Tell Us The Tree Rings
How many will we get?
On their honeymoon, they rent a red convertible and drive up California’s rocky coast. They wind from San Francisco to Mendocino, from wine country to Yosemite, from ocean to mountains. They want to go places they have never seen before.
First come the redwoods, towering in sunlit forests like vast cathedrals. Turning inland from the coast, they are engulfed in an ancient world, hushed by awe.
In the photographs, she is standing small and strong between the forest giants, hands on hips, feet spread wide, her power pose dwarfed by their height. Beside a fallen redwood bigger than a boat, he reaches his arms to the heavens, as if trying to carry what has crashed to earth.
The next day they stop at a pygmy forest, enamored by the contrast: hundred year-old cypresses only a few feet high. They take each other’s pictures, grinning and goofy with trees at their knees.
By the end of the trip, they find themselves among the sequoias. “Impressive in size, age, and resilience,” reads the park brochure. Trunks wide enough to walk through, roots splayed out like forests of driftwood. They kiss beneath the Faithful Couple, two famous trees who grew so close that they fused together at the base.
In one week, these two have touched the tallest and smallest trees. But everything is overshadowed by the limitless love of a new life unfolding: shared, sacred, unscared, unscarred.
Look at them: young and fearless, naive and newlywed.
The only way you can start anything is small but strong at the center.
The stories that tree rings tell are cyclical.
Around the dark heart called the pith, a tree grows by simple symmetry: concentric circling, pushing outward. The oldest wood lies at the center, the youngest on the outside. Right beneath the rough bark, smooth new flesh grows each year.
When spring warms, cells in the thin layer closest to the bark begin to divide. The lighter, wider band is called spring wood or earlywood, expanding the growth. The darker, narrower circle is summer wood or latewood, defining the edge’s denser portion. Fall’s colder, dryer days eventually stop the growth.
Together this twinning of light and dark, line and space, makes one whole ring. Each tree adds another circle every time the earth takes a turn around the sun. Another, another, another.
Until there are no more.
It is gone, we hope. It is over, they celebrate.
(It will always come back, I fear.)
This is the pith of cancer, the core you can’t escape, the hard seed of truth. It can always return, cells dividing and growing as they shouldn’t.
Heartwood is the darkest part of a tree, the expanding center of dying wood. Sapwood is the lighter circle round the heart, the part that keeps growing, running water and minerals from roots to branches.
The breast cancer was found in the milk ducts, the sapwood.
After surgery slices everything away, only the heartwood will remain.
Will it be enough?
Trees read like a book. But stumps are what tell stories. To see inside, you must slice open the log.
Growth rings tell of more than time’s passage: they hold what happened within that time. The years of drought and stress. The years of rain and abundance. Climate changes. Scars from fires. Insect invaders. Crowding and shading. Plagues and pollution. Biblical floods.
Trees can make multiple rings in a single year. They may have missing rings from hard seasons. The patterns of treetime narrate a long history, held within wood, the same that frames our homes and feeds our fires. We are surrounded by their silent stories in circles, their quiet rings of memories.
Each year of every life is written within, hidden from view.
Their marriage has known wide years of plenty, narrow bands of want, a few missing rings.
New growth is always on the outside. What is most ancient is held closest to the heart.
One summer he shaved her head, drove her to chemo, cleaned her vomit, cooked her food. He never liked shots but he gave her injections. She never wanted him to see her scarred, but he calls her beautiful.
They learn to let each other.
Now they insist on joking about aging, retirement, birdwatching, grandchildren. Willing the rings to gather and grow, drawing their dogged hope around them, sapwood and heartwood.
They want a sturdy sycamore, not a scrawny seedling. A cedar of Lebanon.
A sequoia. A redwood.
Tell us how many we will get,
O Giver of Time.
How many rings will circle our core.
How wide and high we will stretch.
How solid and sturdy we might become.
Save us from storm and saw,
from drought and disease,
from every evil and ill
that befalls what blooms.
Let there be earlywood and latewood, sure as seasons.
Let the years be long and strong.
For now, may we be content
with one more ring.
Knowing not what lies ahead,
let us grow here now.
“As the years of a tree,
So the years of my people”
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