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Four Years at the Mount

Our Four Years at the Mount writers took time to reflect on the beauty and importance of trees for upcoming Arbor Day through memories, stories and more, learning in the process just how vital they are.

Arbor Day Memories

April 2017


Angela Tongohan
MSM Class of 2020

When I think of a tree, I imagine the tall, narrow trunk of the coconut tree, the long rib-like leaves that sway in the wind, and the little clumps of coconuts gathered at the very top.

In the Philippines, there are many trees. Trees of different shapes and sizes. There is the mango tree, which has a small trunk that carries a large afro of banana-shaped leaves. The mangoes hide in between the leaves, clumped together like giant grape clusters.

Then there is the guyabano tree, a small tree, easily found by the side of the street. Its oval leaves are often sparse and delicate, which is quite the contradiction when you see the green, prickly skin of the guyabano.

It is a wonder to imagine my mother growing up in the Philippines. She would always tell me stories of when she was young. She said that whenever she was hungry, she just had to walk outside to the large guyabano tree outside her house and pick the fruit off the branches. She told me of how she would often spend hours on my grandfather’s farm, sitting under a mango tree and eating as many mangoes as her stomach would allow.

When I visited the Philippines a few years ago, I was determined to live life as she did when she was young. I ditched my cell phone and fancy clothes, and prepared myself to embrace the culture my mother called her own.

The Philippines is a green place. Everywhere you look, you find nature. Our house was surrounded by all types of trees. There were trees that bore fruit and trees that bore flowers. Down the street, the rice fields begin, and acres and acres of land are littered with the little sprouts from the rice plants.

Hidden in the hills surrounding our town, there were magnificent, tall waterfalls. These waterfalls slowly dripped into separate lagoons, encased in walls of silver rocks. The air was clean, fresh, and never too humid.

The days went by so slowly when I was visiting. My uncles were older and were enjoying the fruits of their labor. They no longer worried about working in the fields because they were finally wealthy enough to hire someone to do it for them. They often slept in the hammocks outside their houses deep into the afternoon, waking up every so often only to jump on a motorcycle and buy some food in the town proper.

I found myself spending my days wandering around. Sometimes, I would explore the creeks that ran through the woods, or I would sit on our front porch and watch mischievous monkeys try to steal food from small stores. My favorite thing to do was to take a trip to the city at night. Cars were only used for long trips because they were too big and bulky for the narrow streets of the countryside, so my cousins would take me along on their motorcycles.

Imagine driving down a long road with nothing but the outline of mountains on either side of you, and a scattered disarray of twinkling stars above your head. Those were my favorite nights in the Philippines.

During the few times my mother and I were not too busy, she would take me to my grandfather’s farm.

My grandfather had built a house when he was younger just for my grandmother. It was a stately house, with marble floors and columns. The inside was filled with custom made furniture and blankets. He had it placed in the very center of his citrus farm. Behind the house towered an army of coconut trees, while in front of it sat a small cluster of pineapple plants.

My mother took me to a more secluded area of the farm, where a small hut had been built beside a large mango tree. The mango tree was rather wide, and its branches hung low to the ground. She showed me how to sneak under to a spot where there was just enough space for us to sit without hitting our heads.

She showed me a small spot on the tree where the bark had been chipped away. Etched in the trunk, now quite faded away with time, were my mother’s initials.

As we sat under the tree, I imagined how different life must have been for her and my family. How simpler and happier life must have been. They grew up without the distractions of technology, without a dependency on social media to interact.

Her memories are eternal, imbedded in the places she visited and the trees she laid under. I thought of myself and the memories I created, how they were always interrupted by the need to take a video or snap a selfie.

They were enjoying life to the fullest, and taking things as they came. They felt no need to record every insignificant thing that happened to them, or to post it for all to see. They enjoyed their surrounding nature as they saw it, and I find it truly magnificent.

When I think of a tree, I imagine the tall, narrow trunk of the coconut tree, and the memories I made in the Philippines.

