John and I have no common ancestral roots: My people were mountain folk, his, plains. While we’re not strangers—we met once a few years ago in Tijuana, reporting on a story about migrants at the border—the truth is, we hardly know each other. Still, the understory facts don’t change my hypothesis here: John and I are two different species of tree, each with our own wind-blown coordinates, whose letter-writing correspondence during a record-breaking fire season made connection possible via invisible, maybe underground or aerial, lines too.
Trees are social creatures. They whisper in the wind, bellow in silent snowscapes, smile in summer’s stretched rays. Every year, researchers uncover more evidence showing that these rooted beings communicate with and look after one another. The forest ecosystem is a community connected through the soil; its trees share not only resources like water, nutrients, but vital conversation, too. Underground mycorrhizal networks made up of fine fungal filaments are the telegraph wires, transporting all the physical and meaningful essentials trees need to thrive. Leading ecologists and botanists contend that all trees in a forest are linked, even those not closely related.
We communicated first by email but our network, fungal or otherwise, began to thrive with luddite tools: pen to paper that was folded neatly into stamped envelopes and dropped off in postboxes or directly into the hands of U.S. postal workers who carried my messy handwriting and his more legible print across state lines. Months passed. Spring turned into summer, then fall, and the letters increased in length and frequency.
He knows about trees and shared his knowledge with me. But evolution and ever-changing environments make all teachers obsolete eventually. I no longer depend on him for information—not since the correspondence evolved into something so wild and indefinite that we both lost sight of it. Not since the close of fire season, when the Santa Ana winds blew through and swept up a terrifying silence that signified an anticlimactic conclusion with no end. “Let be be finale of seem,” Wallace Stevens commands in his poem “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” but words left unanswered just disperse like fallen ash, lodging into the soil, and are immortalized on that piece of paper. So, it can’t really end not even with an extinguished flame, not even with silence.
He was a wildland firefighter during the summer of 2020, where forest fires ripped through his days and inexplicably mine, many miles away. For me, it was a year signified by the company of the ocean, trees, and mountains. Within this solitude, however, a wild and raw energy that lay dormant awoke in a panic. My pen filled with ink after having been dry for several years. I wrote to him without abandon. No story or rumination was spared. That year was also quarantined and protested—a year of starkly divided Americans on the brink of a civil war. We humans were cruel to each other, shaming one another out of fear or an overwhelming desire to be proven right. In the uncertainty and chaos, hypocrisy and gaslighting won the day. It’s impossible to speculate on how trees reacted to all of our transgressions and violence, but it’s hard to believe that lightning strikes, high-voltage powerlines, and abnormally dry heat were the only triggers causing California’s worst wildfire season to date.
Social upheaval was just background noise to our correspondence. Words so green transported us back to adolescence, to pre-teens discovering poetry for the first time. And then the words turned into visions, he said, that followed him for days. Those phrases and twists of words began to follow me everywhere, casting long shadows in the afternoons as I hopped from one patch of sunlight to the next trying to make every inch of daylight last, just a little longer. “I worry both about the dream we seem to be sharing continuing and the dream ending. It feels precarious,” he wrote one day. “All planes land.” My leaves contained more chlorophyll: “But maybe we’re just refueling,” I suggested. He didn’t respond to that.
On Paper: The Strangler Fig
There’s something peculiar about the texture of light in South Florida, the way it slants through impenetrable, dense humidity. It’s at once dreamlike and factual; soft, suggestive haze alongside detailed brightness. In March, at the beginning of COVID-19 lockdown last year, I found myself stuck seaside in a sleepy beach town between Fort Lauderdale and Miami. Trapped indoors, I studied the ocean waves from my balcony and the way the sun rays emptied into my bedroom at dawn, in chunks and slivers.
