On Saturday, I climbed the avocado tree.
It's the biggest tree in the yard, much bigger than the forlorn, fungus-pale apple tree Matt and I
spent two days uprooting. There is something satisfying about good, old-fashioned labor that gets your
hands pink and puffy, your shoes caked with dark underground clay, your jeans dirty as hell. There is something
alluring about seeing your boyfriend swinging a pickaxe. There is the sweaty freedom to wear a tank top
in January, because this is California, the land where golden sunshine is patented and the cows wear sunglasses.
The backyard is like a mini-orchard. Six or seven fruit trees, none of them very large but all of them
gnarled and stooped: grey and pitted with age, but still fruit-bearing, fertile. We pick tangerines
sometimes, and they're sweeter than any you can get at the grocery store. Small and easy to peel, most of
them are still a bit too green to eat. But in a week or so they shall disappear into us. The avocado tree
is the exception to the small-and-stooped rule. It's majestic: branches go way higher than the roof and spread
out like a jungle canopy, blocking the sun that would perhaps allow the smaller trees to partake of the
fountain of photosynthesis.
Matt's father had retired the previous day, from Ford, where he'd done factory work for over 30 years. He's
sixty-one, I think, or sixty-two. He's going deaf but won't admit it, so you have to talk real loud and repeat
yourself a lot in conversations with him. He won't wear hearing aids; if you ask him, he can hear just fine.
It's just that everyone mumbles so damn much.
The guy keeps talking about how easy it would be to rip this old apple tree out of the ground with a
team of horses. We could tie a rope to the tree and the horses would have it uprooted within seconds.
We live in the suburbs, where horses are few and far between. Besides, there's that nice white fence
that Matt and his uncle and cousin put up while Matt was in high school. Ripping the tree out with a horse
or even Matt's old pickup would tear the fence up pretty bad. So we have to rely on hands and feet and trowels
and shovels. Etched onto some of the tools are the initials "L.E." This would be Matt's grandfather, who
passed away last year, a veteran who fought for country first and the freedom to breathe last. Matt's mom
writes her first name on everything; I see now that she probably picked up this need to personalize from her
father. She took care of both her parents until the end, and inherited their house: now the household consists
of Matt, his parents, me, and two cats.
Both my feet are in the hole now, which is about three feet deep. As we dig deeper the dirt gets darker
and denser and darker still. Matt says it's clay, the same kind you'd make adobe out of. I picture myself
building a little clay hut, and laugh quietly: that would be an interesting experience. I keep switching
tools: from shovel (to remove piles of loose dirt) to trowel (to break up the packed soil near the roots).
Matt hacks at the exposed roots with a mattock. He goes in to sharpen the blade and when he turns on the
grinding wheel, the outlet catches on fire. Nobody is hurt, but there is the lingering sense of strangeness
and danger that comes after a near-injury.
With the blade honed to a fine edge, the chopping of the roots goes much more quickly. Pieces of moist,
brittle, white wood fly about, looking like shredded chicken meat. The roots are rotting but still fairly
hard. I stay out of the way, mostly, when the chopping is going on. My job is to move in when Matt gets
tired and scoop away the loose dirt and wood chips he's stirred up, while he rests and steals sips of my
Near the end of the apple tree's stay in the backyard soil, the trunk gets easy to push on, to displace
from its position as a vector normal to the ground. I stand back as Matt and his father yank on a rope
they've tied to the trunk. I hear cracking as some of the remaining underground roots give way. It's not
enough, though: the two men change their technique to pushing and pulling on the trunk, their hands directly
against the graying bark. They push and pull and as they are doing this I realize I'm cold from standing
around for the past few minutes. Once you stop digging, a tank top in January is hardly adequate.
Inside the house I find a long sleeved black thermal and throw it on. Back outside, I decide to stay out
of the way: I climb the tree. The avocado tree has a few branches within my reach: nice thick ones I can get
my arms and legs around. I don't go very high: I just grab one of those low hanging branches and lift
myself into the first fork between branch and trunk. I sit there, perched between the limbs, looking up at
the vast network of green and brown and linear and lumpy fruit overhead and all around. I wonder about
ancestral humans who sat in trees, and about prosimians much more nimble than I.
I realize I'm probably the only 24 year old I know who'd even think of perching in a tree like a six year
old, like a chimp. My boyfriend's mom warns me, "Be careful up there!"
"What are you doing, Anne?"
she inquires, while breaking down cardboard boxes in the driveway for
"Getting in touch with my roots," I tell her. It's the first thing that comes to mind, and I'm only
She looks at me funny, then realizes what I mean. "Oh! Monkeys?" she laughs.
A terrific CRACK, the loudest of them all. Matt and his dad have succeeded in knocking over the
apple tree. Cut off from its support system of tangled ancient roots, it lies forlornly, sticking
out of the biggest hole I've ever helped dig.
I jump down out of the avocado tree, rejoining the human race.