The Tree. The Ash. The Ocean.

Maya Sonenberg


A tree grows in the center of the columbarium, spreading its ashy branches. In Israel, and in our own National Parks, one can plant trees to celebrate a birth or a marriage, to commemorate a death, but this tree grew unbidden, sucking up ashes from its roots, memories pulled by osmosis and transpiration. 

While the Oregon hills burned behind them, men played golf on the green, swinging their clubs against the flames—or oblivious to them. This fire leapt the river into Washington, took three months to contain, and nearly a year later, hotpspots still flare up. In British Columbia, nineteen separate fires merged to create the largest wildfire in the province's history, well over a million acres. Over a million acres burned in Montana too. Here in Seattle, a long dry spell followed a longer wet spell, and only the smoke from those fires to the north and south of us kept us from a record hot spell. In Houston, Hurricane Harvey deposited more rain in a few days than we get here all year. South Asia experienced its worst monsoon flooding in a century, with 41 million people affected. In Sierra Leone's Freetown, water and mud rushed through the streets and killed over a thousand. In previous years, I would have found these facts utterly preposterous. Today I find other things preposterous: the beauty of the dark men in their yellow slickers arranged so carefully alongside the red mud road, roofless houses beside them. Likewise the beautiful stories of black and white boys roaming Houston's flooded neighborhoods together in their boats to rescue dogs. Likewise the story that the fifty-four cats in Hemingway's Key West house survived Hurricane Irma. All of these gloss the pain.

I have just uncovered photographs of my father playing tennis in Maine with his pals. Only one of them wore tennis whites; the others, plaid shirts and clunky shoes. Before each match, the four old guys had to sweep water and leaves off the high school court with brooms, and in these photos, they pose with their rackets, spar with their brooms or balance them on one finger—goofy. While they played, my friend took me sailing. We wore sweaters with our shorts, and our legs were always cold. Summers seemed colder then.

The sun is a red circle. Is this beautiful? When ash falls on my arm, I see it but don't feel it. Roasting marshmallows, someone said, but no—my mother and her cigarettes, the meat of small mammals. I savor fat, its sizzle.

Even before Hurricane Irma completed her run, no storm on record, anywhere on the globe, had maintained winds of 185 mph for so long. She destroyed 95% of the structures on the Caribbean island of Barbuda, including its hospital and airport. Three months later, only 350 people had returned. 83% of our tap water is contaminated with microplastics, and microplastics have been found in twenty-three brands of beer in Germany as well as in honey and sugar. In Paris, these plastics fall from the sky. In every clam and oyster, microfibers from your fleece jacket. Maria blasted Puerto Rico, another category five storm stripping an entire island of power. And after, the long delay of relief, the specter of cholera, children and dogs working together to clear debris from a road. Drinkable water would be a blessing, even corrupted by plastics.

When I wake, Hillary Clinton will be president. From his urn, my father's ashes will say: Mayitchka, it was a joke!

In a variation on Chomsky, the smiling ball grows love reprehensibly. I can make this make sense if I need to, if forced, if facing a towering wave, a tsunami of flame. The word "love" makes me feel warm.

But as Teju Cole writes, "What, then, are we to do with a thrilling photograph that is at the same time an image of pain? . . . If it is done well, it can move us to think of art and pop culture ('it's just like a movie'), instead of the suffering it depicts. If it is not done well, if the images are not formally compelling, it might lose its claim on even our momentary attention."

"Geyn tsu shlofn," my parents said. Lights out. Time for sleep. 

Arguing over who left the gate open does not prevent the wolf from breaking down the cottage door.

This essay is a moving target. Every time my eyes return, a new disaster to splay across these pages: three earthquakes in Mexico, 450—no, over 1000—dead in Puerto Rico, direct or indirect results of the hurricanes, towns razed by fire in Northern—and now Southern—California, and behind them all, the constant disaster of this presidency. I once survived a year of deaths: family members, friends, artists and other public figures who had been important to me. Depressing but personal. Such things are survivable. Now though . . . 

The emerald ash borer, Agrilus planipennis Fairmaire, an exotic beetle whose larvae feed on the inner bark of ash trees has been discovered in five additional counties in Wisconsin. Mature insects are the swirly iridescent color of abalone. To kill them, inject a poison into the trunk of each tree. Imagine a rain of nacre, then shuffling through it beneath the trees, handfuls like jewels, the tarnish of the world.

Last year, I didn't realize that so many men could create their own air bubbles. I thought some flame was capable of killing them, that they could not survive sucking smoke, breathing fire, but even their shirts seem to stay white.

Among the Norse gods, the giant Ó”gir personified the sea. With his wife Rán, goddess of storms and the drowned dead, he had nine daughters, nine billow maidens dressed in white veils, each named after a type of wave (pitching, surging, grasping, chilling, and my favorite—the wave that reflects the sky's light). Perhaps one maiden, though, was the daughter of his brother, the giant Logi instead, the one who ruled over fire or was fire or both, both cause and effect, creation and destruction. Blóõoughadda was her name, the one with blood red hair—the color of waves after a battle. Rolling, roiling, they could be mistaken for flame.

In the year 2050, humans will be able to move objects with their minds, plastic fiber optic cables no longer necessary to connect them to each other, spider-web thin. This will be one of the few remaining available metaphors based on the natural world, since spiders will still exist. And flies, I suppose, for the spiders to eat.

Wave and branch both say the same thing: come here. They curl towards me, pull me in. Even when I want to see doves instead.

