Last month, I encountered this tree and its profoundly helpful signage near a crosswalk somewhere in our great Northeast. I won’t say where, only because I feel like draping my story in a cloud of mystery. I have no idea what the label means, other than “tree.” I have no idea who put it there and why, and I have no particular interest in finding out, although I’m guessing it has something to do with municipal streetscaping and the need for different civic bodies to communicate with one another, even when the communication requires one such body to state the obvious IN ALL CAPS on a stake in the ground.
Needless to say, I was greatly amused. HA HA HA HA HA HA HA, I said, or something along those lines. HA HA HA HA I GUESS THE CITY GARDENERS ARE HAVING THEIR SAY HA HA HA HA HA, then added, just for good measure: HA HA HA HA. And snapped a photo. Which you see here. Ha ha ha ha ha.
But then I started thinking heavily, which I tend to do a little more often than I should. I started thinking about Things That Are Obvious and Things That Are Said, and how often the obvious goes unsaid at the precise points in time when they really ought to be articulated. Like this point. Now. When what’s right and what’s wrong are being confused, when what’s real and what’s fake are being conflated, when up is down and good is bad and love is the not the opposite of hate but a convenience to be bartered and bought among the powerful.
We fancy ourselves creatures of deliberation. We regard ourselves as beings capable of complex reasoning and nuanced motives, but we are not. We are simple. We need labels. Indeed, we crave them. We want to be told who we are, why we are, whom to trust, whom to fear and which among us belongs to the clan.
And so I began to wonder whether everything should be painted in bold letters on conspicuous wooden signs.
The homeless guy panhandling for change: HUMAN. The toddler at the border, separated from her parents and stained with tears: CHILD. The politicians in city hall, in any given statehouse, in the U.S. Capitol and the White House, no matter who they think they’re working for and how they’re lining their pockets: PUBLIC SERVANTS. The trash collectors who lift your heavy-ass, stinky-ass, overloaded garbage into a truck every week: PUBLIC HEROES. The sacred place where we sleep and eat and laugh and hold our loved ones, no matter its location or its footprint or its worth: HOME. The people who live next door to us, no matter their beliefs, no matter their birthplace, no matter their habits or their accent or their orientation or their identity or their ethnicity or their color or creed: NEIGHBORS.
The neighbor who holds and treasures citizenship in this country: AMERICAN. The neighbor who doesn’t but yearns to: ASPIRING AMERICAN. The one who spews hatred in anyone’s direction: UNAMERICAN.
I could go on, but you get the gist. And one more thing: TREE.