In my front yard is a snow tree. Well, it’s actually a crab apple tree, but during the week or so every spring when it’s in full bloom, its abundant white blossoms look just like that thick, wet snow that clings for dear life to its branches in the dead of winter. We discovered this seasonal similarity not long after we moved here, many years ago. This tree is not shy about displaying its talents for anyone who cares to notice.
I have always enjoyed watching the snow tree break into bloom—regardless of the season. The winter strips the branches down until they look dead and then tries to make up for it by dressing them up in snow. The ones that splay up, out and over are perfect settling places for the sticky white stuff of an old fashioned nor’easter. We can sit by the fire and watch the transformation from the window. The snow accumulates steadily and evenly, and before the storm is over, the once shivery, naked tree is decked out in a pure white ensemble, gracing the front yard like a bride.
In the spring, the makeover is a little more complicated. There are steps that must be followed. It can’t be done in an afternoon.
First, little red nubs of buds will poke out on the branches to let us know that the tree is still alive. When the time is right, those nubs will turn into little pink balls—lots of them. They grow and strengthen and then, one day, they burst open. It’s like somebody stuck a pin in them. The pink drains completely away and white petals pop out. It’s so dramatic, it should make a sound. But it doesn’t so you could miss it if you’re not careful.
In a good year, one without a lot of rain or wind, the blossoms will cling for days and days. But even in the calmest of years, the process has a mind of its own and, without any provocation other than the passing of time, green will begin to sprout out from between the white flowers and the petals will begin falling to the ground, like snowflakes. Soon they’ll cover the lawn and get swept up by breezes and plowed by squirrels. When you look up, you’ll see shiny new green leaves, what all the fashionable crab apple trees will be wearing this summer.
The snow tree is in full bloom right now. Every time I walk past the dining room windows, I am surprised. The flowers fill the window frames and the reflection of the sun on the petals spills light into the room. It’s glorious. It really is.
I’m going to miss it.
The snow tree, you see, is dying. This may be its last season. The weather weirdness of a few years ago that spawned two major hurricanes, unseasonal snowstorms and a couple of really wretched winters started it on its decline. It has lost branches every year since then and its bloom, once so thick that I couldn’t see through to the other side, now allows me a clear view of the house across the street. Our tree guy says that foraging mice ate the bark at the base of the tree and did irreparable damage. And, while the house side of the tree is leafing out nicely, the street side has not bloomed at all and most branches there are dead and continue to fall with each windy day.
So it may be time to say goodbye.
It’s odd that I feel so sad about losing this tree. We didn’t plant it. We never climbed it or picnicked under it or spread a blanket to enjoy its shade on hot days. In fact, aside from blossom time or winter storms that dropped that heavy, wet snow so good for snowballs and fort building and tree dressing, I paid very little attention to it. But mention its name in my house, and you’ll get an immediate reaction from all of us. It’s part of our family history, that tree. No matter how busy we were, it made us stop and look at it. No matter how many directions we might be running in, it brought us together at the window to admire it and take pictures. We gave each other updates on bloom progress or snow accumulation. It gave us a reason to enjoy even a late-season snow storm. For the longest time, the kids thought that “snow tree” was the official name of the species. And so it’s something we share—just us. My kids will remember it fondly and maybe tell their kids about it—how it looked as beautiful in the dead of winter as it did in the height of spring.
We’ll plant a new tree, the same kind, in the same spot. But it won’t be the same. It will start small and take a long time to grow. It will have its own size and shape and personality. It will catch the snow or not and reflect light in the dining room in its own way and in its own time. We’ll figure out how to protect it from mice. It will have to face the weather on its own.
As it grows, we’ll take pictures from the window and send them to the kids and give them tips on how to plant snow trees in their own yards. And they’ll gather at the windows with their kids in the winter and the spring and tell them stories about the original snow tree—the one that started it all, the one that never really died because we saved it in our hearts—and on this page.
A Word to Writers–Current, Prospective and Skeptical
This is the second essay I have written about a tree. The first one, “The Sycamore,” appears in Saving Our Lives: Volume Two—Essays to Release the Writer in YOU. Writing about my beloved snow tree got me to thinking about other influential trees in my life and has inspired the writing of a third tree essay that I expect will make its debut in Saving Our Lives: Volume Three—Essays to Launch the Writer in YOU one of these days.
I would be surprised if you don’t have a tree story of some kind to tell. Float this idea around in your notebook. Just start jotting about a tree you climbed or one that fell and blocked your way or one that you watched from your window when you were a kid or one that marked your path or one that broke your heart. If no past tree comes to mind, notice one today. Watch it grow and change as the seasons pass. Watch how it interacts with birds and bugs and squirrels and cats. Consider the interplay between roots and branches. Trace the cycles of it bark and blossoms. Become expertly aware of the physical, literal nature of the tree and soon it will become a metaphor for you, your family, your life, your place in the universe and the grand cycle of things. It’s amazing how it works—like saving two lives at once.
Try it! You can. And you should.