Adonai spoke to Moses from a burning bush (aflame but not consumed), appointing him to lead the Jews out of Egypt, and a pillar of fire accompanied them on this journey, but after the Holocaust, memories of the ovens which reduced our loved ones to ash have overrun these more positive associations with flame. Still we light candles on Shabbat, on yahrzeits, and on Chanukah, the festival of lights—small reminders of the frailty of life but also of the divine. 

My father says the tree is really Yggdrasil, the tree of life, that I am mistaken, confused, because Yggdrasil was an ash tree. Despite what you think, Mayitchka, ash trees do not have gray leaves, nor particularly gray bark. Does the Book of Life have gray pages? 

Online, Time magazine promises "See Stunning Before and After Photos of Hurricane Irma's Impact on the Caribbean," but the photos themselves, both before and after, fail to stun. Taken from far above (the photos were provided by DigitalGlobe, whose advertising slogan is "See a Better World with High-Resolution Satellite Imagery"), they show tiny buildings and twisting roads, empty fields. Zooming in, I try to see the dark buildings as roofless, the huddles of white boats near the shore as ravaged, the fields as denuded of vegetation, but in the zoom, everything goes fuzzy, and as Teju Cole predicted, the photos' lack of beauty renders them boring.

The New York Post and The Telegraph promise "startling photos" and "shocking footage." These show swimming pools sucked of water, shit-brown bays, boats crushing a beach, disheveled palms, a car smashed by a tree and a guy facing it like he's peeing. I can't stop looking, trepidatious and anticipative, wading through the photos to see a dead hand or foot or a rib bone or a crushed skull. In addition to Cole's two categories, I'd add a third: photos whose content is so gory that it overrides formal considerations—photos like car crashes. 

In his book on the Rwandan genocide, Philip Gourevitch writes: 

The skeleton is a beautiful thing. The randomness of its fallen forms, the strange tranquility of their rude exposure, the skull here, the arm bent in some uninterpretable gesture there—these things were beautiful, and their beauty only added to the affront of the place. I couldn't settle on any meaningful response: revulsion, alarm, sorrow, grief, shame, incomprehension, sure, but nothing truly meaningful. I just looked, and I took photographs, because I wondered whether I could really see what I was seeing while I saw it, and I wanted also an excuse to look a bit more closely.

I am not saying that people do nothing. Somehow they act—some act, we try to—taking some unknown path through or around the beautiful, the boring, the voyeuristically horrifying.

I presume that you are reading this [Gourevitch writes] because you desire a closer look, and that you, too, are properly disturbed by your curiosity. Perhaps, in examining this extremity with me, you hope for some understanding, some insight, some flicker of self-knowledge—a moral, or a lesson, or a clue about how to behave in this world: some such information. I don't discount the possibility, but when it comes to genocide, you already know right from wrong. The best reason I have come up with for looking closely into Rwanda's stories is that ignoring them makes me even more uncomfortable about existence and my place in it. The horror, as horror, interests me only insofar as a precise memory of the offense is necessary to understand its legacy.

Be compelled into the studio-study. Be compelled to make art, word by word, stroke by stroke, stitch by stitch. Use the toxic glue. Be unable to wash the black paint from under your fingernails.

In Maine, we built the raft from old logs we found wedged between rocks on the shore, no mast from which to fly our flag. Once barely afloat, we paddled with a worn board. Around one bend in the cold fog turned into around many bends before we found the town dock, where our own angry, hungry dogs waited for us.

Fallen trees litter the meadow where my father's ashes will rest, and inside each log, black ants live, red ants, or other bugs. Seen from the sky, their swarming flows in and out of cracks in the rotten wood, fluid. From space Irma is beautiful, an opal. An indictment: I can't turn off the beauty-finding app.



That's pretty but it can't be the end. It's not good enough to say "sorry."

Let's say you're driving, or really you're sitting there and your friend is driving you home, and you see a group of men and boys blocking the street near your house—teenage boys and young men and one younger boy. He looks about eight, he's got dark hair and eyes, and he's wearing a red-and-black buffalo plaid shirt. He seems scared, and that's when you notice all the other guys are facing him, a semicircle, as he backs up toward a wall. You're not sure but something feels dangerous. Is it the way the guys' heads are thrust forward, the tension in their necks, the straining in their arms? They seem to be holding things—brandishing things? Then one man rushes the boy and seems to stab him—We have to do something, you say, I'm calling 911—but then it seems he's waving straw—the man is and the boy is too. Then the man pulls his arm back and it was a knife, not straw. No, your friend says, but then the kid—you notice his face is dirty—barfs up some blood, and you say, I'm really calling 911, and you reach for your phone which is in a bag at your feet. No, I'm scared, your friend says. You say, I'm scared too. We can drive away and then call.

What are you two scared of? That the guys will find you and attack you too? That you'll need to testify in a courtroom and suddenly your memories of the scene will be unclear? Or they won't be unclear but the guy with the knife—or his friends—will come after you? That you're underreacting—or overreacting? You guess you could be wrong. The blood disappears into the red of the boy's shirt.

This scene isn't beautiful, or boring, or thrill-inducing. It's just scary. How scary does it need to be before you act? And how much fear do I need to override?





Teju Cole quote comes from "Object Lesson," Known and Strange Things (New York: Random House, 2016), p 135.

Philip Gourevitch quotes come from We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families: Stories from Rwanda (New York: FS&G, 1998), p 19.

Hurricane damage photos of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean were seen on:

Facts about fires, earthquakes, monsoons, plastics, and hurricanes come from: