Weekend Archives: Trees by Anthony Doerr

Weekend Archives: Trees by Anthony Doerr
Photograph by Barbara Miers

He stops at the supply room window, a floor-to-ceiling sheet of glass, double-paned, six feet wide. The best window in the entire building. Third storey, forty feet up. He has been in here maybe three thousand times and hasn’t noticed this window once. Maybe they’ve stripped it of blinds, or hauled some obscuring shelf away.

[private]The view looks into the heart of the grand old tree which stands just behind the Company’s entrance sign. He thinks it is an oak but it might be something else. A maple? He has that dry, wooden film in his mouth that he always gets in the afternoons at work: something close to the smell of the Company cafeteria an hour after lunch, three or four engineers at long tables staring into their baked chicken.

They make memory here. Semiconductors. Every hour is a tribulation.

In the supply room, forty feet up, the branches of the tree are thin, forking into glossy twigs, and ornamented with seeds. Waving yellow ropes of light slip down through the boughs, and the leaves look to him like small hands, ten thousand of them, each moving of its own inclination, but all of them moving somehow in concert, showing their palms to the sun.

He intended to retrieve a box of purchase order blanks. Instead some thin and final membrane inside him gives way and he picks his way through the cubicles, not even pausing when Fred Simpson tries to show him a piece of paper, and goes down the fire exit and stands beneath the tree, oak or maple.

The bark presents a storm of texture—canyons and ridges and caves. A column of big black ants ascends the trunk, wallowing in its grooves.

A half hour later he is in the public library in his khakis and knit tie, with his plastic name badge still around his neck, paging through a book called Trees. Paulownia. Catalpa. The glory of cherries. Spruce. Stone Pine. Maple. There it is: Norway Maple. He has to apply for the library card.

At home his wife says, ‘You’re home early,’ and he says, ‘Yes I am.’ He fumbles through boxes in the basement. There is a 35-millimeter Nikon FG-20 buried in here somewhere, beneath football jerseys and an antler chandelier she’d made him take down.

All through dinner she asks questions about work. To pacify her, he says he has managed to collect some overdue funds from Hitachi, one of the ‘majors.’ This is an outright lie. The tree book sits on the hall table, waiting.

The house is old but new to them. They have moved to it to escape the memories, but the memories wander the halls after them, relentless, unabating: nighttime feedings, the gurgling he would make in his crib, the sour, powdery smell of his formula.

He didn’t last, their son. Gave up after ten months, called it quits. They’d used the Nikon on him plenty.

In bed he studies cracks in the ceiling paint and dreams dreams: he’ll make a book, he’ll travel the world, he’ll photograph trees, the Magic Hawthorn, the famous Pears of Bethesda. An acacia in Africa. A lenga in Patagonia. A tree book, pages of trees.

In the morning he drives to three drugstores before he finds film. Then he takes the Toyota right past the main entrance of the Company, past the Norway Maple, past the sixty-two new emails waiting for him on his desktop computer, and drives into the hills to where the Company has cut swaths to accommodate incoming powerlines.

He hikes in the steep grass in his cross-trainers, the camera banging his ribs. Thrushes sing like little waterfalls in the branches. There are hedge maples up there, and what might be a paperbark maple. Some others: a tulip tree, a cottonwood; he isn’t entirely sure. He packs a roll of film into the Nikon and trains the viewfinder up, where the smallest branches break the sky.

F-stop, film speed, focus. Exposure.

Again he has the feeling that the leaves are hands, palms-up. Entreating. Imploring. Far below him he can see the graveled roof of the nanoFab building, and the back wall on Administration, twin columns of black windows. Somewhere behind those windows Steve Keating is walking to the 10 a.m. Collections Meeting and Katie the intern is pushing buttons on the copier and Harriet Stover is pausing in a hallway, thumbing a message into her phone.

By 10:30 a.m. he has exposed four rolls. He brings it to Albertson’s One Hour, the last developer in the city, and sits waiting while the machines whirr and click and a mom runs six neon green bottles of soda through a self-service scanner.

The pictures are lousy. A bunch of branches, not all of them in focus. Nothing like he had hoped. Nothing to suggest the thrushes, the leaves, the way the trees slowly gathered their shadows beneath them like trembling networks of darkness.

But. Success does not come overnight.

For a week of dinners he is able to maintain the lie. ‘They need me to go out of town next week.’

‘No, I don’t know where the dust on the car came from.’

‘No, I don’t know why Harriet Stover called three times.’

But on Monday he returns from a morning of shooting birches above a farm (two dogs snapping at him and he’d stumbled into a bog) to find her at the table furious. ‘You went today,’ he guesses. ‘To the office.’

‘An affair,’ she says.


‘I don’t get it.’

‘What’s to get? I’m going to Salt Lake tomorrow. Not for work. Not for anything. For the aspens.’

She glares at the surface of the table and—slowly, awfully—punches holes in her sandwich with an index finger.  She says, ‘This is about Oliver.’

‘Yes. No. Maybe.’ He sighs. In the months after the death of their son, he has became a virtuoso sigher. Sighs like transcontinental airliners, sighs like great billboards, sighs like the wake of a ship in the ocean.

This particular one is a bridge, cantilevered for a moment into the space between them, then collapsing.

The lobes of her ears tremble. ‘And the paycheck?’

‘Really? The paycheck?’

‘Nine years and you up and quit? Without even discussing it?’

‘There was this window. A Norway Maple.’

‘This is not what people do.’

‘I’m trying,’ he says. ‘I’m working on it.’

That night he lies on the sofa with the camera balanced on his gut. She is at Kristie’s. Maybe Megan’s. A car passes and the arcs of its headlights sweep across the ceiling, carrying the shadows of leaves. The wind moans in the chimney. He feels it again: the urge to run. He yanks open windows and lets his heart thud against the darkness. According to Trees, there are huge groves of aspens in Utah in which each tree is a clone of every other, all of them rising from the same ultra-complicated root system, so many roots interlaced and webbed through the soil that the trees function as a single, hundred-acre organism. One plant, one hundred acres, six million kilograms. Eighty-thousand years old.

In mid-September, the book says, the leaves of these groves all lose their chlorophyll at once, flaring yellow and orange and sometimes a little red, streaks of flames on all the mountains. How can he have lived forty-four years and not seen this?

Out there Company trucks are being loaded with pallet after pallet of high-density memory. Out there clouds are scudding over the city: not a single one the same as any other. The biggest boat ever built, he thinks, was a crumb on the great blue sea. A line from a children’s book, one of Oliver’s.

On the flight to Salt Lake he trades for a window seat. The Nikon waits on his lap. There are whole mountains lined with them down there, Douglas fir, Englemann spruce, the wind breaking in their crowns, each a palace of needles.[/private]

Anthony Doerr

About N/A N/A

Anthony Doerr is the author of four books, The Shell Collector, About Grace, Four Seasons in Rome, and, most recently, Memory Wall. His work has been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories and won numerous prizes, including four O. Henry Prizes, the National Magazine Award for Fiction, two Pushcart Prizes, the 2010 Story Prize, which is considered the most prestigious prize in the U.S. for a collection of short stories, and the 2011 Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award, the largest prize in the world for a single short story. In 2007, Doerr made Granta's list of 21 Best Young American novelists. He lives in Boise, Idaho with his wife and two sons.

One comment

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