The tree's trunk stands between the root-cracked sidewalk and seed-covered streets. Its leaves fall on the rooftops of parked cars. When you open the car door, branches reach into your vehicle and coarsely brush your face. They are curious; they are feeling things out.
The other day, under the branches of this massive tree—at the corner of East John Street and 11th Avenue—a rather handsome young man approached me. He was walking a white bicycle; he was looking at me with mild curiosity. He said: "Enjoying the tree? Isn't it wonderful? I live over there and see it every day, and I still can't get enough of it." He was as in love with this tree as I am. I asked if he knew its type. "It's an alderwood and probably 150 years old. I can't be sure of that number." I asked if he was an arborist. "Me? No," he said adjusting his helmet, his face brightening, his eyes somewhat dreamy, and a branch dipping toward his back. "I'm a natural scientist, so I do have some idea about plants. But I'm not an arborist." I thanked him for the good information, and he said it was a pleasure to share it.
All trees aspire to bigness. Bigness is their gaudium—the characteristic pleasure of a particular form of life. Chenjerai Hove writes: "I used to watch cattle chewing lazily under the shade of the musuma trees, chewing as if to show me that I was not able to enjoy what they enjoyed." When we see a big tree, we see this enjoyment, this gaudium. Little trees do not have this effect; their lives are small and stupid. The lure of big trees is that they are heavy with life and are deep in thought.
This tree in Magnolia Park, one of the most beautiful parks in the world, is very tall and close to the Magnolia Bluff. I always imagine that sailors can see it from their bay-bound cargo ships. There it is for them, the slender and sophisticated tree that excites their sea-numbed senses. So much water has made them dumb. Wave after wave after wave. The monotony empties their eyes—out goes other humans, lush hillsides, rocks, animals with legs, plants that are not slimy. Above all, their eyes miss the sight of trees, the kings and queens of the land. When a returning sailor sees a tree, his eyes cling to it the way Homer clung to that fig tree as his raft was sucked into the violent whirlpool. How lovely it must be for the sailors to see this tree on the bluff! Its skin-smooth bark, its high top of leaves. And to the west: the sparkling glass towers of the city that is the point of a sailor's destination, the end of his long journey.
Cities that do not have trees are damn depressing. In Gaborone, Botswana, a city in a desert, there are almost no trees. What thrive in Gaborone are the bitterest bushes. These bushes make no effort to be attractive (even their flowers are ugly), and their tough stems are armed with thorns. It is impossible to walk without shoes in Gaborone because the ground is covered with the sharp weapons of these bushes warring for resources. They are not capable of love, those bitter bushes.
On Queen Anne Hill, at the corner of Crockett Street and Taylor Avenue North, there is a trunk with a human face: a nose, a pair of eyes, and a mouth. We already feel close to trees, and this face, this humanness about it, helps us feel even closer. Trees have seen many, many things. What sins has that face seen in the concealed patch between it and the flowering rhododendron? Bodies twisted by lust—hands groping this, lips kissing that. The tree watches the sex sheltered by its branches. It watches humans lost in their electric land of flesh. Fucking is never more magical than when it erupts under a tree. Why is this so? What kind of spell is this? The most desirable thing I ever saw in my life was a pretty woman sitting in a tree. The vision unlocked another animal in me. The tree was big and supported her easily. Her ass was on a thick branch, long legs hanging, hands holding a slimmer branch above her head, her chest out. She wore a black bra and a white T-shirt. She laughed in the light that flickered in the leaves. I wanted to climb up and hold her. But I could not find a way to her. I was stuck on the ground, looking up at the most desirable thing in the world.
This tree is in the yard of a home on South King Street and 31st Avenue, in Leschi. The tree rises up into the sky and looms over the street. It is a beautiful tree in a beautiful setting. The house is old and handsome and looks out at a valley of other homes and trees. Lake Washington and Mount Rainier are in the distance. Here is a peace that is only disturbed by the thump-thump of passing cars blasting crunk. Here, people are mostly happy. But one day, many, many years ago, things went very wrong at this location. A rabid squirrel ran down this tree's trunk and charged at some girls having a birthday party on the lawn of the house. The squirrel ruined the event. Kids were screaming, parents panicking, the squirrel snapping its sick teeth—it managed to bite one of the girls. How horrible it must be to feel the teeth of a squirrel in your flesh. You will never forget that feeling for the rest of your life. A man put the injured and crying girl on the back of his motorbike and rushed her to the emergency room at Harborview. This tree was like a beautiful lover with a venereal something or other.
This tree near Lake Washington played a role in my movie Police Beat. It gave a great performance. Its moment of indie-film fame: The bike cop investigates a tree that has assaulted an old woman. She has a cut on her head. She points out the offending tree. The officer walks up to it and knocks on the bark with his knuckles. The bark answers with a hollow sound. The bike cop then returns to the old woman and says: "Your tree is dead, and if you do not cut it down, it will continue to harm and disturb the living." The scene is based on a real police report. A woman called the SPD and blamed a tree for assaulting her. The report caught my eye because I understood her confusion. In the way it is easy to believe a tree can love us, it should be easy to believe a tree can hate us. Dead trees are most bewildering things because trees are not supposed to die. They are supposed to live and live and live. There are trees that were alive when Jesus was alive. Despite its great acting and its beauty, the tree in Police Beat has so far failed to land another role.
We are always trying to imagine what aliens might look like if they suddenly landed on earth and walked out of a flying saucer. But the variety of life forms around us is already bewildering, shocking, alien—even though all of the animals and plants living on earth are made of the same stuff (mainly carbon). If there are all of these strange creatures on earth, like this monkey puzzle tree in West Seattle, how on earth could aliens surprise us? We have seen life in every kind of shape, texture, and quality—slim, hairy, thorny, hard, soft, long, short, sharp, fast, slow, and big. If an alien were to show up today, it would not be beyond our imagination and recognition. Life elsewhere in the universe is bound to be like life here on earth: crazy-looking. When aliens arrive, the second thing that will be on our minds is how do they do it: from behind, standing up, sitting down, on their hands and knees, back to back, side to side, up and down. Do they fuck like humans or like trees?