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Harry and the Tree

Harry Westrum lived in a hilly part of southwestern Connecticut, an area converted in the last generation or two from woodland and farms to suburban housing for people who, like Harry, worked in New York City. The area had not been completely built up; the rolling of the land had induced the developers to soften the right angles of their streets and make them curve around expensive obstructions. And so Harry's back yard bordered not some other back yard, but a rolling, gullied, vacant field called ‘Rigman's Lot’ in obscure local tradition. Once, maybe, it had been a farm or pasture; now, it was only a place the developers had passed by for the time being, sloping, stony, deeply eroded.

Between Rigman's Lot and Harry's back yard ran one of the deeper gullies, and in wet weather a muddy stream ran along it, cutting it deeper still. Most of Harry's neighbors encouraged bushes and trees to oppose the erosion, if not planting them at least allowing what had appeared on its own to stand. Some of them installed fences or imitation railroad ties, sharply demarcating their yards from the gully and its random growth. Harry's yard, however, had no such fence. Instead, the lawn, fairly orthodox near the house, gradually became more disorderly and finally was given up to the native weeds twenty or thirty feet from the gully. Here a certain exchange took place; the growth sent forth pheasants and raccoons from time to time, and Harry's boys and dogs carried or threw a variety of objects into the foliage, where they joined the brambles and leaves and the odd, inexplicable things which vacant land invariably collects. Rigman's Lot was dotted here and there with ancient car wheels, pieces of plastic toys, a roll of rusty fencing, and other objects whose origins and purpose were long forgotten.

Once, Harry was supposed to buy or build a fence to keep boys and dogs from wandering into the dangers of Rigman's Lot, but the boys were soon too large to be stopped by fences, and the dogs had grown old and slow. Now, Harry's way of dealing with the yard was to preserve the status quo, a kind of unspoken truce. An occasional Christmas tree, bought whole and live, was planted and took root; the lawn was mowed, but not rolled or fertilized; the patio swept, and the potential fence alluded to in a distant way. Boys and dogs had their way with the yard and went on to other things. Harry and his wife, Mary, tried gardening from time to tine, but the developers had given the ground harsh treatment and the few plants which would grow at all were sullen and ill disposed to yield either flower or fruit.

So it was a surprise for Harry to notice, early one March, an odd pine tree growing up near two huge chestnut trees which stood on the far boundary of Harry's yard. Harry studied the pine for awhile and approved. He like the crooked individualism of pines, and there were few of them in the neighborhood. The tree was about five feet high when Harry noticed it; it must have been growing, out among the weeds, for several years, unobserved by anyone. It was a spare, minimal tree, in accordance with the lack of light and the hardness of the soil.

As spring proceeded, Harry began to worry about the tree. There was no new growth on it, although the weather became warm and everything else sprang into new life. In fact, one of the branches Harry thought was alive seemed to have died.

By the time it was May the tree had made no progress, either toward growth or death. There were just two living branches with green pine-needles waving in the wind. Harry thought he saw some sign of budding at the tips of the branches. Meanwhile the greater trees behind it had burst forth in brutal vigor and had already formed a dark green canopy over the pine.

Harry studied the canopy and decided to open it by removing some of the branches of the large trees. He got a pruning saw and a ladder out of the garage and, climbing up in the big trees, rapidly sawed off large branches, almost trees in themselves, which crashed noisily down. He descended from the ladder and looked up. The canopy was still there, although now a little light leaked through it. Harry imagined that the sun flickered on the needles of the small tree. Then he sawed up the branches into pieces and threw the debris into the gully, where he supposed it would slow the erosion somehow.

As the summer heat increased and the dry days of July came on, Harry took to bringing water to the tree in pails. But the tree did not improve; if anything, it looked weaker. It was almost as if the tree had waited to see Harry before giving up on life; as if Harry had received, or was receiving something from it, and the tree's purpose in the world was coming to an end.

Harry talked to his wife about the tree from time to time, and this led to conflict because Mary became convinced that the tree would become a nest for harmful insects. Harry argued that no such thing could possibly happen. ‘Why don't you ask your brother about it?’ countered his wife.

Harry's younger brother David had studied forestry in college and had become, for awhile, a forester, working for a large paper company in Maine. After a few years, he had decided forestry was a bit slow, and had moved into management. Now he was a Senior Vice President at the company's headquarters in New York, but he was still considered by his relatives to be an expert on anything to do with wildlife, as well as anything to do with management, which Harry was not, being an engineer.

