The Tree of Life

19 Oct

There are those who claim that we have no real seasons in Southern California, and who can logically argue with them when the temperature is a balmy 75 degree on Christmas Day? But I know better—there are definitely seasons— and though their entrances are often subtle, I watch and wait for those changes just like any seasoned Easterner who anticipates the first sign of spring’s crocus popping up out of the frosty ground after a long winter. Luckily, I have a dear friend who helps me discern the change in seasons, and she lives right outside my front door.

I’m fortunate to have lived in the same house practically my entire life. My parents migrated west in 1960 from Baltimore in a faded black, beat-up old Chevy to sunny Santa Barbara, California, with nothing but a few hundred dollars in their pockets and a shining hope for their new life in a warmer climate. They scrounged together a meager $500 for a down payment on a brand new three-bedroom tract home that cost less than twenty thousand dollars, which included a magnificent view out the front window of the purple and blue Santa Ynez mountain range.

Life was good indeed.

I was born a year later and have never lived anywhere else except for a four-year stint at college in smoggy Los Angeles. During my senior year at USC, my father passed away suddenly, and so after graduation, I brought my brand new husband to Santa Barbara to live in my childhood home so that he could get started on his own education. A few years later, we purchased it at a very good price from my mother (the price was really a bargain because she came along with the transaction, although I’m not quite sure if my husband still thinks it was such a good deal.)

The tiny house has grown larger over the years. Additional rooms have been added on to make space for a growing family; first when my two brothers and I were growing up, and later as my husband and I created our own brood of four children.  A backyard pool was added. Weekends were spent re- landscaping the garden and colorful flowerbeds were planted.

Our neighborhood has changed since I was young; children have grown up and left, and then returned, just like I did, with their own families. There are more cars parked on the street than before. The elementary school I attended nearby closed long ago because of a decreasing population, and the last of the original lemon orchards that we played in as children were razed to build condominiums.

My daughter, Isa, contemplating life under the Liquidambar tree

Throughout the years, though, there has been one constant friend in the neighborhood: the Liquidambar tree that grows in the parkway in front of our house. She stands tall and grand; her dark and rough fifty year-old bark resembling the hide of an old elephant. In this Mediterranean climate where the weather is warm year-round, my front yard friend is my secret weapon which lets me know when the seasons are changing.

Haphazardly taped into our old family photo album are the faded snapshots of our tree in its infancy: a spindly, pathetic little thing that couldn’t offer much shade to a bug. Half a century later, no one could’ve ever imagined she would tower over our street one day, creating a canopy of shady respite from the heat of summer, or offering a burst of such intense color in October and November that you might think you’re somewhere in Vermont in autumn.

Having fun at a neighborhood block party. You can see the young tree on the right.

And back when she was first planted, I assume no one in the neighborhood could’ve possibly imagined what a mess she would make one day, either.

Come October, her real show begins in a conflagration of colorful leaves that swoop and swirl in the crisp air like flying bats; endless crimson, gold and orange leaves spin down and litter the streets and gutters. Her dry brown leaves crunch noisily under my feet as I take my morning walk. Add a backdrop of gray clouds, the scent of a little wood smoke in the air, and my senses come alive with the anticipation of the coming holidays.

“How utterly enchanting this tree is,” I think happily. “It’s a perfect New England autumn right before my eyes!”

Every year I’m charmed by the Liquidambar’s preview, and every year I forget that she stars in the main B movie attraction: THE ATTACK OF THE STICKLE BALLS.

There are many names for the spindly and dangerous globes that fall from my Liquidambar tree onto the grass and sidewalks below her boughs. Every year, these miniature weapons stealthily lie in wait for me on the lawn or sidewalk, ready to attack. Often referred to as “Ankle Biters” or “Ankle-Twisters” in California, our family has our own pet name—“Stickle Balls”—because they literally stick to your feet.  The numerous times I’ve stepped barefoot on a stickle ball with my full weight, their sharp prongs have stuck into the bottom of my foot with such razor-like precision, it’s as if I’ve stepped onto a miniature version of a medieval morning-star weapon. It’s probably the most excruciatingly painful experience I’ve ever had other than giving birth.

