The Tree Line

My family has a long relationship with trees. My great grandfather was a tree cutter in (today’s) Ukraine. Our daughter’s name derives from the Hebrew word for “oak.” Three trees, haphazardly growing in a diamond, marked the backyard baseball of my elementary school days, their weak trapezoidal geometry an accurate reflection of my baseball abilities. Stewart Brand’s relation of the Oxford University main hall forresters in The Clock Of The Long Now made me rethink long-term systems reliability.

I like trees. But until New Year’s Eve, I never had one in my personal care.

Which is how I came to mumble borei minei visaameem as I pour a cup of water into the Christmas tree stand. I am borderline terrified that my first AirBnB experience will forever be marred by killing our host’s tree and subsequent banishment to the persona non grata kids table. Watering it each morning, crawling under the boughs, I have olfactory hues of friends’ trees and holiday seasons. Someone else took my great grandfather’s role and cut this one down; my job is to make sure it doesn’t leave unwanted color on those newly finished hardwood floors.

I decide a little Yiddishkeit wouldn’t hurt my arboreal pursuits. Perhaps this is a side effect of starting Daf Yomi, the daily page of Talmudic study that popped into my personal feed right after last year’s New Year’s Even Phish runs. While we were still picking latex balloon fragments out of our hair, our more righteous peers were starting another seven-year cycle of daily study to encompass all of the Talmud. Like other bandwagons, I jumped on. The spirituality served me well during a year of virtual celebrations and distant comfort.

What better prayer for our New Year’s Christmas Tree than the one we use to end Havdalah? To mark explicit and clear demarcation of things secular, with minei visaameem, on the first day of 2021? This required a bit of consultation with the Internet — after all, there are prayers for eating fruits of the tree, and for eating small (under 10" although I’m sure the Talmudic metrics are closer to hockey glove measurements in their opaque derivation) fragrant plants, but what prayer celebrates the winter scent that we use to saw off a year in which every day was Friday, March 13th?

Like scents you never noticed
And many subtle sounds
Like colors in the landscape
And textures of the town

Trey Anastasio/Tom Marshall “Scents and Subtle Sounds”

Much as staying in someone else’s house is a projection of their lives in current time and space, the tree’s ornaments paint an historical picture of family and places and vignettes. It is pure history; it’s current as of the unboxing of the ornaments. I can respect the tree as much as I respect donning the red rug for a Santa run; if you don’t appreciate religious diversity you’ve sort of missed the entire point of Hanukah. Mulling this over, on a walk through the silent trees, fragrant and slightly icy, I have decided a clear dividing line is useful. It re-establishes a baseline. We start counting from here, we are focused with a subtle scent of pine brought indoors, color that remains invariant over seasons, no matter how difficult.

I’m as diligent with Daf Yomi it as I am with most other hobbies — a day or so a week I pop open the app on my phone and see what is left open for interpretation. It’s mental yoga; a time to stretch and relax between the Zoom calls. We’ll see if I make it a full seven years.

This week is Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish holiday for trees. There are multiple parallelisms drawn between the proper action, Torah and trees — in Deuteronomy, it is advised to never damage the trees during a siege of the city; in Proverbs we find the line “it is a tree of life to those who hold fast to it” (including one of the most distinctive phrygian dominant melodies of the Seder Torah, for those who dabble in minor modes).

I was inspired to finally finish this piece I started a month ago with this morning’s Team Sefaria collection of Tu B’Shevat study pages. We’re back to trees again.



By day: CIO for R&D at a drug company. Scalable computing, data privacy, performance. Non-day: husband, parent, phan, bass player, ice hockey coach

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Hal Stern

By day: CIO for R&D at a drug company. Scalable computing, data privacy, performance. Non-day: husband, parent, phan, bass player, ice hockey coach