First there was nothing. Then there was everything.
Then, in a park above a western city after dusk, the air is raining messages.
A woman sits on the ground, leaning against a pine. Its bark presses hard against her back, as hard as life. Its needles scent the air and a force hums in the heart of the wood. Her ears tune down to the lowest frequencies. The tree is saying things, in words before words.
It says: Sun and water are questions endlessly worth answering.
It says: A good answer must be reinvented many times, from scratch.
It says: Every piece of earth needs a new way to grip it. There are more ways to branch than any cedar pencil will ever find. A thing can travel everywhere, just by holding still.
The woman does exactly that. Signals rain down around her like seeds.
Talk runs far afield tonight. The bends in the alders speak of long-ago disasters. Spikes of pale chinquapin flowers shake down their pollen; soon they will turn into spiny fruits. Poplars repeat the wind’s gossip. Persimmons and walnuts set out their bribes and rowans their blood-red clusters. Ancient oaks wave prophecies of future weather. The several hundred kinds of hawthorn laugh at the single name they’re forced to share. Laurels insist that even death is nothing to lose sleep over.
Something in the air’s scent commands the woman: Close your eyes and think of willow. The weeping you see will be wrong. Picture an acacia thorn. Nothing in your thought will be sharp enough. What hovers right above you? What floats over your head right now—now?
Trees even farther away join in: All the ways you imagine us—bewitched mangroves up on stilts, a nutmeg’s inverted spade, gnarled baja elephant trunks, the straight-up missile of a sal—are always amputations. Your kind never sees us whole. You miss the half of it, and more. There’s always as much belowground as above.
That’s the trouble with people, their root problem. Life runs alongside them, unseen. Right here, right next. Creating the soil. Cycling water. Trading in nutrients. Making weather. Building atmosphere. Feeding and curing and sheltering more kinds of creatures than people know how to count.
A chorus of living wood sings to the woman: If your mind were only a slightly greener thing, we’d drown you in meaning.
The pine she leans against says: Listen. There’s something you need to hear.
Now is the time of chestnuts.
People are hurling stones at the giant trunks. The nuts fall all around them in a divine hail. It happens in countless places this Sunday, from Georgia to Maine. Up in Concord, Thoreau takes part. He feels he is casting rocks at a sentient being, with a duller sense than his own, yet still a blood relation. Old trees are our parents, and our parents’ parents, perchance. If you would learn the secrets of Nature, you must practice more humanity ….
In Brooklyn, on Prospect Hill, the new arrival, Jørgen Hoel, laughs at the hard rain his throws bring down. Each time his stone hits, food shakes down by the shovelful. Men dash about like thieves, stuffing caps, sacks, and trouser cuffs with nuts freed from their enclosing burrs. Here it is, the fabled free banquet of America—yet one more windfall in a country that takes even its scraps right from God’s table.
The Norwegian and his friends from the Brooklyn Navy Yard eat their bounty roasted over great bonfires in a clearing in the woods. The charred nuts are comforting beyond words: sweet and savory, rich as a honeyed potato, earthy and mysterious all at once. The burred husks prickle, but their No is more of a tease than any real barrier. The nuts want to slip free of their spiny protection. Each one volunteers to be eaten, so others might be spread far afield.
That night, drunk on roasted chestnuts, Hoel proposes to Vi Powys, an Irish girl from the pine-framed row houses two blocks from his tenement, on the edge of Finn Town. No one within three thousand miles has the right to object. They marry before Christmas. By February, they are Americans. In the spring, the chestnuts bloom again, long, shaggy catkins waving in the wind like whitecaps on the glaucous Hudson.
Citizenship comes with a hunger for the uncut world. The couple assemble their movable goods and make the overland trip through the great tracts of eastern white pine, into the dark beech forests of Ohio, across the midwestern oak breaks, and out to the settlement near Fort Des Moines in the new state of Iowa, where the authorities give away land platted yesterday to anyone who will farm it. Their nearest neighbors are two miles away. They plow and plant four dozen acres that first year. Corn, potatoes, and beans. The work is brutal, but theirs. Better than building ships for any country’s navy.
Then comes the prairie winter. The cold tests their will to live. Nights in the gap-riddled cabin zero their blood. They must crack the ice in the water basin every morning just to splash their faces. But they are young, free, and driven—the sole backers of their own existence. Winter doesn’t kill them. Not yet. The blackest despair at the heart of them gets pressed to diamond.
When it’s time to plant again, Vi is pregnant. Hoel puts his ear to her belly. She laughs at his awe-slapped face. “What is it saying?”
He answers in his blunt, thumping English. “Feed me!”