I suggested to John that we become pen-pals that spring, and our paper correspondence began shortly thereafter. Both writers, we were friends with similar interests. Maybe I sensed that our places in the pandemic needed to be documented. Or it was a survival mechanism. I wanted to continue budding but didn’t know how to engage with the world while overlooking an out-of-reach tropical paradise. All flourishing is mutual, Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in her book Braiding Sweetgrass. She is talking about the mysterious ability of pecan trees—near and far from one another—to all mast or produce nuts in the same year. Trees have a capacity for concerted action. How they synchronize is still elusive to scientists but unity helps trees produce fruit that nourishes but overwhelms ground-feeding animals, ensuring that some nuts eventually sprout. This reciprocity leads to reproductive success for each distinct tree, for the group of trees, and longevity for the larger forest community.
The beginnings of things never need a reason; they just happen. He enthusiastically agreed that a correspondence was a good idea: “Let’s be pen-pals. Really, we should write letters. I can guess you’re a fan of letters.” And just like that, he became my creative ally and the only person I really confided in over the ensuing months of lockdown and quarantine.
I waxed poetic about the unseen communion between me and the tempestuous Atlantic. He shared his anticipation for a bold, new adventure and later, the exhaustion that ensued from such a punishing occupation. Our vastly different landscapes—the moody waters viewed from my urban high-rise and the simmering, glowing embers of his mass-scale campfire as seen from a mountaintop (his words)—started to parallel each other. Synchronicity, I rationalized. He humored my magical thinking.
He was starting a job as a hotshot in an elite firefighting crew known for their grueling schedules and ability to fight the hottest and most remote wildfires. Traveling across the country from the Midwest, where he lived, to northern California made him want to cause “ruptures”: “Is it a male thing?” he asked. “No,” I said, without fully understanding what he meant, “I want to make ruptures too.” The gender of things became a major theme. The ocean was definitely female; forest fires were among the Boys of Summer (how he affectionately referred to his crew mates), he decided. Not knowing much about wildfires, I did not argue. Trees I thought, were male. Everything around me felt male, all except the goddess mother ocean. “On second thought, maybe a forest fire is genderless,” he wrote a few months later. “It’s not a thing but an event causing both destruction and then creation.” But he wasn’t convinced of that theory either. I eventually changed my opinion about trees, too.
That South Florida light, as seen through curtains and blinds, is hypnotic. But exploring the diverse flora and fauna outdoors was to stumble into a newly discovered planet. “Don’t hesitate to send me tree pictures,” he wrote. So, I sent photos and questions via email, text, and paper. He would receive them while on fires in the Great Basin states of Utah and Nevada, before California ignited later in the summer. I got lost in tropical hardwood forest labyrinths where nature trails meandered under canopies of countless species of trees including persimmon, red mulberry, and wild coffee. I became obsessed with the lush, pulsating alleyways. He encouraged the interest: “There is nowhere in the U.S. with anywhere close to the freaking diversity of South Florida. It’s such a delicious place. That one looks like a live oak, but it’s hard to say for certain.”
He explained that the red peely bark belonged to gumbo limbo trees, and that the ancient mangroves—coastal vegetation that grows in salt and brackish water—were unique to only two U.S. states: Florida and Louisiana. “Punktrees are also really cool, but highly invasive and fucking up the Everglades. They’re like 90% water. You might confuse them with gumbo limbo because it also has strippy bark.”
The beginnings of things never need a reason; they just happen.
We continued to email and send letters and exchanged likes and comments on social media. There was simply more to say than one medium could keep up with. It was dizzying, he said, to get scenes from my life out of chronological order, but what a beautiful structure. My hurricanes and his forest fires: They unfolded into a non-linear drama.
