Lone tree

Our guide was pointing out the prehistoric waterline of Bonneville Lake when I noticed it: a single tree of surprisingly deep green on a hillside covered in dry, endless grass. It was like a storybook illustration or a prop in a diorama, a tree almost too perfect—gnarled and asymmetrical in just the right places—as if painted or constructed from an idealized memory. We were on a horseback riding adventure. The riding part was not very adventurous—our horses walked in a resigned line, eating thistle and pooping while novices clung to their saddle horns and chafed. But our guide was wonderful. Genuinely in love with the vestige of the Wild West that he promotes; he narrated with stories and encouragement that made us feel a tiny part cowboy. I asked a million random questions and he answered each one as if it were the most important question he had ever been asked before. I was comfortable asking him about the tree.

“Why is that tree out there all by itself? Why are there no other trees or other plants around it?”     

He turned around on his horse (he somehow did not need to hang on in any discernable fashion) and practically twinkled with anticipation. “I am so glad you asked that!” He then explained that this tree is probably hundreds of years old. It produces poisonous berries akin to arsenic. When they fall to the ground, the berries kill all the vegetation around the tree, including its own seedlings. But when there are brush fires, a frequent occurrence in this desert, the flames stop at the dirt line, just short of damaging the tree. The hill has been cleared of plant life over and over, yet the tree thrives because of its own noxious defense system. Our guide told us that several local corporations use this type of “lone tree” as a logo, invoking the tenacity of its long term survival in otherwise harsh surroundings.   

Our explorations moved to lava formations and Native American day caves, but I could not let go of the tree. Back home, I called my sister, an excellent doctor-naturalist-vegetarian resource, and told her the story. She launched into a lecture with an enthusiasm similar to our guide. She explained that my tree (assuming the story was true, she is ever the skeptic) was an example of an evolutionary strategy. Some species utilize a community for preservation: a flock, a colony, a pride. Others kill everything in its path to maintain superiority. Some lay one egg with one partner and tend to their offspring with diligence. Others string or clump hundreds of eggs betting the odds that a few will survive. Others forego reproduction to protect their own existence. There are biological equations that scientists use to weigh these choices and show which strategy will better ensure the Darwinian prerogative. In the case of my tree, environment probably played a huge role in how the species developed; resilience to the razing effects of lightening sparks and random flares became more important than an interconnected bio-relationship such as that in a rainforest.

We moved on to human analogies. There are as many social strategies as there are noses, or hair color, or creases in palms. Certainly environment plays a role in how we evolve. And it is easy to compare the tree to those people who alienate those around them in order to protect themselves from loss or failure. But the more I thought about it, the more I envisioned everyone as the tree with the potential for both toxic and beneficial fruit. Unlike the tree, which adapts without awareness, we have a choice to balance an array of traits and their manifestations, some having a positive and others a negative impact on those we encounter. Over time, the evolution and culmination of all our behavioral selections define who we are and whether or not people want to be near us or whether we want to be near others.

Coming home from this same trip, I was forced to wait in a security line at the airport that was at least 50 yards long before reaching the stanchions that bordered a maze of further waiting. We were late and I was anxious. After standing 20 minutes and progressing almost to the edge of the stanchions, I watched an older man intentionally cut in the line by stepping into a gap between two families just ahead of us. I sputtered to myself at first and then addressed him loudly, declaring that he could not just cut in line; that it was not right on principle. He claimed he was late. I stated the departure times of several other passengers (we had chatted), all of which were sooner than his. He wavered, growling that I was “something else” and finally walked to the end of the line. He was a jerk; I was a bitch. My husband asked me what my reaction would have been if he had asked nicely to step in front of me. Would I have let him? I didn’t know. Later, I heard a woman tell her daughter that I was the woman who “yelled at the man.” The little girl looked at me with wary eyes and I felt the bitterness of poisonous berries.

When do our defense mechanisms alienate others and leave us isolated or when do they represent strength? When is it better to reach out and connect? When is it best to fortify and stand resolute?

Near the beginning of the horseback riding adventure, our guide told me that I must be an expert rider, that my style was relaxed and pretty. My demeanor shifted. I sat straighter, flipped my juice can curls and held the reins with one hand, the other hand poised on my hip like a rodeo princess. I was confident. I was Western. He complimented me and I bloomed like a desert flower. Employing a strategy as deliberate any species on the plains, he ensures his survival as an entrepreneur by offering gentle flattery and practiced observations. The lone tree kills any potential tinder in its vicinity. Our guide invites lush attendance. His tactics keep him surrounded by paying customers, eager to make his company.     

5 responses to “Lone tree”

  1. tb says:

    Your discussion of “the potential for both toxic and beneficial fruit” in all of us reminded me of an old Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode in which one of the characters gets split into two—one half containing all of his best, most desirable qualities, the other half containing all of his flaws and foibles. The demon who did this had intended to split the Slayer into two entities. Though this seems counterproductive to the demon race since it would create a seemingly indestructible super Slayer, devoid of any weakness, it also would result in a Slayer whom is nothing more than a distillation of human frailties. This entity would be vulnerable and easily destroyed. And, what we learn is, that if this half is killed, the other half dies as well. Both the weak and strong aspects carry equal weight in defining the individual and without one, the other cannot survive.
    Great post PB.

  2. Marleyfan says:

    Loved it, loved it, loved it. You are so good at painting the picture with words.

    I just got back from a fantastic training called Functional Family Therapy, and they talked about how most anger is caused by an emotional hurt or disappointment (and sometimes fear). So, I got to ask: were you angered by the old man, and if so, what was your hurt/disappointment (or fear)?

    PS: What kind of tree was it?

  3. Arius Cragg says:

    Wow, good use of the rhetorical questions and you propose some interesting observations about social interactions. Your language is also very vivid. I felt like I was on horseback right beside you watching the tree. What are common moments where people feel the need to alienate in order to protect their fragile emotions? I have a friend Shelly who has a friend named Barabara. Barabara and Shelly are leaving for college and Shelly noticed Barbara being grumpy and nasty to everyone in their circle of friends. I think Barabara is trying to alienate her friends so as to protect herself from the painful loss of moving on from high school. She reminds me of the tree, trying desperately to not get burned. However, to ever truly enjoy life you might have to risk playing with fire. Very good post.

  4. PB says:

    Funny you should ask, in high school I confronted a girl who cut in front of me in the cafeteria line on chili day and she punched me in the nose. To the floor, broken glasses and all.
    hmmmmmmm . . .

  5. marleyfan says:

    I too wouldn’t hesitate to fight for chili! (as long as there are Saltines).