When I was a teenager, for a lot of reasons and not unlike others of us, my relationship with my mother had become somewhat fraught. In fact, through those years I spent a lot of my time away from my family, at a barn on a three hundred acre YMCA camp in lower Michigan. I and a small band of comrades who also were not living the perfect teen lives tangled with the horses, mucked around cleaning stalls and repairing fence and tack, and hung out with the tougher women there who stood in for mother figures as needed. I also remember smoking a lot of cigarettes while playing a midwestern card game called euchre.
On one Sunday in May, sitting in the tack room I discovered from the others that this particular Sunday turned out to be Mother’s Day—which I had totally forgotten.
I tried brainstorming something to do for my mother when I returned home later. I have no idea why it didn’t simply involve going by a drugstore for at the very least a card and a box of chocolates. Instead, one option we came up with involved trying to get one of the Shetland ponies into a friend’s pick-up truck and taking it home and putting it in the garage for Mother to discover, but we all knew it really wasn’t really safe for the pony to travel in an open truck. I don’t remember when I thought of going out and digging up a plant of some sort to take back home, a more typical gift and possibly perceived as a positive display of the holiday.
I went out into one of the back fields with a beat up metal five-gallon bucket and a shovel, to a stand of wild cherry trees. I dug out a small one, probably sucker growth. Ever since I could remember my mother had been in a garden club, she loved working the garden borders in our frustratingly shady yard. And she’d ecouraged me, when I was an adolescent, to plant fruit trees, though the hard winters wiped out my dwarf apple. The cherry tree made immediate and expedient sense. Problem solved.
When I came back to the tack room, lugging the sapling in the bucket which had to weigh about thirty pounds with all that dirt in it, my boss’s friend Jo was sitting by the door, and asked what on earth I was doing.
“I forgot it’s Mother’s Day,” I told her. “Thought I’d take Mom a tree.”
Jo was a cutting horse trainer who had seen a lot; one of those wonderful, calm women with a dry but essentially kind sense of humor. “I see that,” she said mildly, nodding at me. “I’m not so sure I’d be glad to have one of those in my yard. Wild cherry is basically an invasive weed.”
I must have shrugged and obviously I recognized what she was saying, but I did put the bucket in the back seat of the car I was driving—my mother’s—and took it home with me.
Mind you, I always came back from the barn relatively dirty: sweat, grain bits or strands of hay, smears of manure, or I dragged my saddle home to take apart and clean. One time we fit several bales of straw in the back seat. Mother had recently blown up at me: “I got into my car Sunday morning,” she barked, “and it was a mess!” I could just see her darting out in her church clothes, thinking she was just going to hop in the car and go make the 8:00 service, to find when she opened the door her seat was strewn with God only knew what.
Which didn’t stop me from putting the rough cut metal and dirt with the tree in behind the driver’s seat, and going home.
When I produced the cherry tree, Mother didn’t miss a beat: she was delighted. She told me she knew just where she was going to plant it, and plant it she did.
Our relationship improved tremendously after I got my own life in order a few years later, which took a lot of tolerance and insight on both our parts, and at some point in my twenties after I’d moved away I thought to ask her about the cherry tree.
“Of course I knew what it was,” she said. “And yes—they’re awful: the fruit is small, it draws a lot of birds, they’re basically dirty and tough to keep from spreading.”
“So why did you plant it?”
“Because you gave it to me. Besides, I knew how to keep it small: I prune it back every year, and so it’s just a lovely little shrubby thing on the windy edge of the house. It’s still there.”
All that is a long time ago now, and I do not know why I woke up thinking about it this morning. It’s a beautiful sunny day, here in the PNW, and I will call a couple of mothers I know and wish them a good day. Then I plan to get out in my yard and rid myself of a few invasive trees that have popped up here: wands of big-leaf maple poking up through my rose bushes, some hawthornes back by the fence that keep spreading.
Motherhood is happening all over the place; I like that if you study it you learn that motherhood in the broader natural world can vary—a lot.
For instance, mother opossums have their babies growing in a pouch. They often birth more than they can actually provide for, and somehow, it isn’t an issue. The babies will emerge at some point, and spend more and more of their smallest weeks riding around on their mother’s back. Then, at the right moment, they will either be shaken off, fall off, or jump off, and simply wander out into the underbrush, to become more opossums. She doesn’t go looking for them and they don’t check in.