Hurricane Isaias in early August 2020 left me bereft. The uncertainty before the storm grazed the Atlantic coast swelled my irrational expectations for a healing, cleansing event. As the violent winds picked-up momentum, I wrote to him about the violet and yellow skies and portentous energy in the air. I was hoping for a great equalizer that could wash away some of the damage that politics had caused to the social fabric holding our species together. “Every fire is an opportunity for grasses and flowers,” he wrote. “Every storm is an opportunity for deep taproots. Creation and destruction, as far as I can tell, are animal designs. In the reality of nature, all changes are both of those things at once. Does that make sense?” It did. But the next day all I got was murky brown water, as if someone turned down the volume and shut off the color on the television set. Nothing changed. “That’s what I feel in the fires. The job of stopping them feels animal and small. There doesn’t seem to be a reason beyond ‘energy infrastructure threatened.’ I’m not here to fight for people. They don’t seem worth fighting for. I’m here for the forests, and it doesn’t seem, in some but not all circumstances, that I’m on its side. Fires are often ecological cleansers.”
For weeks, I couldn’t muster the courage needed to book a flight back home. I was scared of COVID and didn’t want to leave the ocean or my strangler figs behind. He consoled the indecision: “I always overstay my welcome slightly. That way I know it was right to leave… it makes the pain a little easier to suffer. Then again: all poems end. All poems end too soon. You have hurt and changed and grown and written beautifully. What is there left for a writer to do? Tell me how you’re feeling.”
Dead sea creatures washed ashore. A newly-hatched sea turtle and a monitor cousin to the Komodo Dragon, dead but menacing still. If I was waiting for a sign that I had overstayed my welcome, this was probably it. “I need a tourniquet to stop the bleeding of time,” I wrote.
I made it back home, to Los Angeles, in late August. A letter was waiting for me in my bedroom and I devoured it immediately—just in time for fire season to stop kidding around. The heat scorched upward toward record-breaking soon after my return. One hundred ten degrees on my birthday, 104 on his just a few days earlier. The air quality: unbearably thick causing scaly dry skin and bloody noses; the sky: orange haze; the sun: an apocalyptic muted red-pink you could look at directly; my beat-up car: covered in ash. I walked around aimlessly in the surreal smog like a zombie looking for signs of life. Everyone else was hiding indoors, where it was safe to breathe. I didn’t hear from him for days, weeks. But he was everywhere. I thought of his wellbeing with every obscure sunset. I wrote him repeatedly. I asked dumb questions: How are you doing? Please send proof of life. I worried like a woman whose husband or son was sent off to war. I worried like he was my kin, my lover, someone much more than a pen-pal I’d met only once in real life. He was mostly silent because he had no cell service.
I drove up into the San Gabriel Mountains to catch a glimpse of the Bobcat fire that was ravaging Angeles National Forest. I thought maybe I could see what he’s fighting up on another fire in the Plumas National Forest in the Sierra Nevada. As a disaster tourist I was denied entry and saw nothing but silhouettes of mountains through thick haze. Maybe all forest fires look the same. It could have been the lack of oxygen or the wistful, end-of-days atmosphere, but everything intensified. After an earthquake rattled me awake one night, I began looking up at the sky, expecting to see it fall and crush me with grey buoyancy. All scenarios were within the realm of possibility. I dreamt in muted orange and he was a recurring visitor. More and more, it was there that we communicated.
He wrote back when he could. “You were in my dream last night. I always think it’s unfair to dream of someone. It makes them responsible in your subconscious for things they haven’t done. Then you have to separate the dream person from the real person, which is a difficult untangling when it’s a long and episodic dream.” I told him I didn’t mind. He could hold me accountable for whatever I had done: “Run with the dream version of me, maybe that’s an interesting person that I’d like to get to know better. Tell me more about her.” I apologized for writing so much. The uncontrollable urge to share was selfish, I thought. And I didn’t really have a right to worry about him as I did: “I think it’s more unfair to worry about someone than it is to dream about them. Worrying puts weight on said person, the person who is being worried about, not the worrier. In your case, this is unnecessary weight to an already very stressful existence.”
