Pandemic Story: Aspen Dust by Stephen Lottridge, Jackson, WY

“How’re you doin’? Good? Hope so,” I murmur. “You and your relatives here. Soil givin’ you good nutrients? Plenty of moisture to carry them up from your roots to the twigs and leaf buds? Here you are, beautiful, weathering cold and heat. Hope you feel healthy, strong.”

I lean my cheek against the cool bark of the trunk. The quiet solidness strikes me as my arms, folded around the bole, reach and close and tighten, my hands patting reassuringly. My fingers slide over a thin film of dust, seeking purchase, then coming to rest on the curved smoothness.

The initial sensation startles me, as if I were meeting with rejection. I find no softness here, no receptive body giving way slightly under my touch, no susurrus of breath in my ear, no responding arms encircling my shoulders and holding me, chest to chest, warmth moving between and into each other. Nothing feels familiar, expected.

What I hold now is hard, chilled, with no apparent respiration. I sense no response. The first contact shocks me back over decades, to mid-March of 1983, to a mortuary in Salt Lake City. Alone in the viewing room, I reach tentatively out to touch the cheek of my father’s embalmed face, reposing in pale stolidity. It shakes me, how ungiving the former flesh is, as if someone had carved the head out of a petrified wooden burl and applied make-up. Aware of the redundancy, I am still moved to say “lifeless.”

But here in my front yard, in mid-April of 2020,what I touch tentatively, then embrace, is not exactly unresponsive. Perhaps I believe that because I know, (whatever that word means – I question everything in our time of pandemic) that this tree is alive, whatever that term signifies. I clutch, I nestle in, if one can nestle into something (some being?) so solid. Not in, perhaps, but against. Well, not so much against as with. How do you find words for something you have never attempted to describe before, never read about?

“Tree Hugger!” An epithet that boosters of the extractive industries hurl at environmentalists. I see both sides of that argument. As I write this, I am sitting in a house made mostly of wood; “stick built,” construction workers call it. I am grateful for the shelter and comfort it provides. Somewhere, someone cut down living trees and sawed and planed them into the lumber used to construct this dwelling that protects me from the buffeting of wind, snow, rain and heat, from all the elements that the aspens and conifers in my yard endure, as do the cottonwoods and crab apples that gladden my heart as I walk in Range View Park. The very paper I write on comes from trees.

Over the course of my life, and more acutely now in this time of relative isolation, I have grown increasingly aware of plants and trees as living organisms, sentient beings, my neighbors and fellow sojourners on this shared planet. I have taken to thanking the boards and planks and beams and headers and studs that form the skeleton of the body of my home. I express gratitude to the living trees they came from, and to their kin around me now.

We kill plants to feed ourselves. We kill animals for our sustenance. We kill trees to construct our buildings. We have a choice. We can do all this wantonly – in ignorance, as a Buddhist might say – or respectfully, with understanding of our relationship, however transient, with every being – animal, vegetable or mineral – on our tiny, blue speck in the infinite cosmos.

So now I am a tree hugger in fact, not just in principle. I have hugged trees before, very occasionally, in forests. I started as a boy, long before that activity generated a term of derision. But only randomly. These days, I regularly embrace trees, as a spiritual practice. Giving my love to them calms my ragged mind. I talk to them daily, as I do the birds and animals, and house plants. My vocabulary diminishes and repeats.

“How’re you, beautiful? Y’okay? Feelin’ good?Good. Mind if I hug you?” If it’s one of the aspens, I may add, “I know you’re all one root system, with different trunks, but I’d like to hug you separately.That okay?” And to each of them, “You doin’ okay? Gettin’ good nutrients? Feelin’ healthy? Doin’ good? Good. You look good. You feel good.” My body eases, relaxes; my breathing slows, deepens.

I can lapse into baby talk as I wrap my arms farther around, as if I were soothing an infant. I caress the smooth bark and whisper, “There, there. Yes, yes. Let me hold you like this. Now’re you okay? Doin’ better?”

I embrace all the trunks in turn, trying to spend equal time with each, careful not to neglect any. Sometimes I clasp the bole between my palms and look up at the limbs and barely starting leaf buds etched against the sky before I slip closer. Two of the stands have fours trunks rising from one root node, each tilting away from the others as it ascends. I notice differences. One has a vertical scar six or seven feet in length, rough and protruding, like the cicatrix left behind by an unstitched gash in human flesh. I touch it carefully; I hold the tree as you would clasp a hurt child to your breast.

All the aspens have lost lower branches, some cutaway and some broken off. Where the holes have grown over, many are hooded with a black cowl, as if in mourning, and a small, dark stain of former weeping,shaped like an inverted delta, marks the bark under it. Others have developed the intense form of the luminous eyes of saints in Byzantine icons. From some fresher wounds, the sap still supurates as the tree’s capillaries pull fluid upward. Much of the bark lies smooth, with a muted luster. My hands pat it gently. With my ear snugged to the trunk, I hear the sound of the tapping through the dense, fibrous, fluid-filled flesh. “I love you. You’re beautiful.”

