A Brief History of Trees

Long before the gaunt winter maples loitering along the boulevard outside my picture window today / before the curious patch of lanky bamboo stalking the east wall of the drafty, crumbly limestone box that I moved to after my husband’s death / before the view from the seventh floor of the University of Minnesota oncology wing, where we watched the wardrobe change of trees parading along the Minnesota River, from winter to spring to summer to fall to winter again / before the steep ravine behind our cottage in the woods, crowded with slender, shimmying birches and solid red oaks with arms vast and deeply wrinkled as an ancestor’s / before the brilliant fall foliage in vegetable soup colors spilling across Lake Superior’s north shore / before the lone pear tree (that, like me, never bore fruit) contained within chain-linked square of our first home / before the high-and-tight shrubs up against the brick wall of our first apartment, more white space than furniture / before cheap college housing (eight apartments in four years) in a city whose trees I don’t remember / before the shadowy, clattering obstacle course of cottonwoods that stood between my grandparents’ house and vanilla wafer pudding cake at Aunt Bernzie’s green-shuttered home on the other side / before the enormous maple that billowed wide as a silver-green parachute and scattered broken bits of sunshine across the floor of my brothers’ platform tree house, where we sat in the branches looking down into the kitchen window at our mom who washed dishes looking out the same window, up into the same branches / before the Dr. Seuss pine in the front yard draped in a thick cloak of winter white, where I found a thin opening between its coattails and slipped inside to sit in snow-heavy holy silence / before the gnarly plum trees at the bottom of the hill behind the house bowing with lush fruit / long before all of those trees, I remember the first: thick sweet smell, heart-shaped leaves, tiny trumpet clusters / dirt floor worn soft under bare feet / granite boulder chairs / cracked birdbath table / my sisters and me, tucked into crescent branched arms of our lilac house / as close as we could be to living in a tree.

Jennifer Hildebrandt is an author and movement teacher living in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She is a 2019-2020 Loft Literary Center Mentor Series fellow and 2018 Minnesota State Arts Board grand recipient in prose. Her essay, “Jacket,” won Honorable Mention in Bellevue Literary Review’s prize in nonfiction in 2017 and was nominated by BLR for a Pushcart Prize.

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