I live in a home south of the University in Albuquerque; the homes here are modest, most built in the 1940’s. Just a block to the West is a public housing development. There one finds a community of Mexican, Greek, Indian, Vietnamese and other nationalities. Their children run and play in the large grassy patch that defines the complexes eastern edge.
Often in the evening, I walk my dogs to this quotidian stretch of grass. Kids come up to pet my dogs, asking endless questions about my basset’s large ears and then run and continue playing, always smiling, contagious in their youthful spirit. In this area there has been one large; I call it immense, Cedar tree. Because of its setting, it’s the type of thing most people do not even notice. And in fact, I paid little heed, until one day I found myself standing beneath it, my dogs digging in its duff.
I asked an older neighbor about the tree, he simply shrugged his shoulders, saying “That place used to be a drive-in movie theater.” That drive-in was torn down in the early sixties and this housing was development was built. Yet, somehow in the marginalia of those old grounds, the tree, likely far smaller, survived.
That tree grew over time and many walked beneath it, enjoyed its shade. Each time I took my dogs to this place, the tree, tall, thick and inviting was comfort, its backdrop not that of wildness, but of public housing. The tree carried a wizened persona, its bark exposed the many years, and the large seeds that fell to the ground covered a wide circle of distinction. Looking in my neighborhood, there are likely many smaller cedars whose perdurable began from a wind-blown part of this mighty cedar.
Some say this cedar was unlucky to spend its life in such dull, ordinary surroundings. Yet, this cedar, tall and noble, like a sentry, has created wildness by shear will. It stands tall to absorb the seasons and provide shelter to creatures of feather and fur and humans without even realizing it, are being given joy, by its presence, receiving the energy of its history, the strength of its freewill.
Sometimes in the most common of settings, a tree, a flower, or an animal can spark a connection to what our DNA relates to as wild. The settings can help to fill our imagination, or we can use our imagination to respond to such rare and stand-alone examples of our wild spirit. Such is the sense I shared with my neighborhood cedar and it kept me smiling, feeling that there remains good in the world as long as beauty, even in the most common of settings, surrounds us.
About two years ago, during a high wind event, a small tornado of sorts touched down in my neighborhood. They call it a microburst. Trees all around a three block area were toppled. After the storm subsided, I went out to survey the damage and quickly went over to see if the mighty cedar had survived. To my dismay, the gentle giant was stretched out across the cool, wet grass; it’s suddenly exposed roots were massive and uncoiling towards the sky.
I found myself just holding on to the side of the tree, trying to feel if there was a pulse or if I could hear a moan in this now open expanse of grass and sky. But there was only silence. Soon a crowd appeared to see the tree and many were stunned that it could be toppled. People touched the tree and shared stories about time spent in its shade, like a whale beached on the shore, we all wanted it to live. It was clear; this tree had been iconic to many in the complex.
Several days later, a crew came to begin cutting up the cedar. I asked about what would become of the wood and was told it was free for anyone. Soon a few of us with small trucks came to collect parts of that old tree. Rich in color and ripe with texture, I stacked it in my backyard, tall and uneven.
This past winter, the wood now grayed by sun and dried to a leathery feel, I placed it in my wood stove. What had once encompassed shade and coolness on a sizzling summer day was now the conduit of warmth in the heart of a bitter January night. The crackling of that fire was the voice from the past, a tree that had always provided; the mighty cedar was, in flames, giving in its purest form.
I do not always get to wilderness, yet a part of me has opened to the nascent reality of small wonders. The power that one tree, one open stretch of grass can feed and nourish our thirst for wildness.
It is the human need for nature that generates our desire to connect, even in the heart of an urban corridor, to the toner we call nature. In a few feet of grass or a tree, the passing of a road runner or monsoon sky filled with fire, we are never that far removed from our roots and they extend into the soil and reach to the sky, which harbors life.
Sometimes, I remember that tree, it comes in waves of consciousness, and I see it as I choose to - tall, strong, resilient and forever giving. Next winter, I will still have some of it left to warm my house with, but then it will be gone.
I still take my dogs to that stretch of grass. There remains a large empty spot, though the grass is filling in. Children still laugh and run full of energy, their parents close at hand, as the smell of the night’s diner spills out from apartment windows. In this simple urban setting, the eventide comes to darken the sky. Life, you see, goes on.