Colin Dickey | Longreads | March 2019 | 15 minutes (3,788 words)
A month after we bought our first house in 2009, our friend Vanessa came over for her first and only visit. She was moving with great difficulty by then, and the three steps up to our front door were treacherous. When she made it to the chair closest to the door she sat down with visible relief. Scleroderma is a perverse disease where the body manically over-produces collagen: it gets in your joints, making moving painful, and at its worst overtakes the body’s organs themselves. It makes one’s movements slow and measured, as though suffering from advanced age or arthritis — and yet, as Vanessa was fond of pointing out, it also makes one’s skin smooth and radiant. It is as though one is simultaneously aging forwards and backwards at once.
“Is that a linden tree?” she asked, looking out the window. Now having sat down again, her eyes were flashing around the room — she was still very much alert and alive, still very much a moving part of this world.
I told her I didn’t know — I’ve never been good at identifying or remembering trees. I couldn’t tell you the difference between an oak and an elm, a maple or a poplar.
“I’m pretty sure,” she said, “that it’s a linden.”
She died a few weeks later. In the months that followed, I spent a good deal of time looking out the window at the linden tree.
The linden’s leaves fell. They fell everywhere. In fall of course, but also in summer, in spring, in winter. They fell to make way for new leaves, and the piles gathered on the concrete of the side yard, nowhere to decay into. We’d rake them into piles or into the compost bin and then more would fall.
Only belatedly do I recognize that many of my early memories of Vanessa involve her dancing. Dancing was the first thing she lost.
As new homeowners Nicole and I were quickly learning that without almost constant attention, the trees, the plants, the weeds, all would cover over us entirely. Keeping the kind of manicured foliage I used to take for granted is an almost Herculean effort. It was our first home, and the first time we understood that the plant life contained within the lot of our house was our responsibility, for good or for ill. And we could not keep up with it — leaves fell and accumulated, branches shot out over neighbors’ property lines, the weeds and the grass in the backyard would, if not attended to, overtake the flagstone path and everything else within weeks. The plants could not be contained.
The overgrown yard usually signifies some kind of neglect, of a homeowner having given up on appearances. It’s odd that we’re trained to not see it as it really is: the bursting of life, the overflowing of living things whose vitality can’t be stopped.
Later that fall I watched Fritz Lang’s Siegfried for the first time — the first of two films he made in the ’30s that borrow from the same source material as Wagner’s Ring cycle, films that Weimar film critic Siegfried Kracauer would later take as an almost exemplary foreshadowing of the Nazi’s Nuremberg aesthetics. After slaying the dragon, the hero, Siegfried, touches its blood and discovers he can hear and understand the language of the birds of the forest, who bid him to bathe in the dragon’s blood to become invincible. As Siegfried moves to immerse himself in the dragon’s blood, a single linden leaf falls from the trees above and lands on his back, leaving one spot vulnerable — it is here, in this one spot covered by the linden leaf, he will ultimately be murdered by Hagen, his betrayer.
Do the birds not know this will happen? How can they not see the leaf fall and warn Siegfried? Do they know full well? Do they lie to Siegfried about his invulnerability, promising him immortality only so that he’ll lower his guard later, stabbed in the back?
In birdsong we are promised immortality; it is the slow decay and excess of the vegetable world that undoes this.
“Tilias, especially the species of western Europe, have for centuries been favorite shade and ornamental trees, particularly in Europe at the period when the formal style of gardening, under the inspiration of Le Nôtre, prevailed,” writes Charles Sprague Sargent in The Silva of North America, published in 1890; “and avenues of Lime-trees were long considered an essential feature in every park and town of central and northern Europe. The ability of the Lindens to thrive with severe pruning renewed year after year fit them for the decoration of formal gardens, and their free habit when allowed to grow naturally makes them desirable park and roadside trees.”
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Perhaps it is this facet of the linden — its adaptability to human intervention, and its ability to engage and respond to human aesthetics and popular taste — that have led to humans imbuing the tree with so many different symbolic meanings. It’s not just Siegfried; linden trees have had a long history in literature and mythology, particularly in Germanic folklore — the tree, art historian Michael Baxandall reports, has long been “an object of magico-religious interest.” Lime groves were treated as holy places of pilgrimage, their seeds eaten by pregnant women, their bark applied to the body to enhance both strength and beauty.
