The Trees That Become Companions In Our Loneliness

Two trees with bare branches in foreground with smaller budding trees with small pink blooms in the background.

Seemingly overnight, green buds have burst open on the neighborhood trees, as if they could no longer wait to pop. I try to track their changes from day to day. Ever since the pandemic erupted, trees have become important silent companions. I am increasingly aware of them wherever I go.

During the worst of the pandemic, the tall pine on a neighbor’s lawn became a significant figure — not because of its height, but because all during that time, inch by inch, it began shedding its branches. It was as though the tree’s steady loss of branches mirrored the stream of lives lost to the virus. Still, that pine kept standing. It remained alive. Whatever disease it suffered could not outmatch its will to survive.

The fact that this pine still stands — though three-quarters of its branches have fallen off and large chunks of its bark are now missing — inspires me to keep going no matter what challenges or disappointments I might face.

Tall pine with most of its branches gone, next to brick house and blooming tree.

My neighbor’s pine isn’t the first tree that befriended me. I credit becoming a writer to the fig tree in Bayonne, New Jersey that my Italian grandfather planted in our family’s backyard. That tree provided a safe dome for me as a child. I would sit beneath its umbrella of leaves, write poems and imagine stories inspired by the Jersey Central trains that passed below our backyard, or the items hanging on the neighbors’ outdoor clothes lines.

During the months of the year that I live in Italy, the front balcony of our apartment looks out on a circle of compact holly oaks embracing a piazza. These splendid trees drop seeds that look like wooden beads. I love to collect them to create designs. The holly oaks have but a small patch of soil from which to grow amid a sea of brick and concrete. That they remain strong and lovely says to me that I too can grow and thrive no matter what environment I’m in.

Five holly oak trees surround a snowy piazza in Guardiagrele Italy last January.

In his classic memoir of the holocaust, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl tells the story of the final days of a young woman he encountered in a concentration camp. Pointing outside of a window, she told Frankl, “This tree here is the only friend I have in my loneliness.” The woman could see but one branch of a chestnut tree from that window, but on that branch were two blossoms.

“I often talk to this tree,” she told Frankl.

He asked if the tree ever replied. “Yes,” the woman responded. “It said to me, ‘I am here-I am here-I am life, eternal life.”

I once had the privilege of interviewing environmentalist Wangari Maathai, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for her tree-planting movement in Africa. Maathai didn’t go so far as to tell her audiences to go hug a tree. She would always say in her booming and melodious voice, “Whenever you see a tree, you thank that tree for keeping you alive.”

In her wonderful poem, “When I Am Among the Trees,” Mary Oliver writes,

When I am among the trees,

especially the willows and the honey locust,

equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,

they give off such hints of gladness.

I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

What are the trees that have “saved” you? What trees have you befriended?

Mary Oliver ends her poem by urging us to “walk slowly” among trees, and to “bow often.” What better way to behave among friends?

Tree with intertwined branches and some magenta blooms about wooden bench.

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Judith Valente

Judith Valente

Author of 4 spirituality books & 2 poetry collections. Award-winning reporter for Wall Street Journal, PBS-TV, Washington Post & 2 IL public radio stations.