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. Mine was 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. Now dying before my eyes.
     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 it 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.


  1. Can I ask what the original headline was?

    1. "Can white America forgive blacks?" Or something like that.

    2. Ahh, perfect sense for the heart of the column, but can see how that would bomb.

  2. the ginko:one damn fine tree.

  3. I'm not sure which headline was in the paper when I bought it yesterday early in the morning, but it certainly didn't make a big impression on me, negative or otherwise. But if it seemed to imply that Blacks had to beg forgiveness from Whites, all one had to do was read the column to be disabused of that notion. And since when do columnists write their own headlines? Another profession swirling down the commode, I guess.


  4. I’d like to think that maybe our country can survive this scorching we are experiencing but I’m honestly not very sure.

  5. I'm surprised to read that you wrote that first headline yourself. I thought other folks wrote the headlines, and I thought that one was rightly derided as being click-bait -- purposefully provocative for the sake of enticing page-views. Saw that "read the room" tweet and had to agree. Though I understood the point of the column, this is not a very good time for nuance, it would seem. On the upside, I'm not sure how many "potential readers" you drove away. The tweet got swept up in the perpetual outrage whirlwind and plenty who have no idea about who you are, the work you've done over decades, or even which "side" you're on, took the opportunity to chime in, before immediately moving on to their next free-floating target.

    As for the ginkgo -- a much more pleasant topic -- a very nicely crafted application of what's going on in front of your house to what's going on in your life. I gotta say, your photos portray a much deeper green than I associate with ginkgo leaves. Perhaps because they're new? Because of the second sprouting? Perhaps I'm just wrong. Anyway, belated Happy Birthday -- you seem to have hit on the most equanimous attitude to take toward the momentous occasion!

  6. Well, the purpose of a headline is to draw readers to the story. I don't have a clickbait mentality—maybe I'm just not internet savvy enough—but the possibility of people reacting to the headline without reading the piece never crossed my mind. It will next time.

  7. Happy 60th birthday, Mr. S. Introspection, depression, or melancholy can wait until you have the excuse of turning seventy, which is when you are finally OLD.

    I was able to be distracted from all the accompanying negativity of my 70th by celebrating with about 50,000 new friends down in Carbondale at the Great American Eclipse of 2017 (and I seem to recall that you were there, too, eating that same great fried chicken at Giant City State Park). There will be another solar eclipse when you, too, reach seventy, but not until November of 2030, and you'll have to travel some to see it--to either southern Africa or Australia.

    At 70, I began to list those I knew who'd never made it out of their sixties. Cousins, my wife's cousins, Wrigley bleacher pals, a doctor, the guy who cut my wife's hair for 38 years, and others. I once thought that those who died in their 60s and 70s had lived long lives and were truly ancient beings. I don't think that way anymore.


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