John Chambers

An Open Letter to the Trees I Remember

Dear Trees Who Lined My Street,

In the innocence of childhood, I took you for granted. As I walk down the street you once lined, I feel compelled to offer my apologies, share memories, and confess my dendrological sins.

Now an adult, I feel grateful for all you have given. I miss your shade as much as the shadows, and the places you let the light in. Even when I abused your branches, you let my father tie a rope around you to make a swing.

You were some of the oldest in my state. With roots deep enough to swim in the underground springs below. Old growth Dutch elms and American sycamores as wide as a VW beetle. Under the weeping willows were prime places to find cover in games of hide and seek.

I’ve had several one-on-one talks with many of you. The ones who lived on Crescent street. The road to my home feels hollow now. Barren. With you gone. Your girth outgrew the space between the sidewalk and the street. But still I’m tethered to your trunks, because your roots still remain. So, I make this pilgrimage of apology – a walk down memory lane.

Most of you were felled by disease, storms, and the power company butchers protecting their electricity. You were so grand you made our houses look small. You each deserve special recognition to walk through this pilgrimage properly.

To the crab apple tree, I’m sorry I looked down on you for your bitterness. I didn’t realize what you meant to the blackbirds and thrushes, rabbits and dear, and especially the bees. I heeded the cyanide warnings and stayed clear.

To the grand white oak, thank you for letting me play in your labyrinth of roots for hours. It was the best course ever for my Hot Wheels car collection!

To the birch trees by the stream in my backyard, I’m sorry for the time I cut one of you down for no good reason. A kid who found an axe is not an excuse. I still remember the crackle of the fall, followed by a feeling of guilt. I swear it was the first and last time I killed a living tree.

To the sycamore tree that stood four-stories up to our roof, I’m sorry I nailed boards to your body to build a tree house and lookout. I’m glad it didn’t hinder the newly born racoons and their mother from reaching our attic. Even if my parents had a different opinion.

To the dogwood in front of our home, I’m sorry for all the cars that cashed and uprooted you trying to navigate our winding road. Family photos in front of you in full bloom are a lasting monument.

To the sugar maple tree, I’m so happy we left you untapped. You left reward in the abundance of leaves you let fall in the breeze. After the raking, it was playtime, or craft time, or a time to paste a single perfect leaf in photo a book to capture the color of the season.

To mulberry tree, I’m sorry I chose the blackberries bushes over you. I didn’t realize you tasted just as good, especially as pie. You were too high to climb, and I never had the patience to wait for a lucky catch.

To the pines that marked our property lines, I sorry I practiced throwing the Japanese stars I brought back from Tijuana. I don’t know what made me think I was a nine-year-old ninja.

To the giant beech trees, I’m sorry for the few times I carved my initials + the person I thought I was in love with before I knew what in love meant. I swear I didn’t know the damage I was doing, and the time it would take to heal. I didn’t know then, that water you send to your branches passes between bark and your bare skin. 

To the towering Dutch elm in front of our home, I’m especially sorry we had to cut you down. Beatles and Elms Disease may have destroyed your core, but you stood tall as the guardian over our front door. Also, thank you for letting us keep a few slabs to make tables out of to remember you. So rude we didn’t even ask.

Special thanks to the old maple tree. Your branches were perfectly placed to climb, to the top. I’d toss hand gliders and parachute people my mom brought me home from the toy store in the summer. I admit to throwing snowballs at the occasional car in winter. The snowballs were completely unrelated to aforementioned crashes caused by the drunkards using our street as a racetrack.

To all the progenitors of pollen who made me sneeze, I’m sorry I blamed you instead of the town planners and planters who didn’t understand that most you have gender qualities.

Down with patriarchal tree planting! Our misfortune that more of you weren’t female, I’ll no longer blame you for my allergies. And I promise to plant more ash, aspen, and willow trees. Among the dioecious, or co-sexual, species. 

To the invasive and non-natives, I draw no human metaphor, but you are everywhere! You are blocking the light and strangling the last living elders’ you hold in your squeeze. Let us help you give them some space and room to breathe.

To all of you, I see in a new light. I will never again refer to you as nature or a natural resource. You are source. You stay long after you are cut. Deep roots can live hundreds of years or more. You offer nutrients to the weakest, and sun to the ones with too much shade. Your elaborate relationship with fungi is fascinating. I’ve read about how you work together. And still I know there’s so much more to learn.

For now, I hope you’ll settle for this mea culpa. I don’t know where to send this letter, but I promise not to print it out on paper.

John Chambers is the founder and director of the award-winning arts and culture non-profit BloomBars, an artist incubator and performance venue in Washington, DC. Previously, he was a senior vice president for the global communications/advocacy firm, GMMB. He’s been a writer most of his adult life, though only recently sought to be published. He writes fiction, nonfiction, and poetry about his personal experiences with race, activism, mental health, trauma, the environment, the arts, and fatherhood. His most recent essay, “The Sunday Newspaper Route; A Family Rite of Passage,” was published by Coalesce Community in their Spring Equinox Collection. He identifies as Black of mixed-race background.