Item, one squirrel. Item, a second squirrel. The squirrels barked at me, then catapulted into an adjacent tree and disappeared. Item, a bird. It may have been a mockingbird, or it may have been a crow, or it may have been a bluejay. My ignorance of this particular is inexcusable, but I was distracted. Between hearing the flurry of beating wings and the rustling of disturbed leaves, I looked up into the heart of the canopy and was surprised to realize that the light was a different color than underneath any of the other trees, or, for that matter, than when standing out in open ground. It wasn’t a delicate filtered green like underneath willows or the ruddy shadows of a maple; it wasn’t a pure blue of day light or the deep velvet of twilight. I forgot about the birds completely.
Something about the air filtered by this tree turned it into a pearlescent glow, like the full moon on the ocean or a puddle slicked by oil after a summer storm, depending on whether one is at the shore or in the city. The air didn’t smell any different, and the sounds were the sounds of the afternoon: the barking squirrels, the rustling birds; somewhere near but not too near, the swish of tires in a hum of traffic.
This was the tree that knew everything, but it was not, as our mayor and our minister and our school teacher and my mother pointed out all too often, this was not the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. I wasn’t quite sure why they made such a fuss about all that. I knew it was important that it was the tree that knew everything, because it was the tree that everyone told secrets to and studied for tests under and went to when things were confused. I figured if it was the tree that knew everything, it really must also be the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, because, if it wasn’t, well, then, it couldn’t know everything.
I asked my mother. “Mom, what’s the big deal about the knowledge of good and evil?”
She got all flustered, and said it had something to do with beautiful gardens and falling in love and having babies.
“That doesn’t make any sense at all. What’s evil about gardens or love or babies?”
She stammered incoherently and sent me outside to play.
When I asked my school teacher, she said it was all just a silly story that the mayor made up so that we could have a landmark featured in the tourist brochure. Well, I had sent letters to the tourism offices of all 50 states and I had a great pile of color brochures and maps covered in squiggly lines, and most towns seemed to put up statues of funny-looking men rather than have famous trees.
When I asked the mayor to explain it all to me, he gave me a little lapel pin with the state flag inside the outline of the tree that knows everything, and then had his secretary give me a commemorative poster from the dedication of the tree. I put the pin on my overcoat and hung the poster on my bedroom wall, but none of this answered my question.
After church on Sunday, I went up to the minister, who had just taken a big bite of jelly doughnut, and asked him. “Why’s it the tree that knows everything, but not the tree of the knowledge of good and evil?” Right at that moment, some of the jelly filling plopped onto his shirtfront and he ran off to get a napkin.
No one would or could explain it to me, and so I had taken to sitting under the tree at all hours, thinking that maybe the tree would tell me. I mean, I know that trees can’t talk, or write, or anything, but no one else had much to say, so there was nothing to lose by trying. I figured that I probably wouldn’t learn much, but it was summer, and the air was warm and the days lasted forever, and I sat and napped and daydreamed and watched the squirrels and sometimes other people would stop by and I’d take their picture for them, under the tree.
This was the first time I had noticed the air under the tree being different from the air other places. I don’t know if I just hadn’t been looking right before, or if the time of day or the weather were different. I’d seen the air change color when tornadoes were coming in, everything turning a yellowy green gray and then lots of lightning and I knew, absolutely knew, that I had to run somewhere safe and duck and cover. We did lots of duck and cover drills at school, so that felt okay. But this wasn’t scary-tornado-storm colored under the tree. Like I said, it was pearlescent, it was one of the prettiest things I had ever seen, like a rainbow but without any color.
I decided to climb the tree and see what was going on, which seemed like a fine idea until I realized that it would be kind of hard to climb, since there weren’t any good branches for footholds. Then I remembered the squirrels, and how they would jump from tree to tree, and that made a lot of sense. I looked around. There was a good oak not too far away that I could get into by climbing onto the cemetery fence, so I did. The oak tree was built like a staircase, or a ladder, and I went up and up and around until I was on the right side to scoot over to the tree that knew everything. The squirrels started barking at me again, but as long as they didn’t start throwing acorns, I felt safe.
When I was looking over at the tree, I realized the entire tree seemed to have a cloud, or maybe a fog, of this different air. Or maybe the tree was glowing, or radiating something. We had studied nuclear bombs a little bit at school, but I wasn’t sure if nuclear meant glowy or if that was something else. Maybe when we do chemistry I’ll learn that. And I don’t think there’s any way to tell if something is nuclear, anyway, not without special scientist stuff. It isn’t like nuclear things are maybe warmer or smell different or get magnetic. Or maybe they do. But the tree that knew everything wasn’t warmer than everywhere else and smelled the same as all the other trees, and I didn’t have a paperclip to check and see if it was magnetic. I felt that it probably wasn’t going to nucleate me, and it didn’t seem ashy like fire smoke, so I crawled out on the limb of the oak tree to get closer to it.
I didn’t look down. I knew it would be a bad idea to look down, so I slithered on my stomach and held on tight and watched to make sure I didn’t get caught on any branches. The trees were further apart than they looked from the ground, but I could see how different the air was inside the tree that knew everything. I wanted so badly to know why it was different, and so even though I knew Tarzan was only make-believe, I started looking around for a rope or something to swing myself over. We didn’t have any kudzu, not like they do in some places, and even though I know I’m not supposed to like kudzu because although it looks like a fur coat it makes it hard for the trees to breathe, even still, if I had kudzu, I could have braided it into a rope to swing to the other tree. But I was just out on a branch on my stomach, and that wasn’t getting me anywhere.
There had been a movie about how monkeys move through trees, swinging from their arms, and I decided that might work. I wrapped my arms around the tree branch, like I was giving it a hug, and dropped upside down so that my legs were swinging free underneath. I swung my legs back and forth and back and forth to get momentum to move forward, and the oak tree’s bark scratched up my arms and my shoulders felt like they were going to break off and my hands were so sweaty I was afraid that I would lose my grip and fall, and that would probably hurt. A lot. So I kept swinging my legs and scootching forward and I didn’t look down or think about my arms bleeding. Then I was close enough that if I swung really, really hard I could get my leg onto one of the branches of the tree that knew everything. And I swung and looped my knee into the other tree, but was still holding onto the oak tree with my arms. I got my other knee up to cross over the branch, and I let go.
I was hanging upside down in the tree that knew everything, and I was tired, and my arms hurt and I was kind of absolutely terrified, but I realized I could feel the air was different. It was a little bit thicker, and a little bit warmer, and smelled a little bit like cinnamon. The only thing I can compare it to is the dandelion feathers that go poof into the air when you make a wish. It was like being surrounded by the tickly-air feeling of dandelion. I reached my arms up to meet my knees on the branch, and collapsed onto my stomach. Everything seemed happy, even my blood felt bubbly, like cola, or fish tank bubbles. I scootched closer to the trunk, and sat, resting my back against it. The trunk was warm, not like a stovetop, but like socks off the radiator, and all around me, the air hummed, like bees, except there were no bees. I could feel how much the tree was trying to tell me, and even though I couldn’t understand any of it, I was happier than I had ever been.