For the selfishness, I asked forgiveness. If trees are truly social then maybe they are cruel now and then. All social interaction has the power to hurt. We inflict pain or complicate each other’s lives in small or large ways, willfully at times, but we hope and convince ourselves that it’s the intention that counts. Trees can be competitive; they want from the air, the soil, from each other. Photosynthesis requires carbon dioxide and sunlight. Even the most generous tree is looking to increase its output. “It’s actually comforting for you to call this exchange a selfish act because that means that even at worst, we can both simply take from each other and be better for it, even if waking from the dream is painful.”
“It’s actually comforting for you to call this exchange a selfish act because that means that even at worst, we can both simply take from each other and be better for it, even if waking from the dream is painful.”
In Dreams: The Red Maple
After the orange haze came the sugary red of autumn. I received the next letter in Michigan while visiting family in late September. I read it in my childhood bedroom, among all my old things: the stuff that influenced me to branch out in one direction instead of another. “I forgot we live in a world that has fall,” I wrote back.
October is a fine time to be in Michigan. Everything, everyone was putting on a show in that familiar stirring of seasonal change: the mushrooms sprouting up through wet soil, the leaves changing hues by the hour, people pulling out their wool sweaters from storage. During walks in the woods at dusk, I could hear life rustling and whimpering, preparing for the cold months ahead. Every bird chirp and owl hoot were obvious enough but after months of staring at the ocean, I acquired a keener aural sensitivity. I could now hear a single leaf fall and silent deer stare me down, camouflaged among their tall, wooden protectors. I lost count of how many deer I saw. It was hunting season. I figured a doe was probably my spirit animal. Not the smartest of creatures but elegant and graceful. I was content with that. I studied the swift movements of squirrels. Fascinating, hurried creatures that I never paid attention to before. I wondered why.
I always miss peak foliage. I wait for it every year but it passes me by while I busy myself with anticipation for the leaves to become just a little more vibrant before falling. I was starting to worry, fearful that the correspondence was spiraling into something I could not understand. The thin line between paper, dreams, and space was blurring. Did we pass our exit on the highway while staring out the window? Would there be another one up ahead? He was right; the end—of fire season, the letters—would injure like debris flow down a mountain after the hard rains that follow disastrous forest fires. “I’ll have a hard time putting it there myself, but maybe it’s better to lay a rock on the tombstone of our correspondence,” he suggested. To lay rocks on a loved one’s grave is a Jewish tradition. A way to show that the living still cares, a transfer of energy from this world to that one. “Don’t you dare lay any rocks on the tombstone of our correspondence! There is no tombstone. I’m not dead yet and don’t feel very much like being buried alive. Don’t we have enough trouble breathing in the smoke as is?”
Sure enough, I missed the peak. I thought I might have caught it, when I looked up one day in mid-October and everything was golden. But I refused to admit what was clear in this new light, and ignored what was ending. The next day it started to rain. I blinked. Leaves were on the ground. (Except that one tree in my parent’s backyard. “He’s just starting to turn red. I’ll have to send you a picture because I don’t know what kind of tree he is.”) If I had acknowledged it, I could have enjoyed the moment. And in that moment, I could have tasted a bit of freedom.
“By the way, what’s your spirit animal?” I asked. “A squirrel,” he replied without hesitation, “graceless but agile and full of life.”
The U.S. Forest Service has identified the red maple, Acer rubrum, as the most prevalent native tree in eastern North America. Highly adaptable and with minimal needs, it grows fast and can produce roots to suit its location from a young age. The red maple thrives in communities with people. In a mature forest, it rarely governs but adds to the diversity. The maximum lifespan can be 150 years, but most live less than 100 because their thin bark is easily damaged by ice, wind storms, and animals. My dad guessed that our tree was 40 years old. “Hard to believe a tree could get that big in 40 years,” John said, “but I don’t believe red maples live very long, so maybe he’s right. I’d guess more like 70.”
