Chapter 35 - "The Covered Bridge" - MY MOSTLY HAPPY LIFE: Autobiography of a Climbing Tree

Updated 2 years ago By Shelly Reuben
Chapter 35 - "The Covered Bridge" - MY MOSTLY HAPPY LIFE: Autobiography of a Climbing Tree


Illustrations by Ruth McGraw

Two more significant things happened during those miserable few weeks but, as I said before, I don’t remember in what order they occurred.

One involved our oldest living friend, Alonso Hannah who, except for Samuel Swerling, was the person most responsible for making us into what we became.

The other concerned our newest friend, Timothy Wong. Timothy, you may remember, discovered the Samuel Swerling Park on a school assignment shortly after the storm.

I’ll tell you about Alonso first.

He was ninety-years-old at that time.

For the last twenty or so years, he had relegated park security, park maintenance, and park politics to his son Hercules, and concerned himself only with what he loved to do most: Grow plants. Alonso was particularly fond of lilacs, wisteria, and crepe myrtle trees. He tolerated annual flowers because, as he once explained to Mr. Swerling, “We all need a little splash and dash in our lives from time to time.” But his real loves were shrubs and trees.

For years, our park had been a wonderland of honeysuckle, hydrangea, azalea and rhododendron. But lately, Alonso had been branching into roses, particularly ever-blooming varieties like grandiflora Ascot, Miss Atwood, and Princess Alexandra of Kent. He was also experimenting with Red Riding Hood phlox and Gloria Purpurea astilbe, a perennial he had disliked until discovering a variety with pale pink plumes.

In short, Alonso, at ninety years of age, was half as busy as Alonso at twenty-two but twice as busy as most men half his age.

Although seventy-two-year-old Pepita’s face showed signs of aging, she was still amazingly pretty, and continued to play violin in the strings section of the City Symphony Orchestra. She wore ballet slipper-like shoes, light summer dresses that fluttered around her slender body like petals in a breeze, and often walked hand-in-hand with Alonso through the park, keeping him company, as when they were young, while he tended to his flowers and pruned his trees.

I maintain a special feeling for Alonso’s wife, and will never forget how he placed her in the protective custody of my arms, trusting me to take care of her before he dashed off to confront the men who had chased her into the park.

To me, Pepita will always be the delicate and fragile creature I had once sheltered.

She will always smell of lilacs.

And (I told you earlier that we trees have this susceptibility) I will always be a little bit in love with her.

She and Alonso were so much a part of my youth that I thought I knew everything about them. Or, rather, that what I did not know wasn’t worth knowing.

I was, of course, wrong, and I remained blissfully unaware of my ignorance until Jarvis Larchmont’s henchmen stormed in.

First and foremost of the things I did not know was that Alonso possessed an album he jokingly referred to as his “baby book,” and by his, he meant our baby book, because all of the photographs in the album were of my fellow climbing trees and me.

No one knew about this album, except maybe Sam when he was alive. But Esther had never heard of it. Nor had her grandmother, her mother, her sibling, Meg, Pepita, or Herk.

I don’t believe that Alonso had meant to keep his collection of photographs a secret. It was more that he thought it wouldn’t interest anybody but himself, in the same way that an architect would never think of showing his blueprints to an acquaintance who had commented on the beauty of a building he had designed.

After we found out about the photo album, though, Esther began to refer to it as an example of “the urgency of emergency.”

Meaning what?

I’m not sure. Except that we did have an emergency, and we urgently needed the photograph album which had so miraculously appeared.

At ninety years of age, and except for a vast assemblage of wrinkles, Alonso Hannah still very much resembled his younger self. Tufts of his once-red hair had turned white, and he had shrunk about three inches in height, but the biggest change that time had wrought was the expression on his face. He seemed friendlier and more accessible than he had in the days of his broad-chested youth. Even his cucumber nose, which still drooped, was less daunting, like a boulder on a beach that had been so battered by waves over the years that it began to blend in with the scenery.

During all of his adult life, Alonso felt as if he were a member of Sam Swerling’s family, sometimes convinced that he was more entitled to be so than blood relatives who had spent less time in the park.

