I was raised almost mutely by a father who, I am sure, loved me, but with a kind of muscle love that could not be expressed except physically. In his youth he was blighted by his birth, by the Depression, and by the war, calamities that deformed his capacity to love openly. I didn’t think I minded, it all seemed explicably Darwinian to me. A child is born, grows up, leaves home, has a child; that child grows up, leaves home, has children. What could be more natural? But then last week, my eldest daughter came to visit, with her two daughters, my granddaughters, who are four and one.
The old oak stands at the centre of a clearing created by its own shade. It is a single tree coppiced by its suckers, so that there is no one central trunk but rather an embracing spread of branches that have grown out into separate trunks: perhaps at some point in its calamitous youth it was used as an antler rub by deer, or as a scratching post by a black bear, or as a lightning rod by lightning. A tree does not deform itself. At the edges of the clearing, its offspring are arranged around its dripline in a neat semi-circle: I count thirty younger oaks, and beneath these, hundreds of oaklings, with comically large leaves outstretched on spindly twigs, two generations removed from the parent oak. The larger offspring stand with their branches reaching outward, their backs turned away from the old oak, thirsting after sunlight.
Most of the offspring oaks are downhill from the old oak, because acorns roll downhill, or are washed by spring thaws and summer run-off, where they are buried and forgotten by grey squirrels, then warmed by the sun now that they are out of the parent oak’s protective shadow. They grow to take their place in the greater forest, to wave in their own patches of light.
A male red squirrel, adventuring from a nearby stand of white pines, chases a female red squirrel up the bifurcated branches of the old oak, out to where its branches almost but not quite touch those of the offspring; the female makes the short leap and the male follows, and they keep this merry chase without leaving the family of oaks or touching the ground. In courtship, squirrels are as independent of the earth as birds. Chipmunks are more earthbound: to eat, they edge out to the tip of an oak branch, nip at the stem of an acorn; the acorn falls to the ground, the chipmunk dashes down the tree, collects the fallen acorn, and runs with it back up to a low branch, where it carves the white nut by turning it around and around in its paws against its teeth, like a tiny, living lathe.
And now the red squirrel descends an offspring oak to a spot where someone has hung a string of Tibetan prayer flags between the oak and a nearby elm: blue, white, red, green, and yellow flags, with words printed on them, and a drawing of a seated Tibetan monk with his arms raised. Clinging to the oak with its hind feet, the squirrel tries to gather in the white flag as though it were a sheet on a line of laundry. The squirrel struggles with the flag, becomes entangled in it, frees itself, tries to stuff the flag into its mouth, and finally gives up and runs back up the tree. A blue jay, perched on a branch of the elder oak, laughs. The flag sways triumphantly on the line, but now with a few words missing. The squirrel must have wanted the flag to line its nest, as protection from another harsh winter; the Tibetan prayer flag might have been the answer to a red squirrel’s prayer.
Oaks are a better metaphor for a family than, say, alders. Each alder in a thicket springs from a single, massive root, so that no alder is an individual but a clone of all the other alders in its colony. Oaks share a root system only in the sense that, beneath the forest floor, the roots of each oak are connected by intertangling threads of fungus, and through this mycorrhizal relationship share water and nutrients with one another. In oaks, the fungal myceae are said to invaginate the oak’s cells, that is, to enfold them, to turn their outer into inner surfaces. The fungus-oak relationship is symbiotic; the fungus benefits from the oak’s ability to turn sunlight into sugar, and the oak allows the fungus to extend its own ability to gather nutrients from the soil. If an individual oak experiences a temporary drought, or an attack of insects, it can draw water or insecticide from a neighbouring oak. The old oak at the centre of its own clearing draws sustenance from its offspring.
At lunch, my four-year-old granddaughter takes her napkin holder, a tin ring in the shape of a hummingbird, and presses the hummingbird’s beak into her cheese sandwich. My daughter tells her that if she continues to play with her food she will have to leave the table without any lunch. My granddaughter looks squarely at her mother and jabs the hummingbird’s beak into her sandwich, again and again. My daughter sighs and looks at me. To me, this is a new concept in child rearing mixed with an older theory: the part about having to leave the table without lunch was put in for my sake, and, by a form of familial osmosis, all three of us know it. The heart is not a vessel that contains a finite amount of love. It is a tree that continually produces little capped, bell-shaped seeds that engender and nourish new life, from which it draws what it needs to survive.