The Death of Piney
October 8, 2012
On my thirtieth birthday, I killed a pine tree.
In an oblique way, I know, we kill them every day: photocopiers, newspapers, paper napkins. But this murder was different, for this tree was given to my care, tied with a birthday bow. Araucaria heterophylla, a Norfolk Island Pine. I named it Piney.
“If you want to invest in a houseplant with a future,” advises Extension Nursery Specialist Dr. Leonard Perry, “buy a Norfolk Island pine. It requires minimal care, and because it grows slowly will remain small and attractive for many years indoors.” Piney must have been growing for years, perhaps even, to judge by its size, for as many years as I had. Thirty years in nurseries, greenhouses, shop windows, waiting for the moment when it would be chosen, taken home. I picture my husband, Eric, in the shop, the hopeful green stems steaming up the windows from the inside. Piney must have been the most exotic and bold of all the choices, for Eric goes in for show. I smile to imagine him lugging this massive tropical tree twice his height down Broadway, the Christmas tree stands on every corner a recent-enough memory to make him look absurdly out-of-date, like someone putting Valentine’s candy in an Easter basket.
Perhaps Piney contracted the death-blow there, amid the rock salt and carbon monoxide. Could even Extension Specialist Dr. Leonard Perry predict just how toxic a twenty-minute dose of late January Manhattan air might be for a tropical pine tree? I think not, since Dr. Leonard Perry sounds blithely optimistic about the chances the Norfolk Pine has when transplanted into unlikely surrounds: “A houseplant with a future,” he promises, “minimal care.”
I was thrilled. As a child, I’d helped my mom plant marigolds. I lifted them, fragrant little lions, from the plastic tray. At college in Chicago, I kept a potted azalea alive in my bedroom for three years. In Boston, I grew two sunflowers from seed. Since moving to New York, I’ve accidentally sprouted ginger, garlic, and potatoes in the refrigerator. This year, for the first time, we got a Christmas tree, which must have been where Eric first got the idea for Piney.
If the evergreen pine, the Christmas kind, resembles in shape a closed umbrella—pointy top, solid conical body, and a wooden trunk poking out like a handle at the bottom—the Norfolk Island Pine surpasses it in beauty, as it rises in ascending tiers of open green parasols. The smaller bottom shoots rise three feet on spiky stems to splay open in soft canopies the size of dinner plates. The umbrellas get bigger as they rise. At the tree’s top, each branch opens into a huge bouncy wheel, bigger than a bicycle tire, the needles stringing into garlands, the garlands branching down in circular waterfalls of tropical green snakes.
I went to sleep, at twenty-nine, with a small forest of evergreen palm trees beside my pillow.
When I awoke, thirty years old, the shift was almost imperceptible, more a shift in mood than matter. The spokes had somehow lost elasticity, or vibrancy. Still deep green, they seemed still, where before the green had been fluid, almost liquid in tone. It was the morning of my thirtieth birthday so I optimistically assumed that it was just a trick of the blanched white light of winter.
But I think I knew, even then, that some feeling of buoyancy, of warm wind rustling through the branches, was gone. On the second morning of my thirtieth year, I woke to find a few green dreadlocks on the floor. I ran my fingers down the spokes; they were stiff. By the third morning, they were crispy, and I was misting the branches every few hours, trying to mimic tropical humidity. The green snakes looked sun-struck and desiccated. By the fourth morning, the garlands were so dry they snapped off in my hand. We turned off the radiator; we misted until the floor was drenched. The fifth morning, I read online that dry Norfolk Pines breed spider mites, and it was over. It took two more days to get up the gumption, but on Sunday night—a week to the day Eric gave it to me, tied with a birthday bow—Eric hauled Piney down to the trash room.
About a month after the death of Piney, we learned that we would be moving away from New York before summer. Eric was offered a new job, a better job, and we were moving to a small town in Appalachia. As I stood at the window, the radiator ticking away beneath me, looking out across the salt-stained four lanes of Broadway, I kept thinking about the garden we could have. Kale. Tomatoes. Herbs. For some reason, I want to grow delphinium, and Eric’s excited about carrots.
No one who knows me believes it, but I want to press my hands into the soil. I want to slip my fingers between the live, green stems.
Kristin LeMay is the author of I Told My Soul to Sing: Finding God with Emily Dickinson. While she still has not started a garden, it’s only because the farmers of her new hometown grow such amazing kale, tomatoes, herbs, and carrots. Visit her website at www.kristinlemay.org.