My seven-year-old self felt there was no better toy than a good stick. When the tall white oaks around the reservoir began to turn colors in the fall, we would collect bundles of their smaller dropped branches, picking only the finest specimens. Crawling around in the piles of leaves, we brandished them like many a different weapon. What made a good stick, I don’t know. But somehow my friend Max, two years older than I, managed to find all of the best ones; my sticks tended to be middling. This lack of stick-appraising skill was not unlike my inability to claim the Far Side in the back seat of his family’s bright-orange Volkswagen Rabbit. What defined the car’s prized seat defied the logic of its name; it simply was where Max sat, a fact I only grasped in hindsight.
The stature of oaks made them useless in our other favorite tree-related activity: climbing. The low branches of the magnolia in my parent’s backyard—kitty-corner from Max’s house, and Daniel’s too—made it particularly well-suited to my own childhood lack of coordination, while the upper strata of thin branches were the domain of the athletic Max and Shane, who lived just a block up Court Street. The sap-sticky branches of the pines at Howard Park were more democratic, their straight, regularly spaced branches as simple to scale as a ladder, making it possible for me to reach a similarly high perch above the park’s swing set and merry-go-round.
Trees were toys for all of us, but they were less generic for me. When we had Christmas at the farm my grandfather lived on outside of Mason City, we didn’t just decorate some random conifer; the presents were laid out below a stately Blue Spruce. And the trees were usually cut from one of the many stands planted on his land, some of which was devoted to growing seedlings into saplings to sell to his landscaping clients at Blackmore Nursery.
In the tall Bur oak behind the house he built a tree house for me, the ladder a set of two-by-fours running up the trunk, leading to a platform set high in the tree’s rough arms. From that perch I could look across to the other massive oak, hung with an array of birdfeeders, and over to the shed and the brick silo. In the shed were stacks of decomposable rag-paper pots, the kind that could be planted along with the root ball of a tree and left to rot away into the soil. In the other direction, away from the house, was a low-lying flat plain gridded with irrigation pipes and sprinklers for watering the saplings Grandpa Wink kept there.
His way with plants wasn’t limited to trees. In the springtime we took cardboard flats and short, dull knives over to a patch of asparagus that ran along side the fence marking the south edge of the property. Though asparagus was a vegetable I loathed as a child, I helped with the harvest nonetheless, hunting for the green spears amongst the grass and slicing off the stalks with those worn knives. He also knew where a small spring was, just off of the gravel road that led to his fields of sod, the grass as thick and perfect as a carpet, where you could pick watercress that grew among the rocks. In the summer, her tended to a small plot of tomatoes next to the papery barked Birch tree.
When the trees were dormant and the sod fields were covered in snow, Wink replaced his long days of nursery work with time spent in his basement woodshop. His designs were elegant and practical, a bed frame or a bookshelf, and always built out of cheap knotty pine. The house was heated by a castiron stove that he expertly built fires in every morning, stoking the smoldering coals into jumping flames again whenever the temperature dipped too low. His life was never too far removed from a tree of some sort.The first time I moved to California, just after high school, I lived in Monterey, where the native pine and cypress still dominate much of the coastal skyline. Monterey Cypress are expressive in a way that’s easy to love, their irregular shape and dramatic swoops conveying a kind of ever-lasting stoicism, an appearance that has made certain ocean-side specimens iconic. But when fall rolled around and those evergreens, true to form, failed to change color, I felt a sort of panic. After surviving that long wait to leave Iowa known as high school, I thought I would find myself perfectly at home in some far cooler and more desirable location—preferably New York. I got into Pratt and, briefly, believed that 9,000 merit-based-scholarship dollars could pave my road to Clinton Hill. But then the true math filtered through my head and I passed on a long-roped noose of student loan debt for a free bedroom in my grandparent’s terracotta-roofed house in Pebble Beach, and by-the-credit tuition at Monterey’s community college.
Pretending to be a Californian seemed a promising consolation prize to playing at Brooklynite. But around the time of my 19th birthday in mid-October I was forced to face the reality that, in fact, it was not about where you’re at, but rather where you’re from. I longed for the dependable seasonal markers of what I had to grudgingly accept was home: the burnt hues of fall leaves, the dramatic snarl of nude trees in the winter. I had marked the beginning of spring in Iowa by a specific change in the trees too: Before the weather was warm enough for us to spend afternoons hanging from the branches of our magnolia, I’d ask my mom to go out everyday and pluck off one of its fuzzy drab-green buds. Peeling back its many layers, I’d hope to find a tinge of pink at its heart, knowing that such a turn in hue meant that the tree would soon be covered in the pink blossoms I so loved. If I found only green-white petals inside, I’d try again and again until I uncovered the season’s first flush inside one of those tightly layered buds.
I moved back to Iowa from Monterey quickly enough to see the magnolia tree’s next bloom, and Wink moved off of the farm and into a nursing home shortly thereafter. It was a massive first step toward the death that would follow a few years later. His existence was work, and with dementia eating at the wits he needed to do the same chores he’d repeated annually since opening the nursery in 1946, Wink’s life as I knew it ended. Then a printmaking student at the University of Iowa, I attempted to cope with the inevitable by etching the trappings of the farm into copper and steel: the heads of the sprinklers that methodically ratcheted a measured spray across the plain behind my tree house, the mid-century curves of his vintage John Deere tractors. Wink was a man whose emotions where hidden behind both that Greatest Generation silence and the same midwestern personal reserve I also suffer from. I mainly knew him as habits and objects: Weak coffee in a plastic yellow cup from Casey’s in the morning; newsboy hats; early nights and earlier mornings; his green trucks and tractors and, oddly, black Saab station wagons.
