Lynn Marie Houston
I fell in love with a country boy who loved to climb trees. When I met him, though, he was a man and lived in the city, where the only two trees on his street were scheduled to be cut down. I found the removal notice from the city hanging on his door one day, near the end of our relationship. I took the flyer inside his apartment and waved it around, ranting. The two ash trees across the street were the only break in the monotony of run-down apartment houses, the only visual reminder of earth and the life that grew in it. I’d only lived in New Haven for a year, but I already missed the Catskill Mountain forests of New York, where I grew up. And although William was much more rational about the loss of the trees—they had a fungus and needed to come down or they could fall on someone, he said—he also missed the wooded lots of Missouri where he’d spent his childhood, when his parents were still together, when his mother was still alive. These losses weighed heavier on him since his own marriage had fallen apart and his 3-year-old daughter—despite his best intentions to avoid his parents’ mistakes—would be growing up in a broken family like he did. As logical as he was able to be about getting rid of the diseased ash trees, he was still unable to practice that same level of emotional detachment with his failed marriage. And by the time I realized how hung up he still was on his ex-wife, it was too late: I’d already fallen for him.
I could hardly be blamed. There was much to admire about William. He was tall and gregarious, smart and funny, a natural storyteller. In his free time, he handcrafted bows from raw timber, so his best stories often involved trees. In his basement, he hoarded thick logs he’d gotten for free from roadside cutting crews. Some were stumps so large they didn’t fit into his Subaru, so he’d drive them home strapped to its roof-racks.
Our third date was a hike in Branford, Connecticut, where we found lots of trees. William pointed out a sweet gum. He picked up one of its spikey pods from the ground and put it in the palm of my hand, where he opened its casing to show me the seeds inside, his fingers grazing my skin, his hand lingering on mine. Just then, a squirrel ran across the trail. William chuckled as he rested against a rock cropping.
“Reminds me of a story.”
“Oh yeah? Tell me.” I sat down next to him on the rock.
“One time my daddy was squirrel hunting in Missouri, and he wounded one pretty badly. So, hillbilly that he is, he decides to go up the tree after it, thinking it wasn’t right to let it die slow. But he’s not thinking about his age, about how long it’s been since he’d climbed. Anyway, he skinnies up this tree. To hear my dad tell it, he was 30 or so feet up, with no strength left, just hanging on, hugging that tree. The squirrel was nowhere to be found and he was stuck up there like a bear, looking down at the ground, registering the fall.”
“What happened next?”
William grabbed my hand, smiling.
“Was he okay?”
“He was fine.”
William turned to face me, looking deeply into my eyes.
“But it just goes to show you’ve got to go after something if it feels right, no matter if you could get hurt by it later.”
For our fourth date, William invited me to dinner at his place, the two ash trees on his street not yet marked then for removal by the city. He made me baked chicken and sweet potatoes heavy with butter. I brought cornbread. Then we watched woodworking videos, quaint CDs he lovingly removed from their cases one at a time. They featured a man dressed in a flannel shirt and suspenders who first handcrafted all of his tools and then used them to clear trees and build things from the raw lumber. This was William’s vision for the future, living off the land as much as possible, doing things by hand.
In the next CD, the woodworker was readying some timber to build a structure. The camera zoomed in on the cross-cut end, as the man applied a lotion to the grain, rubbing it in with his fingertips as he circled the ribbed striations, getting closer and closer to the dark center circle of heartwood.
“Are you showing me wood porn?,” I teased William, as I moved closer to him on the couch in the darkly lit living room.
It was the last video we watched that night.
William and I began spending more time together. Sundays were our days to hang out. We fished, hiked, cooked, played guitar, and read poetry. One evening, we were watching a bowmaking video on his computer, and I finally worked up the nerve to ask him what we were to each other.
“Are we. . . just dating casually? Are we in a committed relationship?”
He paused the video and looked at me.
I continued. “Because I’d like to propose that we try being exclusive for two to three months and see how it goes.”
He leaned in to kiss me. “You have my exclusivity.”
He hit play, and we went back to watching the bowmaking video. Noel Grayson was explaining how the Cherokee worked with the heartwood to make a bow. You get in between a growth ring and take it all the way down, running a cut the length of the lumber. If you get to a knot, let the wood do what it wants to do it in terms of your cut. The most important thing is to make the ends bend evenly. If they both snap at the same time, then the bow shoots straight.
