My Sacred Place Was a Palo Verde Tree


When I was twelve, my sacred places were a palo verde tree with boards nailed to it and a circle of mesquite trees that, in a land barren of shade, formed a shadowy grove.

Growing up in Tucson, my life dried up. My family descended into chaos, my sense of self went dormant, my friendships withered away. But in a desert, you learn even the driest places teem with life. The desert nurtured me. When I did not have friend, sister, brother, parent to depend on, I learned to go to the trees and stones for companions.

Picture this: my siblings and I explored the desert a day before they returned to the children’s home that raised them. We found a lone palo verde tree that someone had turned into a simple tree house. There were boards nailed willy-nilly to the trunk, a bit of a pallet forming a high-up floor. We spent the afternoon finishing that work, finding rusted nails on the ground, using stones for hammers. At sunset, the tree had a place for each of us, reflecting our ages: the oldest, Steve, on the highest branch, Katie in the middle, and me, the youngest, closest to the ground. It’s the last time I remember the three of us playing together.

A year later, workers widened the thoroughfare bordering our neighborhood, and the palo verde, once hidden, was left exposed to speeding cars. When I saw it, my breath went missing.

Desolate, I turned and wandered away. My brother was in high school; he no longer cared to play. What was lost was irreplaceable.

But then, not five minutes later, I found that circle of mesquite. Their hush drew me in, and I went still in their cool shade. The trees somehow witnessed my yearning. In the middle of that circle, I felt hope prick my heart.

The hope was not the same as having my siblings there. Not the same as sharing a project. I almost cried for the more I was desperate for.

And yet the trees gave me something that day, something to hold on to. I learned that if one sacred place is lost, another can be found. If one beauty is destroyed, another, improbably, can find you. There is more beauty available than you could possibly expect. Beauty offers itself generously to the brokenhearted.

Last week, I read Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass. It’s an account of the ways that indigenous wisdom and scientific knowledge help us redeem our relationships to the earth. I found it a hard read, though it was wise and beautiful. It was hard to read, because healing first means admitting what hurts.

It hurt to remember how I once regarded the land as a dear, trusted friend and how now I prefer to stay inside.

My family moved to San Diego not long after I found that sacred grove of mesquite. At first, I was excited for the landscaped park next to my new house, the patch of grass in the backyard.

Everything is so green, I thought.

But the more I wandered the neighborhood, the more the pretty sameness bored me. The plants did not have a relationship to me or to the land. In Tucson, the sage, cacti and ocotillo that grew wild also decorated yards and pools. I’d find rare and beautiful things in open land: a delicate Christmas cactus with stems like thorny asparagus, improbable moss thriving the shade of an acacia, a deep magenta bloom in a stand of prickly pear. Occasionally I’d find a quail’s egg, cracked and empty.

In San Diego’s suburb, almost nothing grew that had not been centrally planned. The streets all looked the same, the plants were glossy and tropical. But the landscape lied: we did not live in the tropics. In fact, San Diego gets less rain than Tucson—it has more in common with Arizona than Bali. Someone had put these plants where they did not belong.

Maybe it was then I began spending more time inside than out. Maybe that’s when I stopped thinking of the land as a friend.

The alienation continues. When they were younger, my daughters played outside at the end of our cul-de-sac, but a letter from our homeowner’s association insisted they stop. Now my girls also spend more time inside than out.

In her book, Kimmerer asks, How do white children of immigrants recover our sense of place? She offers stories of people doing just that: students gathering cattails in a wetland, scientists studying how to restore a superfund site. Though I ached as I read her words, I also considered her question. I realized I have tried, imperfectly, to find my way back to the love of desert that comforted me as a child.

In my back yard, there is a wild tangle of native plants. I can name them for you: San Diego County sunflowers, toyon and manzanita, coral bells, baby oak trees, lemonade berry bushes. There is a tiny, almost bonsai-sized palo verde struggling to spread roots next to our deck.

I am a gardener now; I care for these plants. I delight in attracting local birds and the rabbits that burrow under the chain-link at the bottom of our hill. I have been listening to the birdsong of our suburban winged friends and try to memorize their melodies.

I do not find the gardening easy or intuitive. I get sunburned too easily, one of the plants in my yard gives me hives, I get discouraged when something dies, and, to be very frank, I find weeding tedious. My children would still rather play Minecraft than help me dig.

It is not enough. It is not the same. But it is also better than nothing.

Once, wandering in grief, I was comforted by the gifts of the land. Perhaps I can keep going deeper into the place I call home. Maybe I can expect the trees to comfort me, singing that beauty is closer, and more accessible, than you can possibly imagine.