Thursday, June 11, 2020
The lesson of the ginkgo
May, if you recall, was the coldest ever in Chicago, with a polar vortex that dropped down from Canada and scorched the area's budding plant life, including the ginkgo biloba tree in our front yard just as it was blooming. So instead of sprouting its distinctive fan-shaped leaves when it was supposed to, it grew stunted little brown nubbins.
I took this personally.
"I killed it," I wailed, disconsolate. "The tree survives 270 million years and I killed it."
The ginkgo, in case you don't know, is a living fossil. When the Tyrannosaurus Rex showed up on Earth, the ginkgo was already almost 200 million years old.
Taxonomically, there is nothing remotely like it. The ginkgo exists in its own division—Ginkgophyta—its own class, order and family and genus. To find a close living relative, another ginkgo-like tree, you have to go back to the Pliocene epoch, three million years ago.
The perfect tree for a loner or eccentric. Frank Lloyd Wright loved them. Planted about 10 years ago on the parkway through a program with the village that splits the costs of trees. So not just a wonder, but a bargain. Dying before me.
To make matters worse, this was the tree brushed when that 50 foot evergreen fell over in an ice storm the day after Thanksgiving, 2018. The toppling tower missed me by 10 feet, snapped off one branch of the ginkgo. But the main tree was miraculously spared, still symmetrical and lovely. It escaped that fate, only to be slain by a few missing degrees of temperature in May, like a runner collapsing a few feet short of the finish line, dead.
What to do?
Northbrook, the leafy suburban paradise, has a forester of course, Terry Cichocki, and we know each other, my having phoned her enough times over the past two decades to consult, either for stories, or for some other tree that was giving me trouble.
I phoned her again, not seeking help—what can be done for a scorched tree?—so much as to commiserate, to talk to someone who I knew would care, and to confirm that nothing could be done, that the frozen finger of fate had done its cruel business.
What she said surprised me.
A second sprouting, she explained, will occur and the tree will be fine. Do nothing. Maybe we'll toss some extra fertilizer on it to give that second set of leaves the extra oomph they need to push into their 270 millionth spring.
Second set of leaves? Who knew? I was overjoyed.
The village came by, the fertilizer was spread. This week the leaves appeared. Just before my 60th birthday, the perfect present. Maybe that helped in my uncharacteristic reaction to the milestone. I was not introspective or sullen or irked. Not sad or depressed or melancholy. No conjuring up the life of celebrity and success, the pale blue Teslas, that might have been mine had I only been a different person doing everything differently. None of that bullshit. When my wife asked how it felt to be 60, I held up my hand and started ticking off the men I knew who died in their 50s—"Steve Neal, Jeff Zaslow, Andrew Patner" and others. Turning 60 was a gift I would gladly accept. It sure beat the alternative.
Maybe it wasn't the tree, but the triple crisis going on in America—plague then recession then civic upheaval. The least a person who finds himself secure in all that is not to complain about the spinning clock. You'd have to be an idiot. Which is certainly within my repertoire. But not this time.
I was also relieved. I had written a headline for my column Wednesday on race in America that rather than intrigue potential readers instead drove them away, in droves. Seven hundred comments in the first hour on Twitter, and, from the handful I looked at, most were of the "Fuck you, I'm not reading this," variety. Maybe the headline would have been fine last month, or next month, but now what I intended as a fish hook was acting as a spike. "Read the room," someone commented, sharply. Even as I was calling the paper to confer, the powers that be were pushing out a second headline that worked far better. Now instead of offending black Americans I was offending white bigots, like I'm supposed to.
Timing and luck are important. It's best if the nearby evergreen never falls. And best to bloom when the weather is going to stay warm.
But if it does fall, at least is should miss you. If you push out your verdant display at the wrong moment and get scorched, then you have to be adaptive. You need a second set of leaves—or another headline—in reserve. A tree doesn't survive 270 million years without being resilient and having a few tricks up its ... ah, branches. I've written a column for the Sun-Times with my picture on it since 1996, and lived through this mini-vortex to bloom another day. That's the lesson of the ginkgo.