But Alonso considered Carmichael to be worthy of the Swerling name, as well as Carmichael’s brother Noah and his sister Esther, because as a children, they had virtually lived in the trees. “Like squirrels,” their mother Donna often protested to her father. “I don’t know what they’ll grow up to be!”

Alonso had no complaints.

He liked what Carmichael had become.

And the more he read about the park’s troubles in that young man’s newspaper, the more he liked its editor-in-chief. It was after publication of “A Brief History of the Samuel Swerling Park,” written by Carmichael himself, that Alonso suddenly remembered the photograph album he had compiled so long ago.

His “baby book” of trees.

It took him three hours to find it in the attic of his house, buried at the bottom of a cedar chest, under a stack of old love letters from Pepita and ancient catalogues filled with pictures of bulbs, roots, and seeds.

After Alonso dug it out, he did not spend hours reminiscing over the images. Instead, he flicked through the thick pages, nodded in affirmation that his memory had served him right, thrust the album into a shopping bag, and took a bus downtown to The Daily Globe.

Carmichael met the old arborist in the lobby.

He escorted him into his office and asked him to sit beside him behind his desk. Then Carmichael began to leaf through the album, pausing over each picture to ask Alonso to describe at what stage it was taken, give a detailed account of what it depicted, and explain what it proved.

The editor-in-chief took copious notes.

The following day, an article about the origins of the Samuel Swerling Park – our first front-page story ever – appeared with a headline above the fold:



In 1913, Joyce Kilmer wrote a poem called “Trees.”

The last two lines are:

Poems are made by fools like me,

But only God can make a tree.

But is this true?


The Daily Globe recently discovered a cache of photographs that document methodologies developed by arborist Alonso Hannah.

These never-before-published images not only prove that the trees in the Samuel Swerling Park were planted by and for that small island of greenery,

but also that their growth patterns were designed with one specific goal in mind: To be climbed by human beings.

Such disclosures force us to re-examine policies enacted over the past three weeks by the Department of Parks, and question whether those policies are rash and irresponsible.


Included within the article were a timeline of events, beginning with the installation of Jarvis Larchmont’s “Thou Shalt Not” notices, posters, and signs; interviews of outraged park visitors; a detailed chronology of our rapidly deteriorating health, including weakened roots, drooping branches, and increasingly frail spines. And, most conspicuous of all, that as early as mid-July, we had already begun to shed our leaves.

The photographs that accompanied the article were real eye-openers.

Even I, who was the subject of so many, could only look at them with astonishment, admiration, and awe. For what Alonso Hannah had accomplished as an arborist bordered on heretical. Or saintly. Either way, as the newspaper headline had blared, they proved that “Not only God can make a tree.”

Alonso’s plan was simplicity itself.

Implementing a technique that was ingenious, innovative, and exciting, he alternately blocked us from and exposed us to sunlight, thus shaping us into Samuel Swerling’s vision for his park.

When Alonso wanted a branch to grow horizontal to the ground, he erected a little roof over its head and enclosed it on three sides like a covered bridge, but opened it to sunlight in the direction that he wanted it to extend. If he wanted a branch to turn right, he shut out sunlight from the left. If he wanted it to grow in the opposite direction, he shut out light from the left. And when

he preferred that our branches reach to the sky like a preacher singing halleluiah, he removed the covered bridge entirely, and up we grew.

I have no memory of these physical convolutions. My development was smooth and gentle. Natural and painless. No branches were bent or broken. No arms were twisted. No agony was inflicted.

I grew north.

I grew south.

I grew out.

I grew up.

I followed the sun.

My fellow trees and I became what Alonso Hannah had shaped us into.

We became what Samuel Swerling had wanted us to be.

Climbing trees.

And because a man or a tree must keep faith with its nature or die in the trying, we were dying.

But Carmichael Swerling, editor-in-chief of The Daily Globe, had written a headline-grabbing, front-page article about us.

And the right people might read it in time.

There was still a vestige of hope.



Copyright © 2017, Shelly Reuben

Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her work, visit

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