“I think that I shall never see A poem as lovely as a tree …” Joyce Kilmer
I liked the Cleveland Tree long before it was possible to “like” this tree on Facebook. One runner who shares the walking/biking trail along Mississippi River Boulevard at the southern edge of the Highland Park area of Saint Paul is clearly even fonder of this particular tree than I am. He’s the enterprising individual who created the Facebook page – and a Twitter account – for this particular tree. Initially, he announced these developments with a banner tied around the tree. Now, there’s (usually) a little sign at the base of tree … and business cards at various places in the area.
The Cleveland Tree is a particularly twisted oak tree that stands by itself beside the walking path near the point where Cleveland Avenue ends at Mississippi River Boulevard. If you want to visit, just take Cleveland south through Saint Paul to the all-way stop at Mississippi. The tree will be to your left. It’s easily recognizable by its short stature, fully twisted trunk, and extremely gnarly branches.
My daughter likes the Cleveland Tree (in life, if not on Facebook). She sees a tree that invites climbing with easy to reach branches and good spots to plant her feet on the trunk. My son does not like the Cleveland Tree – not in the usual sense or even the Facebook sense. To him it is not a proper tree; it’s too short and stumpy. A tree worthy of being liked is a tall, towering one … a monarch of the forest … which the Cleveland Tree will never be. (Although if it were possible to straighten the twists of its trunk, the Cleveland Tree would be considerably taller.)
But that twisted stumpy stature and those extremely gnarly branches are precisely why I’ve always liked the Cleveland Tree even before there was a way to like it on Facebook. As someone who knows me pretty well once put it, there isn’t an underdog out there that I’m not for. As trees go, the Cleveland Tree is definitely an underdog, not an overlord, among the trees in the area.
Many days I’ve walked along that section of the path, noticing the trees and wondering how it was that the Cleveland Tree came to be as it is. Most of the oaks in that area do have similarly gnarled and kinked branches, if not quite so pronounced as those of the Cleveland Tree. But none have that extremely twisted trunk with an almost 360⁰ twist before it splits into the two main limbs. What makes the Cleveland Tree so different?
Botany was not an area of biology that interested me. (I preferred the animal kingdom and the intricacies of anatomy.) It’s possible that the type of oak trees in this particular area produce these gnarled branches because that’s just how they grow and develop. If it’s all in the genes, then perhaps the Cleveland Tree received a stronger set of genes that make for such twisted growth. That might be all there is to it; however, I suspect that may, at best, be just a part of the Cleveland Tree’s story.
I wonder about the wind. Trees do need wind for their growth and development; it’s essential. Scientists discovered this with the Biosphere down by Tucson, Arizona. After a rough start, the project was eventually taken over by scientists who saw plenty of opportunities for study in the small, fully contained miniature of the earth’s ecosystems. However, after several years had passed, the trees inside the Biosphere started to fall over and no one could figure out why. The soil had adequate nutrients. There was sufficient water and light. There were no indications of any kind of blight or fungus or pest. For some time, the scientists examined everything in the Biosphere looking for the cause of this unprecedented event. No one had seen or heard of anything quite like this happening before. What were they missing?
The answer likely hit one of those scientists with a face-full of desert dirt as he or she walked across the parking lot after work – wind! The Biosphere had everything earth has, including air circulation. But it did not have actual wind … strong, hard-blowing winds that shake the tree tops and push against the trees. As it turns out, trees need the wind blowing against them in order to develop strong trunks to support the limbs and branches and leaves. Without the wind, the trunks don’t become strong enough to hold everything up.
So I wonder about the wind in times past as I walk through these trees on the bluffs of the Mississippi River. While none are twisted like the Cleveland Tree, many of trees with trunks of similar girth to the Cleveland Tree’s are leaning considerably. It’s possible they grew at such angles in order to find space amidst the canopy for their own branches and leaves to reach some sunlight.
But it’s also possible that way back in time, when these trees were much younger (and still developing their trunks) that some fierce wind tore through this area, blowing long enough and hard enough to forever shape these trees … bending a number of them … twisting the Cleveland Tree … and maybe even setting the then-young branches on their own twisted, kinked, and gnarled paths. Such fierce winds have certainly tore through the area with storms earlier this year. Tall, strong trees were ripped up by the roots in part by the force of the wind and in part because the soil was so saturated. It’s not hard to imagine a similar event all those years ago forever twisting a young tree, shaping it into the unique form of the Cleveland Tree today.
Life has a way of doing that … shaping us, testing us, bending us … sometimes marking us forever. Whatever whims of nature, whether by random genetics or wild winds or some of each and something more, the Cleveland Tree will always have that very twisted, stunted, unique shape. But that doesn’t stop this particular oak tree from doing what all trees do. Each spring, it puts forth tender green leaves and indiscernible flowers. The leaves take in the sunlight and the carbon dioxide, producing the starchy food that feeds the tree and nourishes the growing acorns. Those leaves breathe out oxygen and provide a cool, shady refuge for birds and squirrels and passers-by. As fall approaches, the tree drops its acorns … food for the scampering squirrels and occasional chipmunk. In times past, humans were nourished by acorns as well. In some places, we still are. With the fall, the leaves turn brown and eventually drop to the ground … perhaps becoming part of an animal’s winter shelter … or perhaps returning nutrients to the soil for the next year’s growth. Then the tree stands dormant and silent through winter’s passing until spring comes again. Year after year, the Cleveland Tree (like any other tree) does this regardless of whatever whims of life and forces of nature have shaped it into the way it is today.
For that, this particular tree, the Cleveland Tree, is an inspiration to me. It reminds me the value of simply keeping on … keeping about the business of life … whatever work is given me to do … whatever season it happens to be … through whatever happens. Life shapes all of us a little differently. Some of it we do to ourselves by the choices we make and the paths we follow. But just as trees don’t have choices, some of what happens we have no say in, no control over. It just happens and all we can do is make the best of it or give up and stop trying. Like the Cleveland Tree, we can be forever shaped … scared, stunted, bent, even twisted around by things that happen. But the tree reminds me it is possible to keep going, to keep growing, to keep living.
No, the Cleveland Tree will never be a proud monarch of the forest. It will forever be short and stumpy. But because of its unique shape, it brings joy and support to at least a few runners out there. (How many trees can you actually give a high-five to?) Although it’s not one of my dog’s favorite message exchange locations (just as it’s not my son’s favorite tree), no doubt plenty of dogs find it a good place to exchange messages and catch a cool draft on summer days. Certainly trees were removed when the path and fencing were put in along Mississippi River Boulevard. Could its unique shape be the reason why the Cleveland Tree was one of the trees to be spared and allowed to continue living and growing? That weird shape may well be the very reason the tree is still here.
The Cleveland Tree is still here, doing all the normal tree things … but also providing inspiration to runners and walkers and wonderers like me. Perhaps our own unique features and characters, the shape life has given us and the shape we have given to our lives provides similar joy, encouragement, and even inspiration to people around us … maybe even some we don’t actually know.