Most nights I don’t remember my dreams, which is good, because when I do, they usually don’t make any sense anyway. Every once in a while, though, there’s one that I think I need to remember, and I’ll write it down somewhere. So, as loathe as I am to begin a day with a cliche, last night I had the strangest dream…, that’s how this really goes, becuase it was a real dream I had last night (never mind the oxymoron), and tried to remember because I thought it was important.
In my dream, we lived in a big house with a lot of land, the kind of acreage one doesn’t find in the DC area much anymore. It may have been almost as big as I remember my parents’ backyard forest, even though I know now that they didn’t have much more than an acre. When you’re small and the backyard is a big forest, it seems like it’s all yours, especially during summer when it’s time to build forts, and go exploring, and get ticks in your hair. The tick part’s not that great, but the rest of it, life doesn’t get much better when you’re nine. And that feeling of spaciousness and potential, of coiled adventure, permeated my dream. In my dream, though, I was grown, and my wife and kids were the same as they are when I’m awake, but yet the land we had was not a half-acre of suburban grass and trees, but wide and wildly forested, and loud with birds and crickets.
If you want to understand the tree that thought it was a fern, you first have to know about at least one certain type of fern. This fern — I think it’s called a mimosa, although it could just be that I think of this fern whenever someone says “mimosa,” when they mean the drink made with Asti and orange juice — anyway, this fern reacts to touch. When you touch the fern’s leaves, it curls up, and sort of shies away, almost like the floral equivalent of a blush. The fern blushes slowly, and closes up its leaves, and if you wait for a few minutes it opens back up, very slowly and hesitatingly, and then if you touch it again, it closes its leaves once more.
The fern isn’t used to touch, and it gets embarrassed easily by the close contact. But the more you do it, the less embarrassed the fern gets. If you’re willing to invest a couple of hours sitting with this fern and waiting for it to open its leaves back up so you can touch it again, you’ll find the fern gets less edgy about being touched, until finally it doesn’t react a whole lot at all, and becomes rather dismissive about the whole affair. You can find another fern at that point, or you could simply find something else to do. The next day, the fern has forgotten all about you and if you touch it, it gets all embarrassed again.
In my dream, on our land we had a tree, and the tree thought it was the opposite of one of these ferns, one of these mimosa ferns, because the tree wasn’t bashful about being touched. The tree wanted people to touch it, and it wanted to touch them back. If you walked toward it slowly, you would see the tree begin to bend toward you, just a little bit, and the branches would reach out slightly, curving toward your shoulders and elbows. As you got closer to the tree, the curves became more pronounced, and since this very special tree was apparently pretty flexible, the branches would eventually encircle you in a gigantic, woody embrace.
The leaves of the tree were long like fingers, and soft like the leaves of a mimosa fern. The bark of the tree’s trunk formed broad, knotty ridges that you could run your hand over without knocking any pieces off. It never got thick with sap, as some trees do in the spring, so you wouldn’t get sticky clothes or arms from its branches or trunk when it hugged you.
(If you didn’t know the tree, or what kind of dream this was, this might sound a little too much like a Venus flytrap, which is one of those plants that has two halves like a clamshell, with a kind of pink cushiony interior which generates a smell that insects get all excited about, to the extent that an insect gets excited. The sides of the Venus flytrap are spiky protuberances that look like teeth, even though they’re not very hard and don’t really bite into anything. When the insect lands in the Venus flytrap, though, the halves of the clamshell snap closed around the insect, and the spiky teeth are like the bars of a cage that keep the insect from wriggling away while the plant secretes a substance that helps it digest the insect. But the tree was nothing like the Venus flytrap, since all the tree wanted to do was hug people, and anyway this isn’t that kind of a dream.)
The tree that thought it was a fern loved to hug people. Even people who were not, by nature, tree huggers would be captivated by the perfect and innocent beauty of being embraced by the tree. When the tree hugged you, you felt all the worrisome parts of your life falling away onto the ground of the forest. You could just stand there and breathe in the fresh air the tree was making out of your breath, and be like a child with a towering parent’s arms around you. When you inevitably left the tree, you would have to pick those troublesome bits of your life back up, because one should never litter in a forest, but for a little while, at least, they would be forgotten. There was no shame in hugging the tree, but I don’t think many people knew about it, since no one else ever hugged the tree in my dream, and no one cried as I did when the tree was gone.
In fact, I’m not even sure how I knew the tree loved to hug people, or how I knew it had the capacity to induce tree-hugging behavior, even in people who don’t go in for that sort of thing in the least. It’s even possible I was the only one who knew about the tree, that my wife and my children were oblivious to the tree’s existence, but I’m positive, completely and absolutely so, that the tree was not at all particular about hugging me, and in fact would have been equally thrilled to hug anyone who came within reach of its big branches.
I would sometimes sit under the tree that thought it was a fern on hot, humid days (like today, for instance), and the shade was always incomprehensibly cooler than other trees’ shade. Plus, when you sat below the tree, every once in a while its leafy lower branches would slowly descend on you like green lace filigree, so it could give you a little blanketing hug even if you weren’t standing up. If you were trying to read a book or take a nap, for instance, this might sometimes get in the way, but it wasn’t nearly annoying, certainly not enough to make you want to find another tree to sit under.
