announced that it was ready to be planted in the ground. "In the backyard?" I asked.

"Oh no, dear. We'll take it up to the weekend place," she replied with a reassuring smile. She knew then what I only learned years later: that that wonderful house where I learned to swim in the biggest, deepest pool I'd ever seen; with its two huge flower beds in the backyard, in one of which my brother built the best treehouse in south Miami's history; that the lime tree, the bananna tree, and coconut trees -- all that would one day be sold off. My grand-parents had no intention of retiring there.

Well, I'm not sure what my grandfather wanted, but Grandma made the plans and the family followed them.

So she took my tree up north, away from where I could watch it grow, and she planted it close to a window where she could watch it.

Through the years when we talked she would say, "You should see your orange tree. How it has really grown."

And eventually I did get to see the tree. It grew and grew and grew. It's one of the tallest trees on the property, now. It's never been trimmed. Never been spliced the way trees in orchards are spliced. And everyone who samples the oranges from my tree says, "Man! Those are the sweetest oranges I've ever tasted!'

I wish I could take credit for all that, but truth be told, all I did was plant a seed in a coffee can. Grandma and God did all the rest.

The oranges are so sweet because they poured a lot of love into that tree.

Thank you both. Have a great weekend.


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