Its role is often standing at the literal center of town and culture: ancient lindens were planted in the center of Germanic towns, dedicated to the fertility goddess Freya before later being re-consecrated to the Virgin Mary. In time they would be the center around which local politics and law revolved, where courts and executions were held. As they aged, unchanged, they became symbols of longevity, a symbol of nationalism and of old Germanic culture. This location of the linden tree, both the literal and figurative center of town, offers it seeming endless possibilities of signification. As Baxandall concludes, the lime tree also had “broadly speaking, festal associations: as Hieronymus Bock said, it was a tree to dance under.”
I’d gone to graduate school with Vanessa’s twin sister Chandra, but how we really all got to know each other was via the bar down the street from our apartment, which in the summer of 2006 had an inexplicable happy hour where all drinks were $2.50 from 5 to 7, so Nicole and I, and Vanessa and Chandra, and whoever else was available would meet after work and each drink four Manhattans (even with a generous tip only $15) in two hours and then make dinner together. Nicole and I were getting married and were trying to keep our wedding small but somewhat last minute invited Vanessa and Chandra because they were good people and fun to drink with and knew how to have a good time. They’d also connected us with their friend, a wedding photographer who gave us a steep discount, which is also why perhaps they’re in so many of the photos from that night. Except for maybe my mother, no one at that wedding had more fun dancing than the two of them.
The first time I understood that there might be something wrong with Vanessa was a year later at a concert at the Hollywood Bowl, where live musicians performed classics from Bollywood cinema. I can no longer remember the performers but I remember how jubilant the crowd was through the whole night. At first it was kind of a nervously contained tension, but when the band broke into A. R. Rahman’s “Chaiyya Chaiyya” the audience erupted into motion, spilling out into the aisles, as though the entire place had been afflicted with St. Vitus’s Dance. The moment was infectious, the entire crowd undulating with joy. Only afterwards, during the intermission, when I saw Vanessa visibly struggle with the Bowl’s gentle concrete steps, did I have the first inkling that the soreness she’d lately been complaining of was something far more serious. And only belatedly do I recognize that many of my early memories of Vanessa involve her dancing. Dancing was the first thing she lost.
Ian Bostridge notes that the linden tree — or at least its derivatives — also plays an important role in perhaps the most famous scene in all of literature, in Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, at the heart of the literature of memory and remembering. Proust’s famous involuntary memory has long been associated with the madeleine, but the cookie alone is not enough. Marcel’s memories are triggered by the madeleine dipped in tea, and while we think of it as the “madeleine scene,” the true star is the tea: “Clearly, the truth I am seeking is not in the drink, but in me,” he explains after it has first triggered the hint of memory. “The drink has awoken in me, but does not know this truth, and can do no more than repeat it indefinitely.” Bostridge explains that the tea in question is actually tilleul, an herbal tea made from the blossoms of linden trees, a word that has no clear English translation (thus translators render it sometimes as “lime-blossom tea”), and that we might include Proust’s masterpiece among those other cultural artifacts inspired by the linden tree.
But it’s not entirely clear to me whether or not that’s accurate. Proust repeatedly uses the word thé in his famous Madeleine passage, not tilleul, a kind of tisane, or herbal infusion. Only as his memories start to come into focus does the lime blossom make its appearance: “And suddenly the memory appeared. That taste was of the little piece of madeleine that on Sunday mornings at Combray…[that] my aunt Léonie would give me after dipping it in her infusion of tea or lime blossom.” What to make of that “or”? Were there two distinct beverages, tea and tilleul, sometimes one and sometimes the other? Or is Marcel suggesting that it could have been either, that he doesn’t quite remember?
By the next paragraph, we have moved from thé to tilleul: “And as soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of madeleine dipped in lime-blossom tea that my aunt used to give me.” But then, in the final line of the passage, there is a reference only to “ma tasse de thé,” “my cup of tea.” It seems as though Proust uses these two words — thé and tilleul — as interchangeable synonyms, in the way Americans treat herbal infusions as the same as tea itself. Later, though, he will clarify: normally his aunt drank tea, but if she was “agitated,” she would ask for the herbal infusion tilleul instead. Yet his slight imprecision, and the way that one beverage gives way to another, hints at some deliberate obfuscation on his part. These questions, I suppose, are a bit trivial, and probably irrelevant — but then again, this is the most famous passage in the history of literature on the subject of memory, so perhaps a question as to what, exactly, Marcel remembers about that famous beverage is actually of great importance.
I learned all this about lindens only much later, some of it through research, some of it just happenstance, the way random facts and folklore tend to gather in the eaves of memory. I have no idea how much of this Vanessa might have known herself, had I asked her on that day more about linden trees. She was not an academic but moved among them, and had the same intellectual curiosity. What she knew of trees, their morphology and taxonomy, their cultural history — I never thought to ask.