So the time came that we, my family and I, were moving, leaving the house with its big forest, and moving to a house that was better, maybe bigger, more expensive, and more conducive to our lifestyle. We had wooded land where we were moving, maybe even more acreage, I’m not sure. But how could I bear to leave the tree behind? I wanted to transplant the tree so that it would be nearby our new house. As my children grew up, they would grow up with our remarkable tree, and come to love it as I did, and as my wife and I grew older we could go sit under it and read, or talk. Of course, we might have to bring folding lawn chairs, since it would be a lot harder to get off the ground otherwise, assuming we could even get down on the ground to begin with.
Dreams don’t really move in precise, regular, organized time. They jump and start, like film that speeds up and slows down in jerks, to keep the audience from having to sit through the boring part of the hero getting from point A to point B, and instead showing more about what happens once the hero gets to point B and starts blowing stuff up. So the next thing in my dream was that we had moved into the new house. All of the boxing up of things, the stacking of boxes in a big moving van and their subsequent unloading into the new house, the familiarization of children with their new rooms, the unpacking of dishes so we could eat: all of that was already done. But I still needed to go find the tree that thought it was a fern. I had hired an arborist to move the tree, but I wasn’t quite sure where he had said he would put it.
I started looking for the hugging tree near the house at first, and couldn’t find it around the perimeter of the woods, but I realized that I had told the arborist to put it in the forest, just not too far back, so in the event of a sudden rainstorm, I could still run back to the house without getting soaked. I took the most likely path into the forest and continued looking for the tree. It was a well worn footpath, and wound through a good portion of one side of the forest. I thought the arborist would have possibly been able to get a truck and trailer down that path, and even though I couldn’t see any tire tracks, it’s possible that wind or rain simply did away with the tracks.
I went down the path, leaning this way and that in a crazy zigzag route, waiting for one of the trees to move, to bend toward me offering a leafy embrace. None of the trees moved, except in their normal swaying fashion with whatever breezes blew through the forest. I gradually moved further and further off the path, and my searching became more and more frantic.
I looked for the tree for hours, probably all day, even though it was hard to tell in dream time, since it probably all went by in a few seconds of REM and alpha waves and what-have-you, but I’m certain it was a long time spent looking. Dusk had crept into the sky, and the crickets had started chirping. It seems impossible to say with a big forest that I looked everywhere for the hugging tree, but I know that I did, with the certainty that comes from Truth you find only in a dream and never in waking life. The tree was simply not here, where it should be. The arborist had taken the wrong tree, or he hadn’t bothered to show up, or something happened to him which prevented him from moving the tree to our new forest. I was sure he didn’t steal the tree, because he was a good person whom I had met with and hired before, and how would you explain such a thing anyway? A brand new tree that appears overnight and hugs people? No, there was no foul play or treenapping, just an honest mistake or accident, and the tree was back at our old house, in our old wood, waiting patiently for someone to come along to hug.
And then I knew something else for dead certain, that the tree no longer thought it was a fern, or the opposite of a fern, or anything other than a tree. Even if I were to find the arborist and get him to return to our old house and bring the tree to us, or for that matter, if I were to take a shovel and a truck with a big trailer, and go to get the tree myself, it would be to no avail, because the tree would no longer care to hug anyone. The shade it gave would be no cooler than any other tree’s shade, and its bark would ooze sap in the spring like every other tree, so that if you tried to hug it into remembering how and what it had once been, you would just come away with nothing but sticky clothes and arms to show for it.
Realizing this, I fell down on the ground and wept, as I haven’t done since I was a child, wild bitter tears of despair and anger, despair at losing the hugging tree, and anger at myself for leaving the miracle of the tree to the hired hands of the arborist. I should have dug the tree up myself, with my own bare hands if necessary, to make sure the tree stayed with us and remembered how it loved to hug people, to hug me. I wailed and cried, and my wife tried to console me but wasn’t exactly sure what had happened, and I couldn’t find any voice to tell her since I was so overcome by weeping. My children were there too, but they also didn’t understand what had happened, and only knew that maybe they should be sad too, even not knowing what had been lost.
Then everyone else fell away from the dream, and a presence appeared at my side. It was undoubtedly a person, but I can’t remember whether it was male or female, or what it looked like, or what it was wearing. I think it was what many people, remembering such dreams, call an angel. But it wasn’t the kind of angel you would want to turn into tchotchke made out of ceramic, though, or put into a painting surrounded by light, wearing a robe and sporting big feathered wings, which makes the idea of an angel seems small and silly and very undreamlike, and certainly Untruthful.
I was the only one who felt the angel’s presence, not my wife or children, and in fact I couldn’t see them or sense them nearby anymore. The angel filled all the sensible space around me, so there wasn’t anything to perceive but an electric frisson that thrilled through the boundaries of what passes for perception in a dream. I could feel the angel draw nearer to me, but I could feel that its appearance was tremulous, and it had very little time to deliver some message, and if I couldn’t recover enough of my composure to pay attention, the opportunity would be lost. The angel said, then, the only word I can clearly recall, and just that single word helped me, thankfully, to still my weeping:
Then the angel leaned toward me, toward my right ear, and spoke gently to me, many things, but quickly: about the tree and about my children, and about growing up, and about things left behind and things which remain, and years and seconds and why the time in dreams moves the way it does, and I woke up. The sap of those bitter tears of loss was still in my eyes and on my cheeks, and of course, of course, I couldn’t remember just exactly what it was the angel had said.