Roadside trees show us nature’s indifference. It wasn’t always this way. Was a time when I could watch the trees fall away as I drove by and imagine all manner of stories unfolding just inside the treeline. Meaning was inherent in the trees, as well as magic, mystery, and beauty. But lately, they’ve become constant reminders that wildness waits at the edges of civilization for its chance to retake what has always been, and will be in the end, hers. She knows that for all the roads and skyscrapers and shopping malls we may build, for all the fields we may pave and the clouds we may pierce with our flying, silver tubes, our time is limited. We will return to her. And when we do, she’ll swallow us up. I’d add that she also will forget about us, but that would imply she knows us in the first place, and I’m not sure that’s the case: we don’t personally know the buzzing flies that slip into our open doors and harass us; we merely swat them away so we can go about our day less annoyed. Is nature not more indifferent than us?
I talk about nature like it’s a person, using feminine pronouns and attributing human actions to it. Sometimes she does feel like an adversary, with predators and viruses and hostile conditions. Other times she sustains us, both with beauty and with food. Anyway, this will become tiresome if l continue, for the roadside trees tell me that there are no groundbreaking ways to write about nature. Everything I might write has been written before, and better.
Roadside trees don’t just spread their message from the shoulders of the interstate, of course–they’re much more thickly present on country lanes, where people are less distracted from their own mortality. As an undergrad, I was enamored of the movie Braveheart, and by extension, its soundtrack, which I still think ranks among the top movie soundtracks for its depth of feeling, and for its ability to convey human pathos via its dark and beautiful themes. Once I was fishing with my dad at some pond out in the country near Reelfoot Lake in northwest Tennessee, close to where I grew up. I was probably twenty-one, still obsessed with Braveheart, so that soundtrack was often playing in my head. Dusk was fast-approaching, and a warm, glowing pink had begun to form opposite the setting sun. The pink was bracketed by the trees on the other side of the road–it was the kind of sky one only sees in summer. To my youthful, idealistic mind, with that bagpipe-heavy music playing in my head, the scene seemed to have so much meaning. I couldn’t tell you what it meant in any concrete terms, but it held something of destiny. Back then I believed in destiny–destiny and beauty were inseparable.
Now I’m okay with things just being what they are, and that includes roadside trees. I still create meaning, but in different ways: it’s not as simple anymore as assigning meaning to a natural setting, with nothing more than a song and a fuzzy feeling to back it up. There’s no more facile forcing of narrative onto my surroundings. The trees along the interstate no longer reflect my mood; they are not a manifestation of me. Yet they are no less beautiful. In fact, they are newly beautiful, because now I allow them to just be (like they needed my permission). They never needed my influence, even when I needed to project it onto them.
**I’ve written a lot about trees. Here’s one I particularly like.