Are all red maples sugar maples, I asked? “All sugar maples turn an orange-red color in fall, but the common name “red maple” is a distinct species. So in that light, no red maples are sugar maples. Your red maple would not produce syrup as sweet as a sugar maple’s would.” I promised to send photos of the maple’s demise into winter slumber. He didn’t ask for the photos, but that uncontrollable urge to share everything continued. “I never thought you’d be sending me pictures of Midwest falls while I’m out in California. I love seeing them, but they make me sad. I don’t feel homesick for my city, I feel homesick for my native flora. It’s strange.” In my next letter I stuffed a few of the most brilliant maple leaves in the envelope. I hoped they would comfort his unsettled exhaustion. I wondered if they cracked in transit leaving nothing but flakes and pigment that smudged the print of my letter.
At night, I laid under the maple, monitoring phases of the moon. He slept outside on a mountain most nights, staring up at all the golden lights of a remote night sky. One night, in a clearing of adolescent pines he woke up at 12:30 am: “The sky that whole week, with a new moon, was one of the clearest and most beautiful skies we’ve seen, the Milky Way clear as a stain. I watched it, dipping occasionally into the third world, until 6 am. I learned much of the sky that night. Some strange nights.” Other nights in bed, I heard whispers, sometimes a faint heartbeat nearby. I looked forward to falling asleep because the dialogue continued there. “I wish people could link up in dreams, like a multiplayer video game.”
On Halloween, a bright full moon—a hunter’s moon, a blue moon—shown through the nearly naked branches of my maple. The leaves on the ground were now as thick and colorful as a Persian rug. “I’m jealous. You have the better foliage but I have the better stars. I would trade.” I agreed to that deal. And I think we might have managed to switch places once or twice.
Through Space: Fallen Trees, Fused Trees, and Wally Waldron
Back in California, November was accompanied by a dramatically different pace of communication. Before, we’d photograph our handwritten letters on our phones and email or text the images to each other because our coordinates were unreliable; waiting weeks to receive word was out of the question. There was less urgency now but I still had plenty to share. I missed the chatter.
The weather changed. Snow began to dust mountain tops and put out the flames. I might have clung to fire season more than he did because I knew that the change of scenery would amount to an immeasurable loss; but I wasn’t sure what exactly was at stake. We had started our initial descent. My dreams became harder to remember in the mornings.
I passed the time by climbing peaks. By walking miles through Southern California’s forested wilderness, I found a new quiet dialogue among fallen trees, ancient trees, and intertwining trees connected in some strange way that defied gravity and what rules of nature I could comprehend. I asked the trees questions; they seemed to be the only living creatures willing to pay attention. Remarkably, they responded. I felt small listening to them, sitting on their thick outstretched branches. Each in their grandeur, they had something different to say. That little pine tree, all spunky at just two feet tall: “I’m alive! Isn’t this all magnificent?!”
“The present of our life looks different under trees,” Annie Dillard writes in A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. She reasons that trees have dominion over humans; trees are tough, they will not be blown, and “they last, taproot and bark, and we soften at their feet.” Their experiential knowledge shot up towards the sky from their hidden histories underground. I began to trust their hushed, enduring counsel more than my fleeting dreams.
Parts of the Angeles Crest Highway winding through the San Gabriel Mountains were closed off due to fire damage. The Bobcat fire wreaked havoc on my favorite trails and campgrounds, but there were so many others to explore. I hit a road block on a sunny, windy day and pulled over at a desolate turnout to investigate. I found an unmarked trail and about a mile up through switchbacks, my eyes landed on an enormous fallen tree. She had a gaping, burnt wound in her trunk that sparkled black in the sun. She lay in the middle of the mountain slope surrounded by space. As if all the other trees scattered away, terrified of the grace and beauty in her fall. “It looks like a lightning strike, that,” he wrote. “The heartwood of most trees decays faster than the sapwood, which would account for the non-lightning-struck sapwood to be the only thing left.”
