See What Sticks

Fall is the time of year when most every place roars to life, a last gasp before a barren winter or an ecstatic yawn after a long, hot summer. Mundane suburban streets turn technicolor, ornamental trees doing their darndest to remind us they are part of a real ecosystem, however far away their home range may be. Even continents away, there is something about the length of days, the chilly nights, that reminds them it is time to dump the chlorophyll and turn their brilliant reds and yellows before the leaves all blow away.

I remember walking the streets of a big city built on the prairie, where there used to be few trees at all, remarking on all the sycamores and oaks that made the neighborhoods “feel like home,” to the westward-roaming colonizers. A hundred years ago, these streets looked like today’s new suburbs, spindly trees clawing their way skyward as a mix of Model T’s and horse and buggies coasted by. Today, we see the old houses and think they have a lot of character compared to modern styles. I wonder if they thought the same back then, or if it was just another New American City, stretching its lazy arms towards the Pacific, slowly irrigating a virgin grassland into a jungle of concrete and invasive species. 


I told my companion at the time, these trees are all from the east. We name streets after them, and after the Ivy League colleges, clinging to the familiar pattern as we settle unfamiliar terrain. They had never considered this before. There is something comforting about a tree-lined street, and something human about not considering that it hasn’t always been this way. In the end, the human is long gone and the trees are still standing. If I walked there today, it would be rose-colored, the same sidewalks, different circumstances. Something that once was and never will be again, perhaps a curious plot point, perhaps a tragic loss that altered life for the worse.

I can relate to the ornamental trees. A natural imperative to keep living until you can’t, not asking to be born, certainly not asking to be transplanted to an unfamiliar place and take root. Somewhere deep in its trunk, the sycamore tree must know the western air it respirates is not the air of home, must taste the rusty minerals in the irrigated water it drinks, must feel the weight of the sidewalks its roots slowly heave out of the way. 


The world we inhabit is quite good at sustaining life but not altogether good at encouraging aliveness. I think of the trout I used to chase, so often not the species that originally swam those waters, a strange artificial ecosystem planted for tourism’s sake. I remember the highland Nepenthes I once grew in terrariums in my bedroom, humidifying the air, chilling it at night, illuminating it in the day, creating an artificial pocket of the mountains of Sumatra in North Texas. They grew, colorful and lively, but there was always a limit. It’s considered a real rarity for captive Nepenthes to bloom or for stocked trout to reproduce. Still, we humans make a life out of trying to hold something wild, to relate to it on our terms, to feel connected to anything at all. 

I stare at the map and scroll craigslist and Zillow and AirBnB. Trying to solve the age-old question, where am I supposed to be? 


I have fond memories of a dozen different places, especially in the fall. Could fall in love with dozens more, especially on a foggy morning with a warm-tinted rainbow of leaves lining hilly roads. Unlike a tree, I am not limited by where my roots have tangled with sewage pipes and countless tons of soil. Unlike my ancestors, there is not some tiny town in Italy where all my cousins have centuries-old houses connected by walled gardens and there is an empty one waiting for me. There are simply a bunch of roads and rental properties sprawling across a continent built on the myth of possibilities. Nostalgia and daydreams swirl together and make the world feel both happier and also more impossible than it really is. This time of year, some vestigial bit of my own animal biology embraces the upcoming and inevitable hibernation. The shorter days, the changing leaves, the seasonal hyperphagia. We shift from the endless pressure to make the most of every day outside to a collective sense that these cozy mornings were made for extra coffee and creative pursuits. I see a photo on my news app of a small town in Maine, the latest location of a mass shooting, cloaked in deciduous autumnal perfection, and think, “I could be happy there. That looks like a great place to write a book and get away from it all.” What is wrong with me?

Everyone has an opinion about where the next best place is, what someone who isn’t them should do with their life, how obvious the answer is when it doesn’t affect them at all. What home should look and feel like, which values are worth compromising on. 


In a way, we are all just gambling with our time and energy. Making guesses about what will work, planting a dozen different seedlings and figuring at least a few of them will survive the winters and harsh summers here, in our new homes. It is something I am trying to be more intentional about, and it is so hard to be intentional when time passes relentlessly and there are bills to pay and wrinkles forming and a natural need for comfort and delusion. The goal of art is to distill pain and joy into singular works that allow a person to feel camaraderie in their uniqueness, to learn from the experiences of others without having to spend their entire lives making the same mistakes, or, more commonly these days, to simply escape the overwhelming experience of existing. We build our society on the graves of those who tried and failed, we grow our gardens in the loam of centuries of plants that didn’t make it and fertilize them with the pulverized bones of cattle we overcooked on the grill. 


As we transfer our struggles from one form to the other, we find ourselves more comfortable but also more confused. Like an eastern tree growing on a manicured street named after it somewhere out west, all of our needs are met, but there is the vague sense that the birds in our branches aren’t quite right. We only get one life, though. It is so risky to question everything when we may miss out on a chance to have fun before we get cut down. There is a fine line between radical acceptance of what is and brave skepticism about all that isn’t. I know that I have learned a lot from each step along the way, but the accumulation of steps has left my knees creaky and my eyes crossed. So many people latch onto things when they are still young and beautiful, naive but easy to hold. The more you know, the less you need… and the less appealing you become. Desire begets desire, religions teach us that desire is foolish, that wanting is suffering. One of our species’ main survival mechanisms is learned selflessness, believing our suffering is worth it because it will benefit someone else, or ourselves in a hazy afterlife. It is noble, but it is also messy. We have a never-ending corn maze of virtues and vices, judgments on everything that leave us unsure of who or how to be. What if all we want is to be happy and to belong? To feel our seed pods carried by birds displaced by light pollution and climate change, back to the place our ancestors grew, to have some tiny piece of us take root and flourish in a place that’s a good fit.