Under the Big Sycamore Tree

When my husband and I bought our house in East Sacramento in 1987, I sighed when I first looked at the back yard. It had once been lovingly tended by a Sacramento High School English teacher named Estelle Young. She and her husband George had the house built in 1921 for a whopping $4,000, according to the deed. Aunt Estelle, as my next-door neighbor Becky called her, grew roses along the side fence. But in the intervening years, between two other brief owners, the back yard had drooped considerably. The rear half ran wild with ivy and volunteers.

“It’s an urban jungle,” my husband Cliff observed, rather admiringly.

He grew up in Rescue in El Dorado County, on dozens of acres of ranch land where his grandmother had run cattle and his parents raised chickens and turkeys. Small, city yards were definitely not his style.

“We can work with this,” he said with his usual can-do spirit. And we did.

Cliff tidied up the grass and the jungly part, and I worked on the roses along the fence. I can’t tell you how many times I invoked the spirit of Aunt Estelle as I pruned her roses and coaxed them back to life. We lost a couple, replaced them, threw annual pickup truck beds full of “soil amendments” into the clay, grew vegetables, built a deck for barbecues, and picked up untold amounts of cat and dog poop.
Somehow, in spite of us, the yard mellowed.

Its centerpiece is a huge sycamore tree, midway between house and back fence, that has to be 80 years old. The story I heard from Becky was that when the city came around to the new suburb of East Sac in the 1920s, planting trees in all the front yards, Aunt Estelle declined. She didn’t want a big old tree in front. “Put it in the back,” she directed the tree planters, who apparently did.

It’s still the only sycamore in a back yard for several blocks, as far as I know.

It drops its mantle every fall, parceling out leaves through Christmas, which thrills my yard guys (thanks, Paul and crew!). When my niece and nephew were little, we’d rake the leaves into piles and wham! They’d leap into them, hollering, “Cowabunga!” All winter, the tree stands bare and proud, and usually by March the leaves pop out again, seemingly huge in an instant.

Since Cliff died five years ago, the back yard has become a place of reflection for me. Every year when I mulch, I think of him, and each spring when I clean out the beds by the garage and the fence, I plant new sprigs of flowers for the one who taught me that green thumbs are often earned.

A couple of years ago, when the yoga teacher I was practicing with decamped from her McKinley Park home for Maui, a few of my fellow yogis wondered if we could still practice together. “Well,” I said, “we could maybe use my back yard…”

They arrived two mornings later, mats in hand.

Though I teach writing every day, I was new as a yoga teacher and a bit hesitant about leading a group. I decided that I’d offer the space for free, and if the ladies wanted to come practice a few times a week with me, that’d be fine.

We spread out our mats under the big sycamore tree, leafy with summer shade, and began. Footing on the uneven grass was tricky at first, but we discovered there’s something special about doing tree pose under, well, an actual tree. Especially one that’s witnessed as much history as the one in my yard.

Some years ago, when the sycamore was looking very leggy, I found a man to come prune it. I was a bit anxious about the process, since Becky, the year before, had hired some guys to trim the two sycamores in her front yard who hacked off most of those trees’ arms and left stubs just above the roof of her house.

“So the deal is,” I said to George, the tree trimmer, “I don’t want the long limbs trimmed back to nothing. I still want it to have arms—just not all the extra pieces. I want it to still feel like a majestic tree.”

George got it immediately. “No problem,” he assured me. “I’ll be gentle with it.”

And he was, climbing the tree with ropes and harness like a rock climber, though the pruning took him the better part of three weeks, showing up, it seemed to me, when he felt like it. I was a little irritated but tried not to be.

“Sorry, ma’am,” George said quite seriously, “but I’m an artist. I do a little, then go away, think about it, come back.”

And when he was done, he cleaned up all the shavings, took away the extra wood and charged me what I thought was not enough for his artistry. “The good Lord provides,” George told me. “I ask for what I need when I need it. And this is all I need now.”

It occurred to me then that I had not only experienced a tree trimming, but a bit of an epiphany as well.

I came to think of it not so much as “my tree,” and honestly, not even “my yard” or “my house.” I see myself as the temporary caretaker of the place, taking my turn at maintenance and repair in this new century. Someone else will come along after me, and it’ll be their turn. Now it’s my job to be a good steward, to have the tree pruned once in a while, to be tolerant but firm with the urban jungle, to literally stop and smell the roses and admire the cosmos blooming bright pink against the garage.
If we’re lucky, through the end of September, my yoga buddies—Sonya, Thea, Petra, Pamela—and I can be found a couple mornings a week in the back yard. We begin by standing on our mats, closing our eyes.

I say, “Let’s take some nice, deep breaths, feeling our bellies swell and contract, bringing ourselves to this place, this time, under the big sycamore tree—letting go of  everything that’s not needed or wanted, knowing we can pick it up again.”

We stand there, listen to the leaves rustle. I always feel myself sway a bit, as if picked up by the breeze. I think of Aunt Estelle, Uncle George, Becky and Cliff, all of them gone now, all of them brought back by breathing in the back yard.

We do the Buddhist lovingkindness meditation—sending peace, joy and compassion to ourselves, then loved ones, then all beings everywhere, and finally to those with whom we struggle. Then we move gently into our asanas, laugh a bit, smile, and come to rest in child pose on our mats, guarded by a mighty presence.

(In memory of Dr. Thea Wilson, our yoga buddy, who still joins us in spirit every summer!)

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