A lone aspen stands closer to the road. Making my way to it, I assure the smaller growth by the mound in my neighbor’s yard that it, too, deserves attention. I enfold the last tree as carefully as I did the others. If the day is clear, I remark on the warmth suffusing the trunk as my bare palms contact it. “You like a reptile?” I inquire. “Internal temp responding to the outside air?” I correct myself, gripping more tightly and pressing my cheek against the tree’s skin. “I know. You have your own system to survive without hiding under rocks or in caves.”

My two conifers recommend a different approach.The blue spruce by the driveway, with boughs sweeping the ground, allows no access to its trunk. I hold a branch gingerly between my sleeved forearms, one above and one below, and speak the same words about beauty, health, well-being and my admiration for endurance.

The Engelmann spruce in my back yard does admit me under its branches, cautiously for both of us. We have agreed on a sole path of entry. Ducking under and around sharp limbs and small, pointed, needle-less branches, I enter the tree’s protective fold. In its silence, I am able to straighten guardedly to full height and, working my arms past snags and prickles, I clasp the trunk and lay my chest and head delicately against the rough, scaly bark.

This tryst occurs in relative privacy. No passers-by stare, no neighbors interrupt me to chat, no cars brake and veer, no child whispers sotto voce to her bicycling companion “Did you see that man?What’s he doing?” While this spruce soars higher than my house, its drooping branches and the fence hide me almost entirely. My fingertips search out grooves to clutch. My arms cannot encircle the thickness of the trunk. “How’re you? Doin’ okay? Well? Hope so. Powerful; solid you feel. You okay? Back hereby yourself? Good.” The sharp edges of the furrowed, corrugated bark scrape my cheek as I nod. Sometimes the posture of the embrace

becomes painful, so I stand back and murmur and caress, attending to the bird song above me, aware of the quick flit from branch to branch, inhaling the faint odor of old pitch and wet duff.

It seems to me that the evergreens are more stoic and patient than the aspens. They sway less in the wind and seem not to change from season to season except for the light green or tannish brown of new needles in the spring, and the bunching and tumble of cones later in the year.The aspens alter their array almost by the day, from buds to catkins to new leaves of lightest green to darkening, lush summer dress to August’s faded splendor to autumn yellow to falling foliage to bare tracery against a winter sky. These deciduous trees seem more light-hearted and playful than their fuller, less approachable, apparently more reserved, standoffish, always-green cousins. I am aware that I ascribe such human traits without knowing what the words for the emotional lives of trees might be. I offer pure projection. At the same time, these companions speak to different parts of my spirit, calling forth varied feelings and responses as do divers children in one family.

Since I began doing this – actually hugging trees– my route of visitation has varied. First, I limited myself to the aspens,with their smooth bark and easy accessibility. Soon, I included the evergreens,though just their outer branches. Recently, I have laid out a circuit, only half intentionally. I step out onto the back deck, greeting the lilac, now turned into a tree itself from the contained bush it was when we first met almost twenty years ago. I speak to the cinque foils and the grass and whatever perennials may remain in the pots. I proceed to the Engelmann spruce, working my way into its embrace and letting myself rest in its presence for some minutes. I slowly separate myself and pause to cheer on the six surviving garlic plants in the vegetable bed. Pulling open the sticking gate in the paling fence and moving to the aspens, I follow a routine of time and sequence.With my hands now filmed a gray green, I converse with the flowers and shrubs close around the front porch, and conclude my outdoor peregrination with

the tips of he extended boughs of the blue spruce.Back inside, I compliment all the indoor plants – the herbs, the spiders and jades and orchid and poinsettias and two unidentified ones, a succulent native to Africa and the other a mysterious housemate that has bloomed and faded and thrived again over the almost thirty years we have lived together.

This daily activity derives not merely from the extra time alone that our pandemic affords me, time to slow, to notice, to appreciate. I could be filling that leisure with anything. Covid-19 also holds before us the mirror of our own mortality. In that mirror I see, behind the shadow of my own fearful mind, the oneness of all existence, whose simultaneous vastness and specificity stun me. My spirit merges with the timeless void of atoms and space, in which I find an unexpected comfort. In the same instant, at this particular moment in my life, my eyes shift down and note the clinging aspen dust, its delicate gray-green tinting my blue sweater front and sleeves,my palms, the insides of my fingers and thumbs. I pause, and stare and laugh.Pixie dust. Fairy dust. Magic dust of transformation. Eventually, I brush it carefully off and wash my hands for well over twenty seconds. As the powder disappears, I wonder briefly if the trees need it, this thin film of protection. Did I cause unintended harm? The question mingles with my happiness.

More recently on these excursions, I find fewer and fewer phrases to utter. I often stand in silent embrace, as with dear and old friends, breathing together. That silence brings rewards, as well.Sometimes in the stillness, my ear pressed against one of the aspens, I hear a tick and gurgle, like slowly seeping fluid moving through a constricted space,and I believe I am briefly privy to the tree’s internal life. And always, at the end of my daily round of trees and plants and washing, I find myself standing more erectly, moving more supply, smiling and repeating the only words I have left. “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”