Watching Michael work at saving our pretty, fragile-looking (though its strong, sturdy wood is hardly delicate) dogwood reminded me of the day Father planted dogwoods in the back and front yards of the old colonial on Collins Street. He had acquired the trees from two elderly ladies, sister spinsters, with whom he worked at Falk Brothers, Clothiers, downtown—a part-time job he kept to supplement his teaching income. The sisters were looking for another home for their dogwoods, and were happy to give them away to anyone willing to dig them up. So, Father went over to the sisters’ place with his long handled round-point shovel, dug up the trees, and hauled them back home.
Before the dogwoods, the front and back yards were bare except for an azalea and mountain laurel that Father had also dug up from elsewhere. The young trees with their dainty petals made the yards look regal, and gave me a sense of being firmly planted in our quarter-acre city lot homestead.
I did not know then that dogwood roots are shallow. And I wonder, now, if I should try to find meaning in this, as if there is, or should be, a greater meaning. Michael and I didn’t plant the dogwood in our front yard. The front beds had already been landscaped when we moved in. Plantings were low to the ground and generously spaced. I could see the hydrangea behind the Japanese cherry. The rose of Sharon stood upright. The fire bush was not on fire. Then, we added to the beds, and now the beds are overgrown and unruly with greenery that is cannibalizing itself, a mass of roots zapping nutrients—the life—out of the mulch-covered soil.
Michael likes the overgrown beds. I like to see out my front windows. Michael doesn’t like to cut the bramble. I don’t like to watch plants suffocate or consume one another. So every once in a while, when Michael is not looking, I grab the hedge trimmers and cut. This is a game we (or at least I) have been playing for nearly fifteen years. Sometimes he notices (and gets sore at me), sometimes he doesn’t. But we’re at a point now, our shrubbery being so dense and tall, that I would have to use a chain saw to lob off the overgrowth. I don’t know how to use a chainsaw. But I could learn.
My sharp-witted, perspicacious writing advisor tells me to search for meanings or literary opportunities that may not have been apparent to me in my first drafts. In other words, to look for what might accentuate or heighten the awareness of a certain feeling. Dig deeper, but not telegraph the meaning with hyperbole (hyperbole—ha, me?), or push hard to impart significance. Rather, the deeper meaning must speak for itself, and I must allow it to present itself to me “to record with a colder eye.” He is right. And I know it. And why I don't do this in my first drafts, when my tendency is to search for truth, meaning, in everything, I don't know. Maybe I'm afraid of what I'll find.
Still, I know this: truth makes for better writing.
There was a time when my eyes were very cold. Very, very cold, and I could have recorded most anything I observed with the harshness of an ice storm. But my range of view has widened and warmed. Shallow roots aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Yes, a shallow-rooted tree can easily topple in a hurricane, but its roots won’t clog drainage fields or crumble a home’s foundation. Shallow roots make for beautiful blushing petals that fold out to reveal the sparkling fruit within, like the pretty dogwood that’s fixed in our front bed.
Native Americans forged daggers and arrow shafts from Dogwood. Some of this nation’s oldest textile mills housed weaving shuttles made of dogwood. The tree has been used to make golf clubs, and its bark, flowers, berries, leaves and roots have all, in one way or another, been utilized as medicinal remedies.
The dogwood’s fruit, I have learned, symbolizes endurance.
I read recently of a Christianity-based myth that claims the Romans used dogwood to make crosses on which criminals were crucified, including the instrument of torture to which Jesus was nailed. After the crucifixion, the pink tint of the dogwood’s petals, which vaguely outline the shape of a cross, revealed the “blush of shame” for how the tree was used. God later proclaimed that the tree would never again grow large, and thus the dogwood of our day is a mere dwarf of its predecessor.
When I read this, I wondered if my literate Father had known of this tale. I doubt he’d have given it much credence, or thought to root a dogwood in our yard based on its symbolism, though he did like to recount a good moral story. Father was a hard worker who made many sacrifices in order to provide for his wife and six children, holding down several jobs to feed and clothe his family, shingling the house, building decks and ice rinks and even a new room, transplanting trees in order to landscape a city lot. He could solve any math problem as easily as he corrected his student's grammar quizzes and essays. He was a jack of all trades, and I don't remember him ever hiring anyone to build, repair, renovate or manage anything that needed to be done in connection with the old homestead. He was faithful to his family and the value of a dollar. Mostly, he was pragmatic.
If anything, he planted the dogwoods because they were cheap—costing him his labor only, which, knowing Father, made the acquisition that much more gratifying. And since we know that the dogwood is a strong and durable tree, he could count on his effort paying off. The bonus was the graceful shapes, the way those trees gently opened to the world.