As new homeowners Nicole and I were quickly learning that without almost constant attention, the trees, the plants, the weeds, all would cover over us entirely.
I began to research information about the history of the linden tree, its various appearances in literature and folklore, almost as a means of recapturing that moment with Vanessa, keeping it alive. Delving into the tree’s history, something I’d never otherwise given much thought to, became a way of remembering a friend looking out the window on a late spring day. This was not, as Proust would have it, in some kind of memoire involuntaire, but something deliberate.
This work has not been constant or all-encompassing; I have not devoted myself to understanding this tree. Rather, it’s something I take up in spare moments, between projects or when I’m otherwise idle — a few facts here, a book unearthed there. Only after I’d been working in this way for a few years did I understand that it was a way to recall that moment, something that otherwise might have easily slipped away: research as a means of actively remembering.
In fact, while I’d been keeping notes about linden trees for several years, it wasn’t until I came across the English translation of César Aira’s The Linden Tree that it finally seemed time to gather them all into one place. Aira’s slim novel opens with a description of the plaza in the Argentine town of Pringles, where there sits, among lines of linden trees, one in particular that by some quirk has grown to gargantuan size, “a monument to the singularity of our town.” Like that centuries-old Germanic tradition, there is an invocation of the linden tree as the center of town, the town’s identity. In Aira’s novel, though, it is also a story of Peron and a political landscape unique to Argentina: in the novel’s opening pages the tree is cut down, “in an irrational act of political hatred.” A boy whose family is associated with Peronistas is pursued by a band of fanatics and takes refuge atop the Monster Linden Tree; enraged, the mob below cuts the tree down. “‘The Peronist Boy’: how absurd! Children can’t be identified politically; they don’t belong to the left or the right. He wouldn’t have understood what he was representing. The symbol had infected him like a fateful virus.”
True, also, of the linden tree itself, which has come to bear all manner of symbolism implanted on it, while itself remaining ignorant to each and every last one of these uses. The tree itself has no use for magico-religious meaning, modernist films and novels, nor of the vagaries of politics, be it fascism or Peron’s populism. The tree has no relation to, nor interest in the research I’ve done, the memories that I associate with it. But then, without these human symbols, would we have so loyally planted so many linden trees in Europe and in the Americas? If the tree was not so adaptable to human needs, would it have flourished as readily as it has?
And certainly there are aspects of the linden which are not symbolic, which are instead chemical, pharmacological. In Aira’s novel there is (as there is with Proust) the tea: the narrator’s father collects the blossoms from these linden trees, using them to make the same tea that helped trigger Proust’s memories.
But unlike for Proust, in Aira’s novel the tea is not an occasion for remembering so much as it an occasion for confusion. “The linden’s calming properties are universally acknowledged, but I’m not sure that they reside in the flowers, which grow in little bunches and are yellow in color, barely distinct from the green of the leaves. I seem to remember that the flowers close to form a fruit, which is like a little Gothic capsule. Or maybe it’s the other way around: the capsule comes first and opens into a flower… Memory might be playing tricks on me…” This initial confusion, this misremembering, is met with a further desire not to know, as though there is also in the linden something about forgetting. “It would be easy to clear this up, because linden trees haven’t changed, and here in Flores, where I live, there are plenty that I could inspect. I haven’t (which shows how totally unscientific I am), but it doesn’t matter. I can’t remember if my father used the flowers or the leaves or the little capsules; no doubt he did it in his own special way, as he did everything else. Perhaps he had discovered how to extract the maximum benefit from the linden’s well-known calming properties; if so, I have reason to regret my distraction and poor memory, because whatever the recipe or method was, it died with him.”
The linden, for Aira, seems to invoke remembering at the same time it distorts and eschews it — no sooner has memory been triggered than there is some part of us that doesn’t want to know, that prefers the calm of forgetting.
I began writing this essay two years ago, but struggled with it, because at some point I realized it needed to be about Vanessa, not linden trees. And I realized that I didn’t have very many specific memories, anecdotes, or stories I could tell about her. The reason the Hollywood Bowl memory is clearer than others, perhaps, is because it was the first time I noticed something was wrong, but the rest of the memories were of a more ordinary kind, the simple and mundane acts of living life. These memories don’t have much of a point, or a story too them, and they don’t make for interesting things to write about in an essay. But nonetheless, they happened.