She was the most elegant fallen tree I had ever seen. Her insides were gashed open and she responded to the pain by letting all her vulnerability flare up and then pour out, creating space in herself for lightness and whatever comes next. She posed for a photo shoot. I think she loved the attention. She’s still there, lying horizontal instead of upright. She still plays a vital role in her forest network. What’s left of her body provides shelter for animals. And as dead wood decomposes it aids new plants by returning nutrients. Renowned biologist Suzanne Simard explains that even in dying, a falling tree can pass signals and energy to his living neighbors so that the community can stay whole. “Death is life in the forest. A transformation of energy from one creature to the other.” If trees are sending signals and speaking to one another, they need the logs and snags to keep everything connected. Even in falling and burning, there is still life salvaged, necessary, and useful.
If trees are sending signals and speaking to one another, they need the logs and snags to keep everything connected. Even in falling and burning, there is still life salvaged, necessary, and useful.
Limber pines (Pinus flexilis) are named for the flexibility of their branches which can literally be tied in a knot. This agile characteristic helps them withstand high winds and heavy snowfall. They grow slow and thrive in high and dry elevations where few other trees can survive. In the west, limber pines tend to grow on rocky terrain and their root systems follow the pattern of rock fractures. Wally’s roots have contorted to the shape of hard rock—that’s how he stands his ground.
I lean against his trunk, his roots and branches hugging me, and scope out the view he’s had for the past 1,500 years. He wasn’t completely alone; there were other thick, grizzled older trees to keep him company. But he was the only one to hang so effortlessly on that ridgeline. I shared a photo of Wally on social media: “The gripping power of roots always amazes me,” John commented. “It never seems to make sense.”
On my way to Ontario peak in the Cucamonga Wilderness in San Bernardino National Forest, I found two examples of trees supporting each other. Just above a babbling stream in Icehouse Canyon, a manzanita hanging off the slope wrapped his roots around a level Jeffrey pine right above him. The pine helped stabilize the manzanita, which was growing sideways, toward the sunlight on the other side of the canyon from where other manzanitas were calling out. Two different species ended up conjoined, their roots entangled. Was it a decision they made together, after weighing their options? Or did chance geography and the need for mutual nourishment force them to morph together?
Out of the canyon and higher up on the ridgeline I found a more loving embrace. A fallen tree had perfectly landed in the gap of a nearby trunk forked into two at 7 or 8 feet above ground. The living tree had caught the other and now supports him. I imagined the conversation that led to this moment: “Dude, I’m going soon. I can feel it.” The forked tree: “Fall on me. I will catch you. You’ll go with dignity.” The dying tree: “Yeah, that’s how it should end. Thank you.” The fallen tree broke off from his roots and fell into his friend’s arms and now he floats high above the trail without obstructing any species’ path. He’s dead, but nowhere near the ground.
Fire season 2020 ended abruptly. And suddenly we’re well into this year’s season which is expected to be hotter and longer than all those that came before. No longer a hotshot, John now lives with his long-time partner far from California. “Got your letter and your email,” he wrote in late November of last year. “I loved them both. Sorry I haven’t written back yet, end of fire season and moving has been busy, but I will.”
Did we live so fully in the present that the correspondence burned itself out? Did the poem end too soon? Self-consciousness hinders the experience of the present, Dillard says. “The second you become aware of yourself in any activity, the tree vanishes, uprooted from the spot and flung out of sight as if it had never grown. And time, which had flowed down into the tree bearing new revelations like floating leaves at every moment, ceases. It dams, stills, stagnates.”
After weeks, a month, of stalking the mailman, I received a letter. I didn’t open it. Instead, I immediately tucked it away in my closet where its thin demeanor yet heavy weight couldn’t tempt me. I started to remember incomplete, scattered dreams again.
“Trees stir memories, live water heals them,” Dillard also says. I could go to the Pacific Ocean, read the letter, and let this story conclude. The waves could carry the words out to sea, dissolving the correspondence beyond fantasy and reality yet again and plant them elsewhere for another tree to sprout. Or we stay as ghosts, always hearing whispers in the night; at that moment of falling, all that was forgotten comes back. We catch up. It is an evergreen dream, for no time to pass as we continue to grow upwards, branching out in every direction nonetheless.
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