I first fell in love with Ada Limón as a writer on a New York City subway — her poem “The Name” was illustrated as public art there on the 2 train, part of the MTA’s “Poetry in Motion” series. In just a few lines it did what the best poetry does — it seems to slow and stretch time, through an encounter with the music and meaning of language, even while a reader may be rocketing through underground tunnels. That poem did for me what Limón — winner of National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry and host of the popular poetry podcast The Slowdown — in particular does so exceedingly well in so much of her work: gives voice to the natural world and a fundamental longing we have for it given it is an integral part of us and we it.
It’s little wonder that when she and I discussed her writing a prose piece for Scribd Originals she would want it to be about trees and, all the better and bolder, a love letter to trees, not only a lyrical exploration of how trees have shaped her life and the lives of her loved ones but how trees communicate with us, companion and protect us, heal us in ways we are only beginning to understand. Limón’s piece is very personal and yet it’s so full of breathtaking moments that take on how to live in these unrelentingly challenging times, how to look at the world and its broken places differently, how to be quiet and pause in an age where progress is too often synonymous with speed and agitates with noise, noise, noise.
I’ve pulled out several of these moments for Limón to expand upon here and help acquaint Scribd readers with all the different movements in Shelter: A Love Letter to Trees and invite them into its music — Limón’s exquisite music — and mastery of time and place.
“On the drive back and forth, every Sunday, from one new family to the next, we’d pass this one oak tree that had fallen over during a storm. Instead of trying to move it or cut it up, the owners had simply carved a bench into it. That was my favorite part of the drive, passing that fallen-over tree that now looked, not like an accident, or something broken, but like a safe place in between places.”
Limón: It’s so fortuitous that you asked about this section. I’m in Sonoma now and I drove that road just earlier today. I’ve always thought about how trees are with us at all times. Even when we think we have been isolated or alone, there have been trees. It was important for me to think about those times when I was going back and forth between families because of my parents’ divorce and eventual remarriages, and how essential the trees were to that journey, to those homes. There are so many unhelpful stories about divorce and how it breaks us, but we never seem to talk about how we can be mended by two families. I think that’s an important recasting that I needed to do, personally. My home was never broken, it was expanded.
“When my father’s father first crossed the border from Mexico, they smudged oranges and he lived in a chicken coop. Now my father has 130 trees of his own. Even if it isn’t our own legacy, there is a legacy. A legacy of trees.”
Limón: Oh yes, this is true! I’ve always thought about how trees have been a part of, not just my life, but of my family’s life. My paternal grandfather was from Mexico and when he crossed the border his family did whatever they could to survive, to make a living, find a place to land, and worked so hard, went through so much, to finally have his little house with various fruit trees. He was so proud of them. His trees and his rose bushes. Honoring trees was a way of honoring them. I think it was important for me to remember that my relationship to nature is linked to how I was taught about trees. I saw how my family revered them, and took care of them as workers and then as owners of their own trees in yards, trees in orchards — and they seemed to me a part of our community. It was one of my first lessons in reciprocity.
“I once had to move because of a tree.”
Limón: I feel like my relationship to trees activates all the senses. They can change moods, days, and whole atmospheres. I am so attached to their presence that if they are gone or if trees are cut down suddenly, it’s hard for me to return to that space. Yes, in the piece, I had to leave a place my husband and I lived when a sugar maple I loved and relied upon for contact with life and color was cut down. The whole property changed, lost something for me that could not be replaced. Even now, our fence line is being overrun by trees and I know we’ll need to cut them down so they don’t overtake the neighbor’s lawn, but still, I can’t imagine doing it. Trees belong here and sometimes I feel like I should move out of their way as opposed to moving them.
“And it felt like that. Medicine… Back then we were rarely silent, mania and chaos and heightened sexuality swirling around us for six years before we’d ultimately break up a few months prior to my 21st birthday. But that day we were quiet. I don’t know how long it lasted, maybe only a few minutes…but it felt like it was a long time. In my mind, it was the longest and fullest silence of our lives. The trees were holding us, and we were swaying back and forth, and for a moment we were going to be okay.”