Inevitably, as someone leaves your life your memories become fragmented, little glimpses of memories, little shards you try hard to grasp. You try to build these into little narratives, because the telling is always easier to remember than the memory itself. Storytelling is the best and only mnemonic we have against death, but it is also a betrayal. The story distorts those memories, eventually taking them over entirely, but it’s what you have, and what you manage to keep as the other things recede. So when I tell you stories about Vanessa, understand that they are not memories; they are stories.
Inevitably, as someone leaves your life your memories become fragmented, little glimpses of memories, little shards you try hard to grasp.
During those last few years she kept losing weight. We’d meet semi-regularly on Saturday afternoons for ice cream at Scoops, which is legendary among Angelenos for its endless variety of flavors. Butterscotch green tea, smoked gouda melon, maple horchata. There’s a whiteboard on the wall where people can post ideas. No one eats at Scoops without sampling as much as possible. Scoops was one of those few unabashed pleasures she could indulge in, worth driving crosstown for, the perfect Saturday afternoon activity no matter the season. And every week a little smaller, her skin a little brighter.
Scoops is on a mostly residential street behind a community college, which is to say parking is scarce at best. Los Angeles is a city of cars, but it is also a city of hunting for parking. Even if you don’t walk as much as you do in other cities, you can end up walking a few blocks from wherever you’re able to find parking and wherever you’re trying to get to. Which is a thing you don’t notice until you can’t move more than a few feet without immense difficulty.
This is how a disease overtakes your life: one at a time, it robs you of pleasures. At first the big things, but soon it’s the simple things, too. The little gifts you give yourself that help you to keep on going. Scleroderma took these from Vanessa, too. One at a time, until they were all gone.
In Schubert’s Winter Journey, the song “Der Lindenbaum” returns again to the linden tree, the rustling of the leaves a reminder to the singer of a gentler time of youth (“I dreamt in its shade / So many a sweet dream. I cut into its bark into its bark / So many a word of love; / In happiness and sadness it drew / Me back to it again and again”). In this, nothing too surprising, just the simple nostalgia of youth. But the song goes on: a dark, winter night (“even in the dark / I had to close my eyes”), the singer once again passes the old linden trees, whose branches rustle, calling out to him: “Come here to me, old chap, / Here you find your rest.” The singer refuses this call (“My hat flew from my head, / I didn’t turn back”) but the message is clear. Schubert’s linden calls out for death, to encourage you to lie down in the snow in the dark, dark of winter, to give in to its narcotic embrace. To finally give up. But it also does so by asking you to remember, to return those old memories, to keep them alive even as you give up on your own life.
“Words, in fact, are incidental,” Aira writes; “they are formulae for remembering things; we manipulate them in combinations that give us an illusion of power, but the things were there first, intractably.” The linden tree on our property, like our other trees, grows ferociously. Those who prefer to think of Los Angeles as a waterless desert wasteland have little conception of how ruthlessly plant life grows here, how slick the streets can get with the sap of dropped seedpods.
There is another tree next to our driveway that grows freakishly fast — its limbs spread out over our neighbors’ car park as well, and it drops fat, sticky bombs of sap that stick to cars and eat gradually into the paint. After the neighbors politely complained, we had it cut it back, stripping it so bare it became an eyesore — but within a few months it had grown back, as though we’d never touched it, a monster of foliage bursting out into the street. That life could flourish so incessantly here is anathema to many people’s conception of Southern California, and one of its many hidden pleasures.
Because our lot is small, it means the trees on our property are always pushing up against our house and the neighbors’ house. It’s illegal in California, land of wildfires, to have a tree actually touching a structure, which means at least once a year we have to pare back the trees. So after a few years of doing it ourselves we hired a tree surgeon to prune the trees, hoping to redirect them so their growth wouldn’t be so dangerous or destructive. When he arrived, he identified the three trees: the olive in the back, the Chinese elm in the front yard — and, of course, the linden tree. Which, he told me, was not actually a linden tree at all.
“Are you sure?” I asked him. “I was pretty sure it was a linden tree.”
No, he corrected me, it’s not a linden. He gave me the actual name of the tree, but I’ve long since forgotten what it was; to be honest, I forgot it almost as soon as he told me it. In the years since I’ve never thought of that tree as anything other than a linden tree. It is, after all, in these little acts of misremembering, in the not wanting to know, that we keep alive the memory of those who’ve left us.
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Colin Dickey is the author of Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places, along with two other books of nonfiction. He is currently writing a book on conspiracy theories and other delusions, The Unidentified, forthcoming in 2020.
Editor: Sari Botton