Juxtaposing trees, fortune, and national habits.

I know it’s odd to juxtapose trees with the images of weekend backyard fun- but there’s an epiphany in the brew. It started with a Ukranian folk tale we read aloud this weekend. In the folk tale, a young boy set off to find his fortune. When the King and I asked the kids what a “fortune” entailed, they responded with all the wisdom of their American childhood- “money”.

But there is more to fortune that money in the tales of yore. In our folk tale, a good fortune included a family, a shared narrative, and the joy that comes with the courage to work hard and seek the best.

Here’s the rub: There is a qualifier- “good fortune”- that indicates the difference between merely having fortune and having the capacity to appreciate it.

America lacks a mythology for its trees. Unlike the Druids and pagans of the Old World, we approach our trees without the caution of reverence. Though we borrowed a little from Native Americans- mostly names and herbal remedies- none of what we borrowed was savored and kept lidded long enough to sow stories. The lack of studious awe, the stuff of stories, makes sense for those lured by the hard glint of gold.

As pioneers and homesteaders, our connection to the land proved more practical than spiritual. We loved the land for what we hoped to make of it.

Perhaps even the fact of ownership- the challenge of making land fruitful enough to warrant laying claim- demanded that the ties we forged be of the looser sort, loose enough to keep us from growing too attached.

Rather than name each tree, we calculated its value as timber. Here in Alabama, the longleaf pine forests made way for the rapidly-growing, productive loblolly pine. Certain birds and countless beautiful ecologies were lost in the process.

The nation prospered. Prosperity became a form of patriotism. But all our monied fortune did not translate into good fortune. All the money did not teach us how to use it wisely. All the toys and playthings only stole out attention from the unnamed trees and the holistic meaning of “good fortune” as a life lived in gratitude and joy for all that we’ve been given.

The dictionary defines good fortune as “an auspicious state resulting from favorable outcomes”. I see a fortune in the stately pines and maple trees behind the house. But I see our good fortune as part of an agreement to live with them rather than against them- to live in their shade, knowing they bear witness to our stories- grateful for the chance to learn from our history.

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