Harry did not see how he could ask his brother to come all the way out to Connecticut just to look at a small, sickly tree. ‘Sure’, said Harry, ‘when he comes out here next, we can ask him about it.’

‘I meant you could call him up.’

‘He's got to look at it,’ said Harry. ‘He can't tell about it from anything I say. What do I know about trees?’

‘You don't have to be jealous of your brother,’ said Mary.

‘I'm not jealous of my brother,’ said Harry. ‘It's not jealousy to say that he has more important things to do than come all the way out here to look at a tree.’

But as it happened Harry's brother appeared only a few weeks later. Their parents had died several years before, and the estate included some complex fractional holdings of wilderness in Maine which might or might not be worth a lot of money someday to somebody, although it was not worth any money to anyone right now. David was handling the business, but it was necessary for Harry to see and sign certain papers from time to time, after which he received a copy. Harry supposed it might be worth something to the boys someday. He had had a lawyer look at David's work on the estate and the lawyer told him that the work was conscientious, impeccable, and even imaginative. Therefore all Harry needed to do was sign papers as they came along, and David was always willing to drive over from his house for that purpose, although it was an hour and a half or so.

So as it happened David called, and came, and was asked if he would look at the tree. Always gracious, he walked to the back yard and took out a rather elegant folding knife, opened it, and poked at the tree. Flakes of bark fell off it, exposing yellow, thready wood beneath it.

‘Um, western white pine,’ said David. ‘Hard to find around here. Not really the sort of place it grows well.’ He looked around. ‘I wonder where it came from — you didn't plant it, of course?’ He looked back at the tree, studiously. ‘Well,’ he finally said, ‘I'd get rid of it.’ He dismissed the subject, closing the knife and walking back to the house in a single gesture.

‘But it's still alive,’ said Harry, walking after him.

‘Sure, Harry,’ said David, ‘if you want to let it go, let it go. Maybe it'll start growing again.’

‘But what about bugs?’ asked Mary. ‘Couldn't a lot of bugs make nests in a tree like that, and then get on the other trees and into the house?’

‘I didn't see any bugs,’ interjected Harry.

‘You could get bugs,’ said David. ‘But I didn't see any bugs just now. If you got any bugs you'd want to get rid of it right away.’

David had Harry sign some papers and drove away. When he had gone, Mary asked Harry if he would get rid of the tree. ‘It's a poor tree and it will probably get bugs,’ she said. ‘I want it out of the yard.’

‘I thought we were supposed to help the poor,’ said Harry. ‘That's what they taught me in Sunday School.’

‘You know that means people, not trees,’ exclaimed Mary in exasperation. But she was used to this sort of opinion. It was, she thought, a kind of game, and she didn't particularly want to play it.

‘Maybe if people didn't treat poor trees badly, they wouldn't treat poor people badly,’ persisted Harry. But his wife was no longer interested; she collected the breakfast dishes and began putting them in the sink.

Harry decided it would be better not to press the subject. Instead, he took to bringing water to the tree on the sly, and saying nothing about its progress or, rather, lack of it, to Mary. Yard work was his province, and if, like the fence, the tree wasn't mentioned, it might recede from interest. The tree neither grew nor died. As the weather began to turn cool in September, Harry began visiting it less often, partly because he theorized the more moderate temperatures would be easier on the tree, and partly because its static nature bored and frustrated him. After awhile, he felt as if he had put it away for the winter; pines were supposed to like the winter.

But then on a cloudy day late in November Harry remembered the tree and went out to look at it. Although there were still a few green tinged needles on one branch, the tree seemed awry. Experimentally, Harry pushed against it. The tree fell over, and a dusty cloud fluffed upward. Its small dead gray branches broke randomly. The dry leaves rustled and were still. Shocked, Harry stepped back.

Then he looked up, over Rigman's Lot. The wintry clouds streamed overhead in the November wind. The air was cold. He saw suddenly that there were many trees, thousands of trees, four and five and six feet tall, out over the vacant land. They were growing up on Rigman's Lot where the development was supposed to come, thousands of small, scruffy trees, because no one mowed or farmed there any more.

To Harry they were like an army, marching resolutely westward, and as he looked at them he could see them sweeping forward, rank on rank, annihilating everything in their path, everything made or placed or shaped by the hand of man, until they stood, silent and victorious, looking out over limitless ocean.

And then he lifted his eyes a little, and behind the trees, as yet far, far off, he saw the thin brilliant line of the advancing fire that followed them, implacable, all-consuming, eternal.

He bowed his head.