Less than a football field from the esteemed Menil stands my tree. It’s a post oak, a hardy variety common to south Texas, known for a cheerful willingness to endure our tropical summers without complaint. Its lowest branches are quite low indeed, giving it a posture that beckons to be climbed.
It was in connecting with my inner seven-year-old and taking up the tree on its offer that it became my favorite. I know the routes by heart: take one generous step to the crevice formed by the separation of three huge trunks, and from there choose your path: further up to the solitude of a Y-shaped nook perfect for reading or writing, or out to the left, to one of the long, low branches, perfectly designed as a lover’s perch, just sturdy enough for two.
Houston is a city quite literally built upon a swamp, growing out of a trading post on the banks of a muddy tributary that only wishes it was a river. However, along with the mosquitoes, humidity, and hurricanes worthy of a swamp comes a blessing of beautiful trees, like this one. It first caught my eye three years ago when I was living nearby and frequently walking to a coffee shop down the road to escape the cabin fever of working at home; one pleasant day demanded that I finish my hazelnut cinnamon coffee with haste rather than linger, and my outdoor excursion brought me to the foot of the post oak.
A few months later, on a sticky summer night at the same coffee shop, a young lady unwittingly set the bait for a pursuit in which the tree would be an even more unwitting accomplice. As I became more smitten with this young lady, I would escape to the tree more frequently, writing letters, listening to loads of Brit pop rock on my iPod, and wishing that she hadn’t just moved twelve hundred miles away.
Circumstance led me to leave the tree’s neighborhood, but fate always drew me back. As a kid, I wasn’t much of a tree climber, owing to an embarrassing fear of heights, but having found in adulthood a tree low-slung enough to climb with ease, I wasn’t about to abandon it. So I would hop in my car at my new apartment and drive over for periodic visits, to clear my head or rendezvous with the girl whose heart was beginning to warm to me.
It was on these latter visits (usually with to-go cups of coffee in hand) that we discovered the inviting proportions of the lowest branch. I also discovered that when it comes to climbing trees, she’s as adept as a lemur, which makes me look slightly more skilled than a manatee. This perch turned out to be a great vantage point for people-watching, allowing us to gawk at other couples in various states of woo and listen to the occasional impromptu banjo-led jam sessions.
My trips to the tree became less frequent as busyness took over and priorities shifted. Houston’s summer has a way of discouraging even the most incidental trips outside as people huddle inside in the cool before dashing to their oven-like cars, desperately praying that the a/c will become cold before the water that composes sixty percent of our bodies evaporates. The idea of going outside for the purpose of contemplation and relaxation is not unlike attending a Sigur Ros concert with the intent to crowd surf.
The Houston summer isn’t all bad, though: it also encourages visitors and residents alike to explore the cultural richness that surrounds them, from world-class art museums to the array of restaurants combining the diverse cultures that surround the Texas Gulf Coast: Cajun, Mexican, Vietnamese, German, Greek, and, of course, the crown jewel of Texan cuisine, barbeque. With these distractions and others, the second summer of writing love notes in tree branches went by the wayside. Not that I really noticed; I was far too occupied in trying to secure a ring and screw up the confidence to propose. It was a perfect storm of neglect for my place of refuge.
Soon after that proposal was accepted, a much more literal storm was brewing. Absent earthquakes or volcanoes and located in the armpit of Gulf of Mexico, Houston is a prime target for hurricanes. Fortunately, we’d been spared a direct hit for more than twenty years, the previous major hurricane having made landfall just weeks after my younger brother (now a father himself) was born. But Ike was coming, and unlike past storms, it neither weakened or changed course. Having learned the lessons of Katrina, people either evacuated or hunkered; I chose to hunker, though not at my vulnerable-to-flooding apartment, but at my parents’ house in the suburbs.
In a city blessed with a wealth of trees, one of the most immediate things you notice in the aftermath of a hurricane are leaves – everywhere, in the streets, on the lawns, and, of course, attached to the downed branches that sever power lines, turn driveways into junkyards, and shut down thoroughfares more surely than rush hour. Watching a city of three million souls retreat, shut down, re-emerge and return, and begin to rebuild is like a passion play performed en masse, cycling through despair and darkness to hope and light, with a fantastic work of regeneration at its core.
The city lost a lot of old trees in the storm, but my oak held fast. It’s a little more sparse, like a head of gently thinning hair; fortunately, this hair will regrow. The city returned to normal, and my life did as well. The stress of planning a wedding replaced the stress of planning an engagement, but before the meetings with caterers and shopping for that perfect black tie could begin in earnest, it was time to return to the scene of the crime.
With the sky a brilliant autumn blue and the weather the kind of seventy-degree perfection that comes paired with the appreciation that it won’t be hot again this year, she and I posed and cavorted around the park next to the Menil for a set of engagement photos. As the light began to retreat, the photographers asked if we had any other places we’d like to include.
We looked at each other, smiled, and walked to the tree.