On the other hand, there has been a strange eagle drama going on around my neighborhood for several months. I keep hearing a voice calling on the opposite side of where I know the nest to be. It might be answered from the nesting site, but it makes no sense that one of them would be where I hear the voice coming from, unless they’re building a new nest, which it doesn’t look like they’re doing. Then a week or so back I saw a large, dark bird shoot across the sky in that direction—at first I thought it might be one of the ravens but it was way too big, and then I noted the brown body, yellow feet. This may validate a theory a friend and I had been speculating on: a juvenile, maybe even from this nest, come back to wonder if maybe he might not get another year of hanging out with the adults. But the resident pair aren’t having it. They’ve been there for at least twenty years, and while I’ve heard babies in the past I’m not sure they did produce any offspring last year. Despite continuing the routine of coming to the nest, sprucing it up and defending it to the death, they may no longer be able to make viable babies. Doesn’t matter. They have clearly planned on another set of eaglets this year. Regardless of whatever its relationship is, this brown guy is not being allowed to get anywhere near the nest, though it periodically still turns up in the area, only to be chattered at and run off. Of course I wonder if the juvenile is sulking.
Mothering is a varied thing. A family of raccoons might hang out together in a pack for several generations. If you reach in to touch a pet dog’s puppies she might try to take off your hand, though within the year she will not seem to recognize them.
Obviously, humans being primates brings a whole different set of child rearing techniques. But our own organic practices are exactly the same biological drives as other animals, we’ve just happily dressed them up as cultural virtues: feed the young, keep them safe. Defend them against predators. Make sure they launch in safe places.
But obviously there are significant differences in being human. There are all those choices we can make, if we’re paying attention.
When my stepfather retired, rather than move to a comfortable locale in a warmer climate like most of the people they knew, he and my mother relocated to an island off the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. My stepfather told me he had to reason with Mother from going even farther into the woods. She was incredibly happy there. They’d call with reports of bobcats in the driveway, hibernating bear within range of the house, three feet of ice on Lake Huron in the winter.
So the fact that I live my somewhat rangy life outside of the city, doing what I can to pay attention to the other wild things around me, I attribute in part to something I’ve come by honestly, maybe even biologically.
I have occasionally wondered if the cherry is still at the house in Indiana, what the people who are living there have done about it. I was there in 2001 and did see the house and walk through the yard, but I was distracted by all kinds of things and forgot to look.
As I started writing this I wanted to double check about Midwestrn wild cherry, to see if what I remembered and had been told seemed correct, so I looked around at some internet sites at species information. The University of Michigan says this:
“A common tree of fencerows and borders of fields and forests, almost anywhere that birds have deposited the seeds; can be very scrubby in rocky ground or dry open jack pine or aspen savanna, a fine tree in deciduous forests (oak, beech-maple, or others), attaining considerable size in rich hardwoods.
Several species of Prunus, especially P. serotina, are known as stock-poisoning plants, because of their cyanogenic glycosides that produce dangerous amounts of hydrogen cyanide, particularly in the succulent young leaves and slightly wilted ones and in the pits, which may fatally poison children.”
I also found a website for Porcupine Hollow Farms, somewhere on the northwest side of lower Michigan. The farm grows Christmas trees and landscaping plants, and hardwoods for flooring and furniture. I like their description of the wild black cherry, which could very well have been be what I dug out:
“The leaves are simple, oval or oblong, tapering at both ends, wavy-margined and fine toothed, thin, shiny, dark green, bitter and aromatic when crushed, 2.5” long turning yellow in the fall. The flowers in May-June are white, in long, close-flowered facemes, small, flowering later than other wild cherries usually when the leaves are half grown. Fruit is pea sized berries, bitter when crushed, can be used in pies, ripening in August, fruit for birds and other game and also useful for yanking off by the handfuls to use as ammo when playing with the kids. It can be messy in some yards. It is a fast grower.”
They also point out it is a favorite tree of the eastern tent caterpillar, another good reason not to have one anywhere near things you care about.
As I go about my time in the yard today, and think about the various mothering going on around me, I will add one more determining characteristic to the human variety.
Mothers are creatures who will willingly take what is essentially plant vermin, given to them by reprobate daughters, and they will put it into their manicured, well-loved garden beds.