Read other articles by Angela Tongohan

The Family Tree

Michael Kenney Jr.
MSM Class of 2019

"Family, like branches in a tree, we all grow in different directions, yet our roots remain as one." – Unknown

A clothesline runs from the porch pillar to an oak tree standing beside it. The bungalow, the tree, and the flailing clothesline cast the only shadows in the wide-open field. The bungalow houses a family of nine and, on occasion, a vagrant cat named Colbie. Like its residents, the bungalow has charm and good character. In fact, the parents established the bungalow near the tree because of its nostalgic character. It marked the spot of their first date, his proposal, and their wedding ceremony. It has become a part of their identity and the pride and joy of their property.

Three of the children now run around the house and Colbie curls on the doormat, batting his tail and huffing an occasional yawn. The doormat reads "Home." The girls race to the oak tree and tag it. The tree towers over them, its limbs entangled and outstretched in every direction. A tire swing dangles from one limb, and one of the daughters grasps hold of it. She sways from side to side. It begins to rain. They watch the raindrops pound the world around them, and they giggle at their mother who fervently tries to salvage the laundry pinned on the clothesline. They see their father and two brothers dash across the yard and make it into the house. The girls huddle together as the rain patters through the breaks in the leaves. They crouch down and curl against the tree. It is their safe haven.

Soon after, the girls scurry inside, and the rain comes down with heightened intensity, and a violent storm ensues. The power shuts off and the lightning frightens the children. Lightning splits the tree, sending a number of limbs hurling towards the house. The limbs crumple their roof and smash into the living room. The family screams as water pours into their home. They cling together, and they watch their beloved home flood for hours.

The next day, the family gazes at the tree, but they no longer recognize the strong, wily-armed oak that promised adventure and refuge. Instead, the twisted limbs and snaked roots remind them of their chaos. The drooping branches manifest their misery. The big shadow looks like a sepulcher for the house beneath it. For months, the family copes with the emotional and economic costs of the tragedy. Their home, they decide, will never be the same.

Time continues to move on. The leaves on the tree turn from a verdant green to a dead orange brown. They drift to the ground, one by one by one until one day the father decides to remove the fractured tree. For weeks, he hacks away at the tree, hurling his anger into every swing. Splinters dig in his fingers and callouses cover his palms. He hacks and hacks and hacks. Months go by, and he continues hacking and hacking until, one moment, his grief overwhelms him, and he ceases hacking. He crouches down and cups his face in his hands. He curls by the stump. Its removal is his therapy.

The father uproots the stump and yearns to transform his pain and the lumber into something beautiful. He contemplates the piles of lumber. He imagines them as a desk and a shelf and bed frame. He whittles some twigs into an intricate cross until he decides to turn the lumber into a dining set.

He sands the trunk until it becomes a level table top. He leaves one spot portion of the trunk rough, however, because it is an etched in heart enclosing the words: "Charlie + Eleanor 1982." He sculpts the limbs into sturdy legs, each one carved with the same ornate design. He uncoils the smaller branches and contours them into chair spokes. Months go by and finally, the father finishes the dining set. He wipes his brow and stands apart from his work. It is durable and meaningful and beautiful. The father strokes his hand against the table and weeps. He crouches down and curls against it. It is his redemption.

The father plants the set at the center of their kitchen. They endow the table with a range of purposes. It becomes the center for game nights, happy birthdays, family prayer, and late night homework. Most importantly, it is the setting for family dinners each night. Every evening, the mother decorates this table with the same ornate precision as her master carpenter. She unfolds a table runner and drapes it down the middle of the table. It is topped with five dripping candles and surrounded by eight chairs. The family eats and talks, and they relearn to laugh. Family suppers provide them with a context to articulate their opinions, express themselves, and engage in substantive conversations. General pleasantries turn into hours of giggling, storytelling, and brave new memories.

The dinners allow the family to learn about and better appreciate one another. Overtime, it becomes apparent that the table grounds a new type of tree -- a family tree. It is nurtured much like any other tree. The family sows one another with confidence, hard work, good humor, faith, grace, integrity, and -- most importantly -- love. This family tree grows and grows with in-laws and grandkids, but no matter how large the family gets, there is always enough room for another at the table.

Like the tree that birthed it, the table is the family stronghold, a place for love, life, tears, and redemption.

Read other articles by Michael Kenney Jr.

