The Tree Hugger


This is for Oakland, for the fallen brothers, for the fallen trees –
and for the good men in my life.

The Tree Hugger

his skin is brown
limbs long, he is lanky like me
but still: strong arms, thick spine

he is an oak
tree rooted in the Town
find him from Lower Bottoms
to top of the hills
from Berkeley border to Deep East

he is a tree and we
have never spoke,
clapped hands, dapped it up

i barely look him in the eye

                 * * *

i remember the first time
someone asked me to hug a tree

DC, 10th grade
field trip for all the city kids, all boys,
took us all the way past the suburbs
to the mystical land of West Virginia

land of miners and mountains
union bumperstickers and a Confederate flag
sharing the same Chevy in front of our bus
poor white folks and the richest forests
my greedy eyes had ever seen

i loved climbing trees
used to race my brother to the top
like we were running from the cops
which he was,
but no sirens singing out here in coal country
just pines and firs and miles and miles of
oaks: thick, brown, and beautiful
with green goatees and high-top fades
like Will Smith from the ’80s

hiking through the woods
in our oversized Timberlands
that actually made sense for once,
we reach a green meadow
and in the middle:
a single, giant oak.

Mr. Jeffries, biology teacher
in khakis and a comb-over, says
Alright, boys. One by one,
I want everyone to go hug that tree.”

What? Are you crazy?

twenty pairs of male eyes

shoot back at him.

Do you see any tye-dye
on my shirt?
Did perfectly groomed dreadlocks
suddenly bloom out of my rasta hat?
I’m not hugging no tree.

You hug the fucking tree.

                 * * *

before he left,
my pops didn’t beat me.

he didn’t raise a drunken fist.
he didn’t swing a leather belt.
he didn’t find a new use
for a waffle iron or a phone book.

he never did any of that.
never touched me at all.

there was no high-five
after i made varsity as a freshman,

no bear hug when Grandma’s diabetes took over,
no steady hand on my shoulder
when Chris got locked up
to let me know It’s gonna be ok, son.

my father is a good man.

his hands as big
and strong as his heart.
he was just never taught
how to use them.

                 * * *

in Oakland,
men walk by each other
with eyes averted
we’d rather look at the pavement
than another dude
pretend not to see how dark
his bark is than get caught up in the roots

that behind every tree
is a trap:
a noose waiting to be wrapped
around my limbs
a .45 hidden between the leaves

we are men of hard wood
hard ‘hoods, locally grown in the Town
we are the freshest, the most organic
but we chop each other down
in our prime
young oaks turned stumps
decades before their time

seems like the only time
i look a man in the eye
is when he’s lying
in a wooden box
about to be buried
six rings under the earth
like roots in concrete
blood on virgin soil
we should not be here
he should not be here
confined to this timber casket
buried in his own flesh

                 * * *

and now
i see him again
standing there

tall, lanky, alone
on the corner
of 19th and Foothill

his eyes, ancient but accurate
like they could see right through me,
which they do

i walk up quietly
look around to make sure
no one is watching
and step up till my nose
is inches from his

i want to hold him tight
like a baseball glove
like a firm grip
like a leather belt
in a father’s hand

and maybe he
is wishing the same
but i can’t hear his whisper
over the circus of this city
all i hear is the question
chainsawing its way
through my brain
as we stand here
staring at each other,
two trees
on a lonely corner in Oakland,
tell me:

Who will reach out first?