By Hannah White
Photo from Unsplash
Hannah White’s essay won first prize in the freshman writing essay contest held this fall. Essays were submitted by English 111 instructors and were judged by the students in the ENG 340 Fall Editing class, who chose the top three. Hannah was originally assigned to write an essay based on the “Letter of Recommendation” series in the New York Times. Congratulations, Hannah!
Maybe it was the way the light peered through the leaves. The way the golden tendrils made some of the leaves an impossible shade of green, and left others to grow in shade and shadow. How the breeze would stir each leaf individually, and it would pick up my hair as well, pulling it to softly mingle in the branches. I adored the way the light would fall across the pages of a new book in my hand, and then push that light into my imagination to feed the fantasy worlds that I used as an escape. Whatever it was, I knew from the first time I pulled myself into the branches and cocooned myself in those leaves, that this was my space. This place was a chamber of silence and privacy; my safe space in the chaos of high school life. A simple mulberry tree across the street in a friendly neighbor’s yard.
Growing up I was constantly surrounded by nature. I went hiking before I could walk, and I learned to pitch a tent before I started learning math. This was mostly due to my father, who considered these trips family vacations. I never minded though. I was always looking forward to the next one. And this is where I believe my affinity for trees was born. Being surrounded by them all the time. Climbing them until I got scared that my feet would not be able to brace my fall. Having contests with my cousins to see who could climb faster, and me always winning. It was on those trips, being surrounded by cousins and siblings, that I believe I made that small mental connection. Somewhere, at some point in those woods, my eyes saw trees and my heart saw comfort.
From then on, trees were my thing. I never made an effort to learn about the different species, but I would pick leaves up and take them home. My collection of pine needles, maple leaves, and oak leaves grew until my mom got tired of the nature in my bed and threw them out into the backyard. Once I discovered them missing, I would set about to collect more, creating an endless cycle of collecting and discarding. Not only was I interested in the leaves, but I loved to challenge myself. It was usually a question of “How high can I climb this time?” followed by band-aids and tears when I would fall. Despite the growing number of bumps and bruises, I continued filling my childhood with collecting and climbing.
At the beginning of my middle school career, my parents moved our family to a house large enough for all six of us. The moment we pulled up I was in love. A tree grew in the front yard, doomed to be removed some years later, and all my neighbors had trees as well. But it was the tree across the street that bloomed with red and blackberries that caught my attention. It was short enough then for me to easily grab a low-hanging branch and swing myself into it. During that first summer, I found the perfect space for my small body to fit. With growth, this nook changed, and so I took to sitting and leaning instead of nestling. But during that time, when I was too young and too female to wander the neighborhood, I would spend hours in that tree. Sometimes I would bring a dinky-old-mp3 player and listen to songs I no longer remember. I would pretend to be in a movie sometimes, leaning against the strong limbs, feigning teenage angst that I did not yet have.
Eventually, I hit high school where the angst was real and so was groundment. I began losing touch with my childhood personality, and by sophomore year I no longer had time to sit in my tree. I would still look at the tree on my walks to school, but soon enough I was too preoccupied with my siblings to acknowledge it. As school went on, and I got my license, I realize now that I would barely look at the tree. That I was so focused on moving, and succeeding, and making friends, that I hardly stopped to look around. I hardly stopped to simply sit in my favorite tree. And what that means to me now, is that I never really made time for myself in high school.
Part of me is thankful for the CoronaVirus. Not that it’s killing people and keeping people apart, but that it canceled school attendance, and so I had more time for myself. I couldn’t see my friends, practices were over, and my cousin had just given me a ton of her books that she no longer read. And so, during those first weeks in quarantine, I found that childish side of myself once again. I had grown quite a bit since the last time I swung into my mulberry tree. That old nook was difficult to find, and it wasn’t nearly as hard to get into as it had been that first summer. But the wind still blew through the leaves, and the branches still swayed, and the wind still grabbed at my hair.
I had grown faster than the tree but sitting there was still so familiar. I could climb higher now, and I felt content that now, I could climb to the top of the tree. I felt comfortable within the branches. Perhaps now, my feet would be strong enough to brace my fall.