William Winkler Blackmore’s casket was made of the same knotty pine he cut and nailed and sanded in the winters, its design not unlike one of his own. After it was lowered into the ground the whole family helped bury him. We grabbed for shovels and started moving the clay-brown dirt, just as many of us had when we worked for him, digging holes and planting trees in his name.
Somewhere, I have a list of the many things that were buried with him, another litany of objects I recorded in attempt to understand who he was. There’s a bottle of Canadian whiskey down there in that pine box, because he always traveled with a small flask, drinking a glass of whiskey-and-water before going to bed at night—a fact about his life I only learned in death.
* * *
When October 2008 rolled around, I was prepared for the trees to stay green. I had moved to California again, to Los Angeles, and despite going a good three months without hearing the sound of rain, I managed the non-transition from summer to fall far better than I had in Monterey. But Southern California’s arboreal life presented other discomforts; I couldn’t name most of the trees. Many had the shiny, pointed leaves of subtropical species, leaves who’s Darwinistic designed let water quickly run off of them, a stark, smooth-edge contrast to the many-pointed foliage I was accustomed to. The trees I did recognize were drastically out of context. Ficuses, those diminutive houseplants that reach with spindly branches toward the window of many a Midwestern living room, can be towering things in California. Rather than growing upward and stretching out into a crown, they seem inclined to achieve a blockish state of impenetrability, a wall of branches and almond-shaped leaves. Poinsettias turn leggy and tree-like too, growing as high as a house’s second-story window.
Like the people, most every tree was from somewhere else: The spiny-flowered bottle brush trees from Australia, the loquats from the China, the pastel-flowered jacarandas from South America. Since Los Angeles’ pink magnolias bloom shortly after Christmas, I quickly replaced those rosy flowers with the jacaranda’s periwinkle-purple blooms as a harbinger of spring (along with the rest of L.A.). But I long avoided saying the tree’s name out loud, unsure if it was pronounced with a hard, Anglo “j”, or the seemingly logical soft, Spanish jota.
Even the natives looked different, the stubby leaves and pointy acorns of California Live Oaks a far cry from the welcoming, open-palm-like foliage of its Midwestern cousins. And if the smell of the indigenous bay laurels was familiar, seeing a few thousand Spice Island bottles-worth of leaves attached to one immense tree, each recipe-size-portion glossy with life rather than a drab, dull green, was disorienting.
The fruit trees, however, presented no qualms. That citrus, figs, avocados and more were all there for the grabbing was thrilling. There was a lemon tree planted hard against a fence just down the alley, and ripe fruit usually hung out over the adjacent parking spot; I could run down, pick one and be back in the kitchen before anything burned or boiled over. A well-manicured Meyer lemon sat in a yard a few blocks further away, but its location and thorny branches required late-night harvests of a dozen or so fruit. That I never stripped that or any other tree bare made it easy to convince myself that these fruit thefts were, at best, Robin Hood-like; steal from the maybe-neglected tree and give to, well, me. After brewing so many cups of coffee while looking out the kitchen window at a neighbor’s overburdened persimmon, how could I not feel felt compelled to slip over the back fence at night to snatch ten pounds for myself?
My jump from stealing fruit to stealing plants started with a geranium. A cookbook-writing friend showed me how to use rose geranium to flavor jams, and when I first rubbed one unremarkable-looking leaf between my fingers and smelled its familiar, heady scent, I fell for the plant. There was the fact that a geranium’s rose is not a rose is not a rose is not a rose, and also that a single cut branch could be stuck into the ground and grow an entire other plant. I bought some rose geranium cuttings from at a flea market; I bought another scented geranium from a nursery and effectively cut the sticker price in half by spitting it into two plants. The next logical step in thrift was to pinch off a length from someone else’s landscaping and plant it at home, a green-thumb crime I’ve committed numerous times.
This spring, when the buds on the leafless trees began to swell, I snapped off a branch from a fig tree and stuck it in some potting soil. And waited. A few small leaves folded off of the tip of the would-be tree, and I hoped that the buried bud scars were figuring out how to grow roots rather than foliage. But for each fig leaf the stick grew, their stature matching those Durer engraved for Adam and Eve, another would fall off. It was a stick that would stay a stick.
The twig I broke off of a dormant grape vine looked like it wouldn’t even make it as far along as the fig. Pencil-thin and all but straight, it more resembled a stake than a plant, and seemed sure to be a second clonal failure. But a shoot pushed its way through the dirt after a few weeks, and the nascent grapevine is now inching its way higher and higher into the world.
Mine is a garden mostly dedicated to annuals: tomatoes and beans in the summer, greens in the winter, herbs and marigolds filling in the borders. More substantial plants like trees or grapevines, plants that can last a lifetime, if not longer, have always seem prohibitively expensive, especially for planting in the yard of a rented apartment. The Santa Rosa plum seedlings at the nursery look so tempting, but why suffer the sticker shock if my girlfriend and I might be living in some other apartment by the time the tree has recovered from being transplanted, established a root base and bearing fruit?
But a small branch stealthily cut from a nearby tree? That I can both afford and justify. Now I think less opportunistically when taking in the arboreal life of my neighborhood. Just a lemon will suffice for cooking dinner, but when considering a whole tree’s worth of lemons, there’s more to debated: the variety, the health of the tree, the yield. Would a wild California bay laurel take well to a backyard life? Or would it be smarter to propagate one of the shoots that’s managed to force its way out of the base of the tamer, domesticated bay up the block?
It’s been three years since I’ve laid eyes on my parent’s magnolia, and I’ve managed to live in the same apartment for more than a year for the first time in my life. Still, the experimental, west-coast outpost of Blackmore Nursery primarily exists in my head, but it’s bound to grow. Because I’ve started to collect sticks again, and I’m learning what makes a good one.