Photograph by Martin Seymour, Alamy
From the March/April 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler
It was only a tree. I say this line to myself, repeating it twice. No use. I’m still breathing in gulps. My chest aches as if somebody has just stepped on it. Although it’s early—only five in the morning—several of my Brooklyn neighbors have gathered with me on our building’s front stoop. We huddle together against the wind, wordlessly, staring at … well I’m not really sure what to call it. Wreckage? A corpse? Because it feels as if someone has just collapsed and died right here on our street. All night long, dark hurricane rains had thrashed and slammed against our windows. The storm eventually passed, but it left behind a whiff of something strange, yet familiar, in the air. When did my city block acquire the aroma of hiking on a summer morning in the deep woods? Then, stepping outside, I get it. Before me are tree roots, suddenly wrenched up from the ground, plus clumps of wet earth, rain-soaked leaves, and freshly splintered wood. My Brooklyn street has turned into instant Vermont. The fragrance is delicious, but I feel guilty for enjoying it. It is, after all, the smell of death.
I should tell you right away that I’m not much of a gardener or botanist, and it’s seldom that I can identify flora by name. But I knew the tree that stood outside my building for 40 years was a linden because some years earlier I had traveled to Berlin, Germany, during the early summer and walked toward the Brandenburg Gate along Berlin's famous tree-lined boulevard known as Unter den Linden (“under the lindens”). The endless lindens, frilly with seasonal white blossoms, gave off a sweet and unexpectedly reassuring fragrance. I soon realized why I found the smell comforting: Unter den Linden boulevard has the very same aroma as my street in Brooklyn on mornings in late June.
On such linden-perfumed mornings you will often find me standing outside the door of my building. There will be a suitcase (or two) at my feet and a backpack dangling from my shoulder. I’m not noticing the neighborhood foliage because I’m too busy eyeballing to the end of the block for the car service guy I called to take me to the airport, hoping he hasn’t become stuck in traffic.
Once again I am leaving home, turning into a traveler. Travel isn’t just a passion for me; it’s an identity that has wrapped and tangled its branches and tendrils around me so intricately that I can’t see through the thicket sometimes. I don’t stop to think about why it’s so important for me to be able to move around from place to place. I just do it: I pack up and go.
There probably is nothing more disconcerting, more terrifying, for hard-core travelers to contemplate than the life of a tree. A traveler is by definition footloose; trees send down deep, abiding roots. They don’t stay put because they are timid or incurious or on a budget, or because they have demanding jobs or family obligations. Trees stay where they are because if they abandon their point of origin they will cease to exist.
Well, that’s not completely true. Some trees do get around. If you travel, you have probably seen your share of forlorn palm trees propped up with wooden struts and growing in the “wrong” climate zones, even indoors (such as the palms in the Winter Garden of New York City’s World Financial Center). Then there is the peripatetic flora that is tended by a famous sculptor I met in Beijing. He had built himself a traditional Chinese-style house, which included a garden courtyard. The courtyard appeared exceptionally spacious because it contained exactly one slender tree.
I was astonished when the sculptor told me that it had taken him ten years—and tens of thousands of dollars—to obtain his garden’s centerpiece. The tree was a huanghuali, a slow-growing, fragrant rosewood prized for its color and smoothness that is found only in southern China. In order for the tree to take root and survive Beijing’s frigid winters, he had chosen to acclimate it gradually by moving it every year a few hundred miles farther north. This huanghuali tree wasn’t just the centerpiece of an exotic garden; it was an exhausted traveler at the end of a difficult journey.
Opposites, as we know, attract. Because my spirit feeds on perpetual motion, my heart opens wide for these living things that stand tall and grounded for decades, becoming more embedded year by year in their cities and countries, their native soil.
The truth is, landscapes without trees unnerve me a little, and I find that I avoid them. I prefer to linger under the glossy, dark green canopies of mango trees in southern India and wander down streets in Hong Kong where Asian ficus trees claw and gnarl their way out of stone and into the sky, deploying their roots across vertical walls. I light incense, or bow, or make a wish to the spirit trees of every culture, from Caribbean banyans tied with bright red sashes for African gods to Japanese maples aflutter with wish-bearing pieces of paper, to small-town American oaks ablaze with yellow ribbons demonstrating support for a faraway soldier. The irony doesn’t escape me: I spend my life as a traveler constantly chasing after the one thing that a tree effortlessly embodies—a sense of place.
There is a wonderful old Cuban song that inevitably brings tears to my eyes even though it’s corny. It’s sung from the point of view of a male tree. The tree falls deeply in love with a little girl who has carved her name playfully onto the bark of his trunk one day. As a token of his affection for her, he drops one of his flowers at her feet. In time, the little girl grows up, leaving behind her childhood—and the besotted tree. But trees are stationary, of course, and can’t move on. He can’t follow her. Therefore his love, like his roots enmeshed in Cuban soil—and the initials the girl engraved on his heart—is permanent.
Of course, it’s not. Nothing is. Even the most solid and grounded of trees can be knocked down in just seconds by an unexpected hurricane. And even the most committed traveler sometimes turns into a tree. Standing on my stoop the morning following the big Brooklyn storm, I say goodbye to the fallen linden tree that I’ve parted from so many times before. This goodbye feels different, though. The smell of earth fills the air and roots are encircling my ankles, spreading into the ground, and holding a restless wanderer, at least for this moment, in place.