I painted this as I sat at the top of the Cayucos Cemetery, looking down at this row of trees and on out to the Pacific Ocean. The paper is an odd size and shape, 6 by 12 inches, but I liked that it gave the painting a sense of movement as the railing you see running through the trees separates this property from Highway 1. Highway 1 in southern California is also called PCH, or Pacific Coast Highway. I’ve never heard it called PCH by the people who live in the Central Coast, but whatever it’s called, this little stretch of very busy road connects Morro Bay with the actual town of Cayucos. These trees are pretty big and cover part of a beautiful beach that my son and I frequented when he was little. I like to think that my mom and dad, who are buried high up on this hillside cemetery, face that narrow stretch of beach and ocean view.
This stately row of trees got me thinking about what this view looked like when the trees were first planted and much smaller. Then you could have really seen the beach and ocean, but of course then you could have really seen the cars whizzing by on Highway 1 as well. I think I’m OK with the trees blocking the view of the road, but I would be pretty sad if you couldn’t see the ocean.
When my dad died, a close family friend had a small tree planted (some kind of conifer that will do well in the damp Cayucos beach climate) in my dad’s memory. It’s on the left side of where I was sitting, about half way down the hill. For the longest time I wasn’t sure which tree it was, as the marker that was to go with it had not yet been fixed into the ground. But once I was shown the tree, I was really touched with such a thoughtful and fitting gift to mark a significant moment for our family, sad as it was. Trees do that for us. They can signify important events in our lives. Maybe it’s a kind of immortality as we hope that future generations of visitors, whether they are related to me or not, will come visit the tree and make sure that it is still thriving. And then of course the tree will grow bigger and become something we hope will stick around for a while. Besides, my dad loved trees. He and my mom were always planting them in the various houses we lived in growing up. So, when my brother sent me a recent picture of my dad’s last tree, with my brother standing beside it, I could see that it had already gotten taller. That was wonderful.
So, then I got to thinking of other times and other trees. Most that came to mind were planted right here in California. And it would be fitting to start with some trees my mom and dad planted in the corner yard of their house in Grass Valley when my son was a baby. I’m not really sure why they chose the three liquidambar saplings to commemorate his birth, as it is not really a common tree for that part of northern CA. My mom and dad were mad about sugar maples and had already planted several of them along with 6 or 8 pistachio trees. But the liquidambar were chosen and planted nonetheless. Somewhere in my photos is a wonderful picture I took of my mom and dad holding their first grandchild in front of the three 4 to 5 foot trees. By the time my son graduated from high school and we moved away, those trees had become giants in that corner of the yard. When my mom and dad first moved to that house in the mid 1980s I remember my mom saying that they wanted it to look like a park, and I must say they succeeded. By about 2008 or 9 the trees were so big and beautiful in their yard that there wasn’t much room for other plants that needed more sun. Oh well! But every fall, throughout the years, we watched the sugar maples, pistachio trees and liquid ambers turn stunning shades of yellow, gold, orange, red and pink. (Yes pink!) It was quite a site. And when the first big winds of fall began to blow, the leaves dropped to the ground like so much colorful confetti. It took days to rake that up—mostly because my son and I liked to play in the piles I tried to rake up. I haven’t been back to Grass Valley since my son graduated, so I am assuming the current owners of mom and dad’s house has left my mom and dad’s park alone. I guess I don’t want to find out if any trees have been cut down. I think it would make me feel too sad.
There’s another cool California tree story that took place around the corner and down the hill from my parent’s Grass Valley home. That story actually starts with the end of a giant sugar maple. It had been brought from Gettysburg as a sapling and planted in front of an old farmhouse (pre Civil War) on that street. It was huge and every fall it was covered with huge bright yellow leaves. I think it was 2010 or so that a big winter storm blew off one of the last great branches of the tree. So when it had to be taken down it made the headlines of the local newspaper. But the story doesn’t end there, of course. An old timer who lived in the house next door to the tree, said that a seedling from the Gettysburg tree had planted itself in his yard when he was a young boy. And he said he and his family watched that tree grow, much like the families who watched that first Gettysburg sugar maple. In fact, the old timer himself was something of a marker of time in Grass Valley as his ancestors had been some of the original Cornish tin miners who had come to the area to mine for gold just after the Civil War. He was born, raised, married, had children and died at age 93 in that house—so he saw the first tree in its mighty glory, all the while his family cared for the next generation tree right there in his yard. He was very proud of being part of that tree’s legacy. He was also very proud of his Cornish ancestry as well. Great tree and human story, huh?
That’s what trees do; they mark time and help us remember. I have a final California tree story and it takes place in SoCal. Several weekends ago I went on a house tour of 6 old homes on an historic street in Glendale. Two houses were built in the late 1920s and the other 4 were built in the early to mid 1930s. Each house had a unique story of who built it, it’s overarching style and some of the people who had lived in each house. And of course I was interested in all that, but I was also interested in the huge and majestic rows of palm trees that lined each side of the street. Out in the front yard of one of the houses on the tour were large poster size photos of this same area in the early 30s, when only these few houses had been built. Looking at one particular photo you could clearly see how small the palm trees were when they were first planted 80 years ago. That was really fun to see. Makes me think something like, if these trees could talk, or some other silly thing like that…
But I guess I do have a couple more short stories about trees, but neither take place in CA and for that matter, neither of them actually happened. First, if you would like to enjoy a large, but fictitious tree, in a mini-series, check out “Parade’s End.” The story was written by Ford Madox Ford and adapted into a screenplay by Tom Stoppard. In it there is a magnificent and huge tree that is actually an important character in the story, and it is called the Groby Tree. Check it out. Finally, I will share a picture book with you that a little student I saw yesterday shared with me. The title of the book is “Our Tree Named Steve,” by Alan Zweibel and illustrated by David Catrow. If any of what I have written about today resonates with you, you will love this story, and the illustrations are so clever and wonderful! If you don’t have a little friend to share this book with you, I hope it’s still in print and you can find it.
I miss you dad! (10/12/12) And thanks for you and mom for planting so many trees.