Limón: I remember that moment so well. My first love and I up on the rooftop of his car, finally feeling like we could breathe. High school was terrible for everyone, but especially those of us that were artistic and felt outside the fold. I used to think the anxiety of adults was terrible, until I remember the anxiety of being a teenager. I think those trees really saved us that day. They held us there for a minute and we could be still. Which is saying a lot for two teenagers madly in love, two humans that were never still. It’s strange to think now that eucalyptus are being taken down everywhere because in a fire, they explode. With the climate crisis we are facing right now, the trees of my youth are being taken down. It makes me wonder about how much we will lose going forward, not just our trees, but our chance for our young people to lie down and look at trees and feel truly hopeful.
“Before I knew about any type of meditation, [my stepdad] Brady told me that you can meditate by looking at trees… if I ever struggled with any formal practice, I tried my best to look at trees. I’d imagine my blood pressure lowering, my heart rate steadying, and I’d say in my head, to my stepdad, ‘Look, I’m looking at trees.’”
Limón: I just did that this morning. I felt so upset about the state of the world. I’ve been sick for about three weeks and I’m more tired than I should be. I kept thinking my body, my body, my poor mortal body, still I stared at the many limbs and branches of the black oak in front of me and watched all the living things flit in and out of the sun-filled leaves. I think it’s easy to get caught up on how to do meditation right, but the best thing we can do for ourselves is take a deep breath and look at trees — to get outside of ourselves. Then, of course, go about the good work of trying to repair the world. Both my father and stepfather have taught me so much about how to repair things in me and outside me; it’s little wonder they are both dedicated to trees and their place in our lives, our world. I want to not give up. I think if we give up, we will lose so much more, and quickly. Somehow feeling connected to trees makes me feel like I can breathe again. It helps me from spinning off into despair.
“It seems it is also important to sometimes stand in the middle of a forest and not know the name of the ecosystem around you. To not work at picking out each plant and animal and record it in your mind or your journal, but just to experience it. Without categorization. To feel it, to feel that it is a living thing and you are a living thing.”
Limón: I do believe that we need to remember wonder, to remember awe. Knowing the names and the science behind ecological systems is important and I’ve spent a lot of time learning all the names given, in English, in Spanish, in Latin, which leads one to ask why this name and whose name is it? But it’s also important to just “be” sometimes. Especially right now when it seems the world is falling apart, so divided, I have to remember to be in communion with the world, to remember I am a part of this planet and that I have the capability of finding some sort of peace, some sort of equanimity within myself. It’s not easy work, but being in the trees helps.
“To talk about trees is to talk about our attachment to them. Our longing for them to be okay. To talk about trees then is also to talk about each other, the ways we are attached to what is living and how much we want it to go on doing just that for as long as possible.”
Limón: I feel like all my writing is essentially saying, “Listen, we are all going to die, let’s pay attention, let’s love, let’s be ourselves here and now and with our whole bodies.” I think witnessing death, and being keenly aware of mortality pressurizes our lives in a way that can actually make us love harder and be more present. It’s a way to tackle fear, tame it, not excite it, or it is for me, this surrender to what is while honoring what’s here, within reach because at one point all of this, including us, will be gone.
“That’s what we love about trees, how they minimize us, decenter us, knock us off our silly pedestal of human superiority. Trees loom over us. ‘I took a walk in the woods and came out taller than the trees,’ said Henry David Thoreau, but the best thing about that quote is that... he did not…Perhaps what he meant to say was, ‘I took a walk in the woods and came out smaller than myself.”
Limón: Yes, it feels important to me to get smaller, not larger when we talk about nature. I want to recognize that our relationship with nature is reciprocal. That we don’t own it, that we can’t control it, even when we try to destroy it, nature is still stronger than us. That can be a good feeling sometimes, especially when humanity feels like it’s letting us down.
Take a leisurely walk through the woods and across the country in this homage to trees from award-winning poet Limón. This personal essay — told in brief and bittersweet vignettes — pays respect to the power, beauty, and mystery of our strong and silent companions. Shelter is perfect to read in the shade of a tree on a summer day.
About the Author: Amy Grace Loyd
Amy is an editor, teacher, and the author of the novel The Affairs of Others. She has been a MacDowell and Yaddo fellow and was an associate editor on the NYRB Classics, the fiction and literary editor at Playboy magazine and later at Esquire, and an executive editor at e-singles publisher Byliner. She is currently an acquiring editor and content creator for Scribd Originals.