Reflections on a Childhood Deforested
by Meghan MacNamara
My old neighborhood outside of Philadelphia was rooted in time, but its suburban landscape conformed to the developers’ blueprint. The land was segmented and subdivided like the flesh of an orange, peeled and deseeded. One acre plots with colonial-style homes and a cornfield at the far end of the cul-de-sac reminded us that the natural world was not so far away. Our neighbors planted one tree each on their front lawns--a maple or oak--and watched it grow like proud parents of a single child. My family nurtured a brood.
All recollections of my parents' house involve trees. Each Christmas for twelve years, my family bought a live evergreen with its roots firmly packed in burlap. The trees developed slowly, growing heavier branches and thicker needles each season. What started as a row of separate, scrawny trees slowly grew taller and wider, the needles of one branch brushing against the needles of another as if shaking hands. I would careen down the hill in front of the house on an old-fashioned wooden toboggan, trying desperately to avoid last year's Christmas tree. Sometimes winter brought igloos, snowball fights, and snow sculptures, but mostly it was sledding through the coniferous obstacle course, avoiding trees.
Once the holiday season was over, the tree was planted on our one acre lot. My parents did not want an ordinary fence, so each year our tree became another post added to our natural fence, which surrounded the property along its borders. A soft, flexible barrier, its only jagged edges cushioned with feathery needles. The fence sheltered an orchard that my father nurtured in the backyard -- peach, apple, cherry, and pear trees. These trees were my playground, my living swing set and jungle gym. One summer when I was five, a friend and I were harvesting peaches. I reached to the highest branch for the ripest peach, when my friend shrieked and shoved me into the tree. A baby bunny had found refuge in a thick patch of grass next to the tree, right where my friend prevented me from stepping. My body fell full-force against the trunk, where I remained, leaning against the tree's steady support. The tree trunk sustained my weight until the bunny found shelter in another patch of grass beneath the nearby cherry tree.
I remember building tree forts between the spruce and pines, making a roof out of their branches, a bed from their brown needles, their massive trunks acting as walls. One summer, I rode my bicycle down the driveway, which was lined along both sides by tall, neatly trimmed pine trees. The trees cocooned me, making me feel safe, almost fearless, as I sped down the steep hill toward the road. Waiting until the last possible moment to brake, I skidded, slicing open my entire upper thigh. I do not clearly remember the blood from the almost six inch cut or even the fall itself, but I recall the way the sun was setting with an orange-purple hue on the tall evergreen shrubs. One row of trees was illuminated and magical, reflecting the radiance of the sunset, while the other side darkened, each branch losing its shape as if their colors were smeared with the shadows of night. Dragging my injured leg behind me, I started up the driveway, cushioned between the enchanted dark orange and red pine needles on the trees to my right and the blackness that enveloped the trees on my left. Pain and beauty coexisted briefly in that moment.
When my family relocated to a new town, we moved into a condominium instead of a house, and I grieved. I grieved not only for the loss of my friends and my conventional way of life, but for open spaces, for trees. My new bedroom overlooked a well-maintained field of grass -- grass that led straight to a mall, half a mile away. Later, when I returned to the old neighborhood to visit friends, I always made sure I walked by my old house. The orchard looked sweeter than it could ever have tasted. The trees wore a halo that had never shone so brightly.
After college ended, full-time work pared my social plans down to bare basics and made visiting old friends an almost impossible feat. There eventually came a point when life's frenzied pace could not afford me the trek to the old neighborhood. I settled into my routine at work, earning vacation hours for each extra shift I worked at the brain injury clinic, and was eventually able to take long weekends. After a year's absence I returned to the neighborhood. The house had been sold to another family and all that remained of my fence and my orchard were stumps. The gentle rustle of leaves that once comforted me was hushed forever. Stumps. My tree fort was destroyed, its walls leveled and reduced to fire wood. The bunnies and their orchard shelter--where could they hide now? There were no trees to dodge while sledding or trunks to act as protection for baby bunnies.
The hill in the front yard was flattened, razed. My soul felt as slashed and wide open as my thigh had been when I skidded down the driveway years ago. I stared straight up the driveway, past the stumps, but the sun had already set. I wished the stumps a Merry Christmas, my hand stroking the rough splintery wood of what had been my favorite knotty-barked evergreen. Orange needles still lay on the grass like the shattered shards from a fragile glass ornament. Feeling heavy and laden as though dragging the stumps along with me, I walked back to my friend's house.
Meghan MacNamar teaches composition and medical humanities in Lancaster, PA. She is actively seeking representation for her first book— a memoir about her transition from amateur boxer to MS patient.