Sunday, September 30, 2012

How to Tell a Story

Fall, 2012

I'm with a group of about sixty tree nuts at historic Cedar Hill Cemetery in Hartford, and Ed Richardson is leading us around, pointing out magnificent specimens and describing how he inventoried approximately 1,800 big trees on the cemetery grounds. After completing his inventory, he tells us, his project was written up in the Hartford Courant, and a former Cedar Hill groundskeeper called him up to talk about his work. Facing his audience and speaking into a small microphone, Ed Richardson launches into the meat of his story.

So this guy, this former groundskeeper, said, “What about that weirdo hemlock on section 16?”

“Weirdo hemlock?” I said. “I’m not sure about that. Is this a grave tree or a big tree?”

“A grave tree.”

“I didn’t inventory the grave trees,” I told him.

Ed Richardson briefly explains the difference. Cedar Hill, designed by landscape architect Jacob Weidenmann in the 1860s as a rural cemetery, features park-like common areas landscaped with large trees, while the family-owned plots have smaller shrubs and trees planted near individual graves. In his inventory, Ed Richardson had focused on the large trees.

“Well, you ought to go look at it,” he said.

“Is it a dwarf?” I asked.

“Yes, it is.”

“Well,” I said. “I don’t know anything about dwarf trees. I’m a big tree guy.”

They talked about it some more, he tells us as he leads us among the graves. Even though I’ve heard this story three times on three different tours, I still can’t get enough of it. I hang on every word.

“I’ll go take a look at this dwarf tree you’re talking about,” I said. “But I wouldn’t hold your breath.”

Well, I looked at it, and I thought, this is a weirdo alright. It had little short needles coming right out of the trunk and branches. Looked like an evergreen cactus.


I was able to find one cone. He holds up a finger. It was an Eastern hemlock cone. So I thought it might be a cultivar.

He takes us a bit further, and we all stay close, waiting to catch his words. He describes going home and looking in his four-volume encyclopedia of trees, translated from German, and finding a list of around seventy-five cultivars of the Eastern hemlock, each with a dense paragraph of description.

This is hopeless, I thought, but I just kept reading. And then about halfway through, I came to a paragraph and thought, man, that’s it on the nose. I kept reading, and at the end of the paragraph, I came to a sentence that said, “This is the Huss hemlock propagated by John Francis Huss of Hartford, Connecticut, around 1902.”

We arrive at our destination. Ed Richardson points at a monument flanked by two slender hemlocks. He hits the climax of his story:

The name on the monument was Huss.


There are murmurs of surprise and delight as his listeners stand looking at the stone and its guardian trees. After the story has had its full impact, Ed Richardson goes on to explain that Huss had been a groundskeeper at Hartford’s Goodwin mansion at the end of the nineteenth century. He doesn’t know how old the trees are, he continues; they may date back to Huss’s death in 1925 or even earlier.

I read the names on the monument and come up with my own narrative. Huss had two wives who predeceased him: Rosalie Mouillerat, who died in 1907, and Helen E. Hamilton, who died in 1909. So I imagine that John Huss himself planted those two trees, his own cultivar, one for each of his loves.

Saturday, September 8, 2012


My lists are proliferating—lists of writing stuff, teaching stuff, kid stuff, household stuff, each main list branching into its own taxonomy of sub-lists and sub-sub-lists. Writing lists include “novel revisions,” “essays to write,” and even “blog”—which further branches into lists of blog entries that I aspire to write. I want to tell you about babies touching tree bark, about a day at the beach in Ventura, about trees we’ve planted, about a blue china box full of maple samaras from Omaha, about an accordion file stuffed to overflowing with 568 letters sitting right by my desk, and about my daughter’s toothbrush (to name just a handful of items on my “blog” list). But as always, my lists are in conflict, competing for my time, my attention.

When my daughter was three and my son a baby, we took a road trip from our home in Nebraska to Montana to visit family. I made endless lists to prepare for the trip—stuff for the three-year-old, stuff for the seven-month-old, stuff for the adults, perishable and nonperishable foods, stuff to do before we left, stuff my brother needed to do while we were gone, stuff I needed to do upon returning. I ended up with so many lists on so many different sheets of paper that I created a separate list—titled The Master List of Lists—to keep track of them all.

During the two-day drive, after having exhausted the picture books, sticker books, coloring books, and audio books, the three-year-old came up with an engrossing new activity. “Let’s make lists!” she cried exuberantly, so we occupied ourselves for the rest of the drive by making lists: Relatives We’re Going to See, Things We’re Going To Do, Favorite Songs, Favorite Numbers, Favorite Books, Reasons Baby Brothers Cry, Good Things to Eat, Beautiful Colors, Friendly Animals. She proudly held the growing stack of pages in her hands. I had—inadvertently—taught her well.

But later, back from our trip, we were sitting on our front lawn when my daughter curled into my lap. “I want to go back to Montana,” she told me. Distracted, I replied, “What were your favorite things about Montana? Let’s make a list.”

“Just being there,” she said. “It’s not something you put on a list.” And I will never forget the look of exasperation she gave me, the way she climbed out of my lap to go sit next to her brother who was chewing on a blade of grass, the way they both sat looking away from me at the crab apple trees in front of our house. Chastised, I watched my children sitting there as the deep blue began to seep into the sky, as the trees became dark silhouettes etched into the twilight. And I thought of all the things I did each day that never appear on a list: Read books with my children. Look at the sky. Enjoy an apple. Listen to a song. Tell a joke. Watch a bird. Touch a tree. These—and so many others—are beyond the reach of my lists.  

I sit writing this post—which I never planned to write, which wasn’t even on the list—and I watch the clock, trying to resist the urge to flip open my notebook. For the moment, I am here, but too soon I will be consulting the list, looking for the notation that will tell me where to go from here.