William told me about the first bow he’d ever made using the technique Grayson was describing. It had failed because he’d used pine.
“Is pine bad?,” I asked.
“It’s a brittle wood and can’t withstand the tension of the bend. Yew is great.”
“Aw, honey, ‘yew’ ain’t so bad yourself.”
He flashed a bright smile. “But I really like Osage. It used to grow all over Missouri. Here in the Northeast, it’s pricey.”
“Quality things usually are.”
Later, as we were lying in bed, he told me about pine trees in colonial America, how the King of England had claimed for himself all the giant pines in the northeast, had them marked as his property to be used as masts for his ships. No one else could cut them down without penalty.
“What’s the moral there?”
“No moral. I just thought you liked my wood. . . stories.”
“Very funny,” I smiled, and rolled over to look at him. “I do like your wood. . . stories.” I kissed him, and we fell asleep.
But much later, I discovered that there was indeed a moral to the story he told me. The Pine Wars were part of what led to the American Revolution. The colonists wanted to be free to do what they wanted with their wood. They didn’t want a British ruler making exclusive claims on it.
I didn’t register when William first started pulling away, because it wasn’t an absence so much as a refusal to invest. I didn’t think he would make such a decision so early, only a few months into our relationship. William was that guy, still in his thirties, who believed that love should be a hard fall in the beginning, not something you tend and grow over time. In my experience, any kind of initial spark was usually just the flame of physical attraction.
One February a few years back, I’d tapped a sugar maple in my parent’s yard, hammered the spiles into opposing sides and hung the buckets. I’d named the tree Bessie, like a milk-producing cow, because I could hardly keep the buckets from overflowing. Someone told me that I only needed to boil the sap to 219 degrees Fahrenheit to make syrup, and that anything more made maple candy. But 219 degrees only resulted in a kind of buttery water. So I kept it on the flame. No matter how long I boiled the sap, it never became a thick syrup. Time plus heat had never yet yielded sweetness for me.
William and I had great physical chemistry, and we liked all the same things. I figured out later that he had wanted to play a game of chase, while I was ready to settle into something more meaningful. I’d forgotten that the last time he tried to take steps toward something more serious—his marriage—that he’d felt betrayed when the relationship had failed.
One Sunday night, after a hike past a waterfall deep in the woods, we settled in to watch the documentary Alone in the Wilderness. A few minutes in, he grabbed my hand and said he had to talk to me. I immediately tensed up.
“You are very important to me, Lynn,” he said. “But I don’t have the normal feelings I might expect to have at this point.”
“I’m not sure what that means. Are you saying you want to break up?”
“No. I’m saying that I think I never processed my divorce. I feel numb.”
“It’s still early on. Those feelings might come.” I squeezed his hand. “What can I do to help?”
“Just guard your heart. I can’t promise that there’s a future for us. I’ve been the one who cared more in past relationships, and I got hurt. I don’t want to hurt you.”
I leaned closer to him. If I had been honest with myself, my mind was already made up—William made my life better. I was all in. There was no guarding my heart. And it seemed so clear to me that he wasn’t going to find anyone else who connected with him like I did. I just couldn’t conceive of us not working out.
“Listen, William, no one can promise a future. There are no guarantees in life. We don’t even know for sure we will wake up tomorrow. So I think we should just live in the moment.”
“Okay.” He seemed relieved of some burden.
“I don’t care if there’s no future between us because you make me happy right now.”
“You make me happy, too.”
And I believed that he meant it.
We returned to watching Dick Proenneke fell trees and hew timber for the log cabin he built by hand in Alaska.
“Those are spruce trees,” William pointed out. “You can’t find good trees like that just anywhere these days.”
“So much has been cut down for farming. When I was a teen, I worked for a guy who reclaimed barns. That was in Illinois, where we moved after my folks split up. They didn’t have hardwoods there anymore because they’d cleared the land for crops. Some of the wood that used to be readily available—like chestnut, black walnut—had been used to make barns. The guy I worked for would tear down a barn and resell the timber. He would quote a price based on what the barn was made of. If it was made of a good hardwood, he would tear it down for less.”