The evil "Stickle Balls"

These “Stickle Balls” are treacherous things: I’ve seen them get caught in the tires of bicycles, knocking the poor rider onto the street; or even worse, causing such a severe ankle sprain that the victim needs crutches for weeks.  Practically every weekend in November and December, I have to accident-proof the sidewalk by shoveling two or three garbage bags full of those nasty brown orbs from my front yard. When I’m done, I wipe the sweat from my neck and think, “There, that’s it. There can’t possibly be any more balls left to bag up.”

As soon as that thought crosses my mind though, I know I’m in for it. A raging wind storm will undoubtedly materialize that very evening, hurling a surplus of spiked balls against the house like mini hand-grenades, and managing to cover the entire front lawn like a war-time minefield. The thousands of red-brown spheres burrow so deeply into the grass that a garden rake barely suffices—you have to bend down and pick them out with your bare hands.

Unfortunately, even after such a fierce wind storm, many of the spindly balls are apt to to linger in the trees throughout the entire winter. Their tasty seeds draw countless migratory birds to spend hours up on the bare branches, pecking at the pods for their delicious seeds. In the meantime, the chirping devils cover your car with a mosaic splatter of black and white bird poop so meticulous and well-designed that any fastidious artist would be proud.

Come springtime, I’m ready for a change, and my Liquidambar tree doesn’t disappoint.  Her burgundy buds sprout on the tips of the branches like newly manicured fingernails, and soon thereafter,her delicate, shiny green leaves flutter like hand-sewn lace in the breeze.

“Ahhhh….Spring is finally here,” I think, sniffing the sweet smell of fresh flowers. “Now the raking and shoveling and sweeping are finally over and I can concentrate on my garden.”

After almost throwing my back out picking up those nasty seedpods for months, I believe I’m finally done cleaning up after my old friend.  Silly me—I’ve once again completely forgotten about the next bit of sloughing that my Liquidambar tree has in store for me: the blooming phase.

Mid-March is the time for the flowers of the Liquidambar tree to burst forth, dropping her pollen-laden, sneeze-inducing blossoms onto the flower beds, lawn and sidewalks like a miniature bunches of golden grapes. This part wouldn’t be so bad, except that when you try to pick them up, they dissolve into a powdery mess in your fingers. If you leave them alone, they produce brownish blood-colored stains on the sidewalk like a mass killing has taken place in the front yard. The stains on the cement can last for months, until the heat of the summer sun finally fades them away.

Now, I may complain about my dear Liquidambar tree, because she is certainly considered to be a high-maintenance relationship. But even with all of her treachery from fall through spring, she’s worth the effort, as summer approaches and her leaves turn a deep shade of chlorophyll green. The wind blowing through her large maple-shaped leaves is like a musical accompaniment to a rhythmic dance, soothing and invigorating at the same time. The Mockingbirds return year after year and build their nests high up in her branches, entertaining the neighborhood with their vast repertoire of calls.

My dad, standing under our Liquidambar tree, circa 1972

My Liquidambar tree offers a canopy of shade that keeps the lawn lustrous and thick as green velvet—perfect for throwing down a blanket on which to stretch out and stare up at the blue sky. As my mother did with me, I’ve often lounged on the front lawn with my own children, just to gaze up at my old friend and imagine what life has in store for me.

Two generations of children have grown up under the branches of my Liquidambar tree. From a skinny sapling to a tall stately lady (I’m referring to the tree, and maybe myself, too) she has watched over me and kept me company throughout the past century like a close friend. Although she is messy and even dangerous at times, she is a constant presence in my life, and continues to inspire me through her colorful metamorphosis, to dream little and to dream big.

2 Responses to “The Tree of Life”

  1. Tom Bergman October 19, 2011 at 7:25 pm #

    You are indeed a great writer. I know that tree and its sister trees from that neighborhood. You tell her story well.

  2. Leah October 20, 2011 at 11:23 am #

    Very nice post!

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