Plant your trees

Sarah Muir
Class of 2018

With the coming of Arbor Day, we are reminded of our responsibility to the earth. Through the act of planting trees, we endeavor to restore the balance in nature. Even with deforestation in decline, the damage left in its wake needs to be repaired to the best of our ability.

It is not a strictly modern holiday, but it in fact goes all the way back to 16th century Spain where the first recorded arbor festival took place in 1594 in MondoZedo. Still today, the place now known as Alameda de los Remedios is lined with the trees planted centuries ago. Several centuries after this festival, in 1805, a resurgence of interest in what would become known as Arbor Day occurred. In Villanueva de la Sierra, with the help of a priest, Arbor Day entered into the world again.

In 1872, 67 years later the Arbor Day tradition entered into the American consciousness. Beginning on April 10 in Nebraska City, Nebraska by Julius Sterling Morgon with the planting of one million trees, Arbor Day would spread like wildfire. It was globalized by Birdsey Northrop in 1883.

With the start of the 20th century came new efforts to conserve wildlife with the help of Theodore Roosevelt. His message of conservation was directed at businessmen in the lumber industries. A leading conservationist at the time, Major Israel McCreight, tried to focus the attention on educating the America’s youth on the issues facing the environment. Following his lead, and added pressure from the Chief of the United States Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot, Roosevelt began giving speeches to public school children on the importance of trees and forests in America.

People all across the world celebrate Arbor Day on different days of the year depending upon the cycle of the weather. Every year, millions of trees are planted, adding to the beauty of the earth simply because we have recognized the importance they play in our survival. Filtering air, providing to our food supply, and being an integral part of the ecosystem, trees are truly irreplaceable. Despite the attributes of trees that are of monumental importance, there are small goods that they provide that better our lives, even if we do not realize it in the moment.

I’ve mentioned quite a few times my alma mater is Visitation Academy which was a small, Roman Catholic, all-girls school that has been nestled in the heart of Frederick for the past 171 years. I have many fond memories of the school and one of them is that of a pear tree. I am astonished to find that while writing this, I am unsure whether the tree in question really was as big as I remember it to be or if the years of it being in my memory have caused it to grow. Fond memories have the tendency to sweeten the most ordinary objects and raise them to the height of the extraordinary. Truth was, that it was a pear tree, probably the same as all other pear trees, but to me it is the finest pear tree ever to have existed.

It was years ago, during the time in my life when summer seemed not as hot as it is now; full of chasing fireflies and art done in a chalk on sidewalk medium. Sometimes on weekends my sister and I would go with our father to my school. This may seem odd considering summertime is mostly students avoiding educational institutions like the plague, but we went anyways, not for anything school related, but for the pear tree. The nuns who were, at the time, unable to collect the fruit themselves and did not wish to see them going to waste, were more than happy to grant us access.

So armed with a bedsheet and an extended pair of shears we would set to work harvesting. My sister and I would hold out the bedsheet like a slightly lopsided trampoline and watch as my father carefully snipped away and the fruit would fall into the sun-bleached whiteness with a soft whish of fabric. When we had gathered what we could, we would partake in some of the spoils, delighting in the sweet, soft, slightly grainy fruit and enjoy the summer day with each other. After we gave the nuns their due share of the harvest, we would make our way back home, heavy laden with our sweet, filling treasure. Every year we would go back for more until one year we simply couldn’t.

The bit of me that is forever shrouded with nostalgia wishes to go back. Go back to the summer days with white sheets that was dappled with equal parts sunlight and shade of the pear tree. I have no idea how long it grew there, and I cannot for the life of me recall the year it was taken down, but I remember it with the rosy tinge that tends to come with childhood memories.

I feel as though, while we grow older we should leave something in our wake that will give new memories to the ones that follow behind us. We should continue to celebrate the holiday by adding on to the centuries old tradition – planting our trees and providing new, beautiful life to the earth. We should leave our mark by adding something good instead of taking it away. So, this Arbor Day, in the words of J.R.R. Tolkien, "plant your trees, watch them grow."

