My neighbor has a birch tree in her front yard, and it makes no sense at all.
Birches aren’t the kind of tree you’d associate with my little town on Cape Cod, and they’re certainly not the kind of tree you’d associate with the low-lying, south-facing, wind-battered street that I call home.
No. People like us, what we have are scrub pines. We’ve got yards jammed up tight with pine trees, which means pine needles, which we never rake, because what even would be the point? That high canopy of pine would just send another shower of needles raining down on our heads as soon as we were done. And anyway, pines help the rhododendrons bloom pink in the spring. Good old pine. It’s what belongs in a yard like mine.
Of course folks like me who have piney yards do not, it hardly needs saying, have lawns. Because lawns like to be cared for, and they do not like pine. They like an environment that around here can only be brought about by artificial means, which means a fair bit of work for only a very little bit of pay. What I’m saying is that they’re high maintenance features, lawns. And folks like me do not go in for high maintenance anything at all.
Piney people are just different from lawn people. And we do not mix well.
I hardly need to tell you that my neighbor has a lawn.
Oh, you wouldn’t know to look at it now, of course. Right now it’s December. And in December all you can see in my neighborhood is a few dark spikes where last year’s beach roses were, and beyond that maybe a few old black seed heads bobbing around where last year’s daisies bashed around in the sun.
And on top of it all, there’s pine.
No, the lawns of my neighborhood are sleeping right now. The landscapers have been sent over to rake and to tidy, but nobody’s been around since hurricane season wrapped up. So things have kind of mellowed out around here. These days, you can look out your window and know right away who pours too much chemical nonsense on their lawn when they open up the house every spring. That peculiar shade of green has just got no place in a December lawn, and everyone who sees it knows it.
Of course those kinds of neighbors never actually see their lawns in December. They’re off home somewhere. Off-Cape. Away.
Lawn people. What can I say.
But these lawn folks have birches, and I noticed that straight away. As soon as we moved here ten years ago, I noticed those birches next door. Fact is, they reminded me of a bunch of birches I slept in once, back when I was a kid doing school stuff in Banff. We’d been camped up high on a ridge one night, all open and exposed to the sky, on account of there having been bear warnings posted in every other fit place to camp overnight. Only problem was, that summer was all about the storms at night. Every night for weeks, we’d seen the worst kind of lightning storms and flooding rains come pouring down through the gullies past our snug little tents.
But bears had forced us to less snug quarters, and we knew we’d be getting wet. And sure enough, by midnight that night we we’d been nailed.
The next night we just ignored the bear warnings and camped out in the birches. Lower down the mountains, where other animals might be, but where there was cover enough to shield us from the storm. But the storms never came that night. And I couldn’t sleep. At first, I was waiting for the rain. But then I noticed the trees.
Man. Can I tell you.
I fought off sleep that whole long night just so I could listen to them chattering away to each other, those hundreds on hundreds of tall swaying trees, birches that crackled like crickets; chirped, like castanets.
Like castanets, I tell you.
I made it till just before dawn. And the next day we broke camp and moved on.
Ever since then, I’ve sort of noticed a birch. So when we moved in here and saw that lonely pair of birches planted too near to the roofline of our neighbor’s house, I knew that they were there. I marked them. And I felt like they’d marked me, too.
That fall, the house was sold. The new neighbors had to put in a new septic tank, and our little postage stamp lots don’t leave much room to mess around with things like trees and garden plans when you’ve got a backhoe waiting on you.
One birch came down. One birch remained.
The new neighbors put in a lawn above where the fill over the leaching field went. It wouldn’t do well, not on a piney street like ours, but what can you do. You can’t reason with lawn people. It’s just the way they are.
I can’t say I’m surprised they turned out to be lawn people, of course. They were from away. And they mostly stayed away, as it transpired, tooling down the Cape from whatever western suburb they hailed from year-round. We’d wave from our driveway if they happened to be in town. But such folks come and go, you know. So it pays to wait and see if they’ll last a while before you spend too much time being outgoing and such. Anyway, I could see the way they were looking at my piney yard in the fall. Their little gloved hands twitching around the handle of their freshly bought rakes, just dying to come over and “lend a hand.”
That Christmas I was laid off. Actually, I’d been laid off since Labor Day. So any savings I’d had from the summer were long since spent, and there wasn’t really anything left for Christmas. I’d managed to get a tree, thanks to a friend. And another friend gave me a tree stand, and a skirt. But I had no money for ornaments. So it was a pretty sad little tree when we first put it up.
That was okay, though. I was just glad it was Christmas. I’ve always liked Christmas, say what you want. Seems to me that any time of year when people are forced to think more about others than they do themselves, and to spend a little bit more of whatever they’ve got most of — money, time, a little thought and care — on their families and friends than on themselves, that can only be a good thing.
Nothing wrong with showing kindness to each other. It just doesn’t always come naturally, that’s all. Sometimes you need a certain time of year to remind you to be that kind again. And some people are just built with their kindness on the outside, and some of us keep it buried further in. Christmas just makes you try a little harder, that’s all.
But this Christmas was hard. I don’t mind telling you I was poorer then than I’d been before or since. And I like the look of a plain tree as much as the next one, but I also wanted some adornment on that tree, I did. Wanted it bad.
So I went outside and looked at that birch tree. Silly old thing. What’s it doing out there in the middle of that lawn, anyway?
The neighbor’s house was dark, and there wasn’t any fence to climb. Just a sharp, dark line on the snow-dusted ground where the smooth, raked mound of their not-quite-a-lawn met the raggedy unraked realms of my own. It was still all woods between our houses and the rest back then, too. So there was nobody to see when I stepped over to a birch; nobody but the moon, and I suppose an owl or three.
The pale sides of that birch glowed in the smooth December dark. I came up alongside it and rested my palm on its shank, feeling the sleepy rise and fall of its cellulose lungs. A few curled pieces of discarded bark crunched under my foot, and I slid my hands down to scoop up what was left.
Birch bark falls in long, lanky sheets if you’ll leave it alone long enough. And those lawn people had done that much right, at least; they’d left well enough alone long enough for that birch there to shed its winter nighty and leave it at my feet like linens, like fresh linens in the snow.
I picked up what I could, laying bits of bark into the pockets of my coat until I felt I’d gathered up enough. Then I went back inside and hung little curled bits of birch bark all over my little pine tree, and sat around for a while, inhaling their mingled scents.
That night when I lay down in bed with my window open, there were owls chatting up a storm. There are always owls around here, I guess. But when I fell asleep, all I heard was castanets.