William was still holding my hand. I picked it up and placed his palm on my face.
As I moved it to my lips and kissed it, I remembered a story he’d told me about the damage his hands had done to a tree. There’d been a wagon wheel in an empty lot next to his childhood home, and he’d taken it apart, but a piece of the center hub remained attached to one of the spokes. He began swinging it like a mace, and hit a nearby tree. He kept hitting it, cutting into the bark all the way around its trunk, leaving deep wounds. The tree later died, and he felt terrible. It was the tree he used to climb and sit in when his parents started fighting.
I thought about the vastly different childhoods William and I had and how those differences might have led us to incompatible ideas about romantic relationships. My mother and father had been happily married for the past forty-six years. While money had been tight growing up, we never lived on state assistance or had to go without indoor plumbing, like William had done as a boy. I remembered the wooden plank hung by a rope to the tree outside my bedroom where I would swing while my father cut the grass after work. I remembered when my parents wanted to have an above-ground pool installed in the backyard for me and my brother, and the company said it would have to cut down one of the birches on our property in order to get the truck through. My mother was adamant—that tree was a living thing and she wouldn’t allow them to kill it. Instead, my father grabbed the trunk of the birch and swung it back toward him, pulling on it with all of his weight. He cleared enough space for the truck to get through.
A few weeks after he had told me to guard my heart, William broke up with me on a hike, after I introduced him to one of my favorite trees. The tree stood in a little clearing as the trail veered away from the Mill River toward East Rock Park. I’d named the tree Fred after visiting him a few times during the winter when he’d had no leaves. I couldn’t figure out what kind of tree he was, but every time I passed him I leaned my cheek against his bark and placed my arms around his trunk. I often talked about him to William, sending pictures of the bark and branches, trying to describe what Fred smelled like. William had promised to help me identify Fred.
William stood next to Fred and looked up to see his leaves with their numerous pointed lobes.
“It’s a red oak.”
“I’ve named him appropriately, then. I’ll call him Fred Oak.”
William chuckled weakly.
“Lynn, there’s no easy way to say this. I’m not in love with you.”
“It’s a little early still to know that, don’t you think?”
“No, I think I would feel it by now.”
“Do you think you could feel it for someone else?”
“Is there someone else?”
“No. It’s not about that.”
I stood looking at Fred instead of William, my hand on his bark for strength.
“Is this still about your divorce?”
“I think so. Maybe not. I don’t know.”
I turned to face him again.
“Let me ask you this. If your ex-wife said she wanted to try again, would you? Would you try to work things out with her?”
He sighed and hung his head. “She would never want that.”
“But if she did.”
“Hypothetically? If she wanted that, then I would have to try. For my daughter’s sake.”
“Well then, there’s my answer. This is technically about someone else. You’re still in love with your ex.”
We walked along in silence for a few minutes while he thought about it.
“I’m sad, William. About so many things. We never even got to shoot the bow you’re making.”
“Yet,” he added. “We didn’t get to shoot it yet.”
He glanced at me. Outwardly, I was holding up. Inside, I was in deep pain. I couldn’t imagine my life in Connecticut without William. He made every day magical with his humor and his stories.
“I have another story for you,” he grinned. “The Plains Indians used to set fire to the forests. They burned them down to create space for the buffalo. But what they found is that destruction promoted growth, that razing everything allowed the grasses and trees to grow back stronger and healthier. They discovered species of pine trees whose cones were glued shut with a resin that made their exterior a hard shell. When the fire passed through, its high temperature would melt the resin and allow the cones to seed. All of this to say that there are some kinds of trees that can’t grow until a fire comes through and seemingly destroys everything.”
It’s been four months since I’ve spoken to William. I imagine him happy, taking his daughter to the park, maybe even teaching her to climb a tree. Not the ones that were on his street—those are gone now.
And me? I’m happy, too, in my own way. I’m still waiting for the seed season after the fire has passed.
Lynn Marie Houston is a poet, essayist, and educator. Her writing has won prizes from Cultural Weekly, the National Federation of Press Women, Broad River River, The Heartland Review Press, and others. The Editor-in-Chief of Five Oaks Press, she holds a Ph.D. from Arizona State University and an MFA from Southern Connecticut State University. "Heartwood" was written during a residency at the Vermont Studio Center.