Read other articles by Sarah Muir

Whirlybirds and Memories

Leanne Leary
MSM Class of 2017

The sidewalk was perfectly covered with a fresh coat of whirlybirds that fell from the maple trees that perfectly lined the sidewalk leading to the entrance of the pre-school. The droppings were untouched, fresh from the afternoon lull. We walked into the building, we did, but we stopped every few inches to pick up a new treasure. Peeling them open at their base, we stuck them to the bridge of our noses and left them there until they fell off a few steps later, and we had to grab a new one. This was me; however, if you were my brother, you began sticking them to the tips of your ears, dangling them as earrings, pushing them aggressively onto your cheeks, and lining your little sister’s face with them also.

This is my earliest memory of trees, perhaps one of my earliest memories at all.

Fast forward six years, my next one comes from fifth grade envirothon.

There was a team of about 12 of us and we spent all year preparing for this one event: the County Envirothon Competition. We came together, late April, with all the other school districts and sat at wooden tables in the middle of Gifford Pinchot State Park identifying birds, fish, and yes, trees. I was a tree specialist, primarily because I am allergic to fish so quite frankly, they grossed me out and I couldn’t tell a finch from a blue jay, but that is what I did. I sat looking at leaf after leaf, rattling off what tree they each belonged to. Unfortunately, identifying tree leaves is not like riding a bike; even if I tried, I would probably fail that fifth grade test right now.

In my next tree-specific memory, I am hiding behind one, holding back tears.

You see, at one point in my life I thought I should do what all of my neighbors and siblings were doing and asked for an AirSoft gun and equipment for Christmas. This was not, please note my intended emphasis here, not, a good idea at all. We all got AirSoft guns, face masks, barriers, targets, and so much equipment. It was set to be our next neighborhood fad, and it was. Attached to my backyard is a small, but forested, section of land. After only a few days of practicing, all 14 of my neighbors and myself – yes, I let this happen – decided we should split up into teams and play in the trees. Again, terrifying. I found myself hiding behind trees the entire time, wishing I was coordinated enough to climb one. The trees made this game terrifying as they made it nearly impossible to see anybody or keep track of anybody, but they simultaneously were a cover and a refuge. This then, became both my least favorite and my favorite part of this "game."

So up to this point, trees have provided me with laughs and dancing in circles with whirlybirds stuck to my face, a place to succeed in the world of memorization and identification, and a place to hide. It doesn’t end there.

My most recent, and perhaps most significant memory of trees turned my simple recollection of tree-surrounded moments into a genuine appreciation. Up to this point, I’ve planted trees with the Environmental Club, dug holes in my backyard for my dad to stick trees into, and even run into a few trees accidentally, both with my car and on a run; however, I had never spent three hours staring at a tree.

This sounds silly, I know, but hear me out. This past summer at Ft. Knox, we spent multiple days and weeks doing field training. This means sleeping, living, eating, and training in the woods. Of course, on the nights that it rained I gained a new appreciation for low hanging branches and the trees of more impressive size, which was to be expected. One time, though, I actually stared at a tree for three hours, I wasn’t kidding. I was lying on my stomach in a Patrol Base, admittedly I should have been keeping security instead of staring at said tree, but if you have ever been tasked with this you will understand why that just wasn’t feasible on the 12th day in the field. So, naturally, I began to watch this one tiny green caterpillar climb up the base of the tree I was lying beside. I watched as it shimmied up a few centimeters, then I decided I should definitely interact with this new little friend. So, naturally once more, I picked up a stick and began stopping it in its tracks every few minutes. Eventually I decided this was torture, and I let him go. In those moments, though, I found something to keep me occupied for hours. Yes, I realize I sound like a very, very young child, but in moments of intense boredom I think our minds do revert to a sort of childlike way of finding entertainment.

And so, I watched for hours as different bugs and creatures climbed up, down, and around this tree. This tree was home to thousands of small creatures, providing for the temporary needs of each of them. Also, provided the home of my entertainment for a few crucial hours.

Conclusion: trees are important. They drop whirlybirds that cause pursuant preschoolers and young children more joy than an ice cream cone. They start dances, they are home to readers who require their shade and a back-rest, and the best ones mark a permanency of nature from century to century. They provide shelter in both real and fake wars, they stand tall as children learn to climb them, and they serve as a home to countless creatures. So, aside from the obvious, and debatably most important, way that they provide us with oxygen, trees do more. They are more, and they should be protected as such. Happy Arbor Day!

Read other articles by Leanne Leary

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