That May, Hoel discovers six chestnuts stuffed in the pocket of the smock he wore on the day he proposed to his wife. He presses them into the earth of western Iowa, on the treeless prairie around the cabin. The farm is hundreds of miles from the chestnut’s native range, a thousand from the chestnut feasts of Prospect Hill. Each month, those green forests of the East grow harder for Hoel to remember.
But this is America, where men and trees take the most surprising outings. Hoel plants, waters, and thinks: One day, my children will shake the trunks and eat for free.
Their firstborn dies in infancy, killed by a thing that doesn’t yet have a name. There are no microbes, yet. God is the lone taker of children, snatching even placeholder souls from one world to the other, according to obscure timetables.
One of the six chestnuts fails to sprout. But Jørgen Hoel keeps the surviving seedlings alive. Life is a battle between the Maker and His creation. Hoel grows expert at the fight. Keeping his trees going is trivial, compared to the other wars he must wage each day. At the end of the first season, his fields are full and the best of his seedlings stands over two feet tall.
In four more years, the Hoels have three children and the hint of a chestnut grove. The sprigs come up spindly, their brown stems lined with lenticels. The lush, scalloped, saw-toothed, spiny leaves dwarf the twigs they bud from. Aside from these starts and a few scattered bur oaks in the bottomlands, the homestead is an island in a grassy sea.
Even the skinny starts already have their uses:
Tea from infant trees for heart trouble,
leaves from young sprouts to cure sores,
cold bark brew to stop bleeding after birth,
warmed galls to pare back an infant’s navel,
leaves boiled with brown sugar for coughs,
poultices for burns, leaves to stuff a talking mattress,
an extract for despair, when anguish is too much ….
The years unfold both fat and lean. Though their average tends toward runty, Jørgen detects an upward trend. Every year that he plows, he breaks more land. And the future Hoel labor pool keeps growing. Vi sees to that.
The trees thicken like enchanted things. Chestnut is quick: By the time an ash has made a baseball bat, a chestnut has made a dresser. Bend over to look at a sapling, and it’ll put your eye out. Fissures in their bark swirl like barber poles as the trunks twist upward. In the wind the branches flicker between dark and paler green. The globes of leaves sweep out, seeking ever more sun. They wave in the humid August, the way Hoel’s wife will still sometimes shake free her once-amber hair. By the time war comes again to the infant country, the five trunks have surpassed the one who planted them.
The pitiless winter of ’62 tries to take another baby. It settles for one of the trees. The oldest child, John, destroys another, the summer after. It never occurs to the boy that stripping half the tree’s leaves to use as play money might kill it.
Hoel yanks his son’s hair. “How do you like it? Hm?” He cracks the boy with his open palm. Vi must throw her body in between them to stop the beating.
The draft arrives in ’63. The young and single men go first. Jørgen Hoel, at thirty-three, with a wife, small children, and a few hundred acres, gets deferred. He never does help preserve America. He has a smaller country to save.
Back in Brooklyn, a poet-nurse to the Union dying writes: A leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars. Jørgen never reads these words. Words strikes him as a ruse. His maize and beans and squash—all growing things alone disclose the wordless mind of God.
One more spring, and the three remaining trees burst out in cream-colored flowers. The blooms smell acrid, gamy, sour, like old shoes or rank undergarments. Then comes a thimbleful of sweet nuts. Even that small harvest reminds the man and his exhausted wife of the falling manna that brought them together, one night in the woods east of Brooklyn.
“There will be bushels,” Jørgen says. His mind is already making bread, coffee, soups, cakes, gravies—all the delicacies that the natives knew this tree could give. “We can sell the extra, in town.”
“Christmas presents for the neighbors,” Vi decides. But it’s the neighbors who must keep the Hoels alive, in that year’s brutal drought. One more chestnut dies of thirst in a season when not even the future can be spared a drop of water.
Years pass. The brown trunks start to gray. Lightning in a parched fall, with so few prairie targets tall enough to bother with, hits one of the remaining chestnut pair. Wood that might have been good for everything from cradles to coffins goes up in flames. Not enough survives to make so much as a three-legged stool.
The sole remaining chestnut goes on flowering. But its blooms have no more blooms to answer them. No mates exist for countless miles around, and a chestnut, though both male and female, will not serve itself. Yet still this tree has a secret tucked into the thin, living cylinder beneath its bark. Its cells obey an ancient formula: Keep still. Wait. Something in the lone survivor knows that even the ironclad law of Now can be outlasted. There’s work to do. Star-work, but earthbound all the same. Or as the nurse to the Union dead writes: Stand cool and composed before a million universes. As cool and composed as wood.