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Give Me One Tree

posted: 10.4.13 by archived

Usually I start with semester with a short writing assignment so that students can get to know a little bit about each other and get familiar with blogging and so that I can have a chance to talk about specific detail and get a sense of their writing abilities. My students are writing about place this semester (domestic, commercial, and civic spaces), so I started by asking them to write a short description of the place where they live, following the guidelines of this invitation by Orion magazine.

I showed them some student samples from a previous semester and a couple of professional samples that fit the 350-word maximum: the beginning of Joan Didion’s “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” and a bit from Joyce Maynard’s Looking Back, which described her (and my) hometown of Durham, New Hampshire.

I acknowledged how hard the task is to capture a place in so few words. I asked them to imagine they had six photographs to capture the essence of their town or city, their street or neighborhood. What would those images be? I asked them to give them me those images in words. And they gave me changeable weather, sandy beaches, and colorful trees.

Oh, not all of them. I did get some fine descriptive writing, but too many generic descriptions that could apply to most anyplace. All trees are colorful, I said.

Thinking about this as I drove to school the other day, I catalogued some of the trees I have known. I thought of the exotic magnolia and mimosas down the street from my house whose flowering I look forward to each summer. I thought of the blue spruce planted by my grandfather in our backyard when I was a year or two old, never cut for the Christmas tree it was intended to be because my parents sold the house just after my ninth birthday; in an odd twist of fate, that house was turned into a funeral home, and I saw the tree some forty years later when my father died and was cremated at the house he had built. I thought of this black walnut tree that we had allowed to grow near our vegetable garden and which this year, twenty five years later, has produced its first crop of nuts. It brings me back my father’s voice, talking of the long patience required to grow nut trees but also (in his inimitable fashion, with a mild profanity thrown in) chiding me for not chopping it down when I had the chance (alongside a vegetable garden being no place for a black walnut tree).

When my daughter was four or five, with prompting from her father, my daughter named the trees she loved on our property:  the red oak Sky and big pine tree ABC (companions on the slope behind the apple trees) and PondSwamp ,the massive pine whose roots stretch (as its name indicates) from pond on one side to swamp on the other. She painted those trees years later for her senior art show.

Next semester I will ask my students to describe their tree, to name it and tell its story.

Categories: Holly Pappas
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