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Me, E.B., and the Cherry Tree

July 10, 2016
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E.B. White would have known what to write about the cherry tree. I am certain of that.

On the morning of the tree’s removal, I awoke with a start. All of a sudden, we only had an hour left together.

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If I could bridge the gap between me and the tree—between the personal and the universal, the way E.B. did with such grace—I guess I would say:

The tree was out of control. It sprawled. It drew complaints from the neighbors. “We never thought it would get that big,” my landlords said. In March, its blossoms reached for sun in all directions, taking what they could get. (It lived in Seattle, after all.) Eventually, the petals dropped, like doilies whisked from a café table, across the backyard property line.

Its blossoms pressed into my window, the one above my writing desk. “Open, open, open,” they said, like the woman in that Mervyn’s commercial from the early 90s that somehow continues to occupy precious real estate in my brain. I should have pruned the thing back. But then I thought: To tame the very thing asking you to be wilder?

Also, yardwork is not fun and I am lazy.

***

The above feels somewhat forced. Except for the laziness part.

The truth is I am highly allergic to most trees, although I am not sure about cherry trees. The truth is I wish I had applied the discipline to wake early like Mary Oliver and observe the tree as the seasons slid by. The truth is I wish I was in love enough with the world to not even need said discipline. The truth is keeping a tiny handheld computerized funhouse on my bedside table is a terrible idea.

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Whatever the reason, I knew the tree was a she. And I knew I could not be home when she fell. I took some photos of her last great cacophony of leaves. Then I bought myself an iced coffee and went for a walk. The arborist’s work was swift.

***

It comforts me to know that even E.B White seems to have had a midlife crisis. In 1938, he left his job at The New Yorker and moved from New York City to a salt water farm in North Brooklin, Maine. His wife Katherine agreed to go, despite the fact that it would interrupt her tenure as one of the most influential editors in America. She made an agreement with The New Yorker to do editing through the mail. E.B. had no clear plan for making a living in Maine. But before leaving New York, he agreed to write monthly essays about rural life for Harper’s.

Here’s a picture of the salt water farm. Reader, I saw it!

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And Jules and I stayed at the nearby Blue Hill Inn and I sat near the front window of the carriage house and ate yogurt and Maine blueberries and wrote in my journal!

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And I drank coffee in the lobby of the Blue Hill Inn, where E.B. White used to go for dinner after Katherine passed away. I sat to the left of the fireplace. I squinted and furrowed my brow and waited for the essence of E.B. to materialize via Star Trek transporter beam.

“He sat on the other side,” the innkeeper said. I moved to the right of the fireplace.

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***

Once in everyone’s life there is apt to be a period when he is fully awake, instead of half asleep. I think of those five years in Maine as the time when this happened to me. Confronted by new challenges, surrounded by new acquaintances—including the characters in the barnyard, who were later to reappear in Charlotte’s Web—I was suddenly seeing, feeling, and listening as a child sees, feels, and listens. It was one of those rare interludes that can never be repeated, a time of enchantment. I am fortunate indeed to have had the chance to get some of it down on paper.

—E. B. White, “Salt Water Farm,” in One Man’s Meat

***

My grandfather was born at Fort Williams, which is south of Portland, Maine and south of North Brooklin, Maine yet north of Brooklyn, New York. The Fort was near the lighthouse on Cape Elizabeth.

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My grandfather helped raise four children and served in two wars. He was in his 101st year when he passed away a few months ago. He had eaten cottage cheese with canned fruit for lunch every day for the vast majority of those years.

My grandfather also loved sweets. Especially thick chocolate shakes. (My dad says if the straw doesn’t stand up on its own in the middle, it’s not thick shake.)  I remember when Grandpa sent me on the train to Grand Central with a box of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies and a glimmer in his eye, as if to say he knew I would eat all of them myself and it could be our little secret.

***

One Man’s Meat is, as the title suggests, a personal record. It is a collection of essays which I wrote from a salt water farm in Maine while engaged in trivial, peaceable pursuits, knowing all the time that the world hadn’t arranged any true peace or granted anyone the privilege of indulging himself for long in trivialities. Although such a record is likely to seem incongruous, I see no harm in preserving it, the more so since I have begun to receive letters from soldiers overseas assuring me that there is a positive value to them in the memory of peace and of home.

—From the Introduction to One Man’s Meat

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***

Do you remember the Simpsons episode where Marge and Lisa and Bart start a food blog, and Lisa shows Homer a video of a chef making pine needle sorbet, and Homer says,

“Pine needle sorbet? Pine needle sorbet?! My kids do NOT eat sorbet. They eat sherbet, and they pronounce it sherbert, and they wish it was ice cream!”

I remember it. Because it’s hilarious, but also because it reminds me of someone I love. It sounds familiar.

***

The tree had blossoms, not needles. She was familiar, too.

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