When I Think of my Novel, I Think of This Tree

From the Oregon State University database
From the Oregon State University database

The first time I saw my “perfect” tree, I was in horticulture school. It wasn’t any great moment, like on a majestic hike or in a misty field, but rather with a group of sodden, adult students shuffling around a college campus. We came to a nook, near a building entrance, our coats soaked with rain, our notebooks wet like tissues, and wrote down phrases, like “alternate leaves,” “oval crown,” and “produces catkins.” Made sure we wrote out the exact spelling of Carpinus betulus. Our professor lectured for a good ten minutes on the specimen, pointing out its fall color and native habitat in colder Europe. As I listened, all I could think of was how beautiful it was.

Most trees do not grow in a full, broad crown with branches that are perfectly symmetrical. They lean, they cross, get gnarly with age, but this tree branched out gracefully with a few large anchor branches before smaller branches came out gently from those, and still yet smaller branches grew out from those, forming a dense yet refined framework. The bark was smooth and graceful. We studied the tree out of leaf but its leaves are serrated and have an interesting, corrugated texture. They’re bright, cheery green. It needs no pruning, very little care, and, when grown in full sun, is not very susceptible to disease. I was in love.

I’ve never grown my “perfect” tree. But I’ve planted it in clients’ yards. I admire it on walks and when I see it in parks. In fact, it’s as if I almost hold it in my mind as the Plato ideal of “tree.” As I’ve been writing this novel, I’ve thought of it often. Yes, a tree figures prominently in my story, but I think of this tree when I think of the creative process I’m experiencing. I started this tree from a seed, it sprouted with ideas, a sturdy trunk formed, branches of scenes reached out, then smaller branches of ideas, and then yet tiny, delicate branches. Leaves unfurled, of details, of images, to decorate its form, the final touches of a quietly infinite task.

This stop-motion film of the tree growing has played in my head for the last year and few months. As the tree makes its perfectly circular crown, I have tried to make a perfectly circular story. Of course, another horticulturalist might smile at my admiration of the “perfect” tree because it sometimes has competing leaders and the fall color can be dull. There are no showy flowers to speak of. And of course, my book won’t be perfect. It’s just a literary thriller after all. But in its graceful style of growing, the tree inspires me to work on it more, keep growing branches, then smaller branches, then tiny ones with leaves so that when a reader reads it, they’ll be able to enjoy a story that’s dense with detail, symmetrical with logic, and overall presented in a fine form.

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