Let me ask you a question you’ve surely pondered often.
If you’re gonna be an oak tree, which oak tree will you be?
(Yes, Olive, I hear you; yes, I hear you holler that you are 100% Venus fly trap; yes, sometimes it be like that. But no, I don’t believe you. You, even you, are something else entirely. More on that in a moment.)
Some of our arboreal neighbors in this corner of New Jersey are pin oak trees. These are the grumpy old men of the dendroidal world. While other trees gracefully let the past drop each autumn, pin oaks hang on. This is not, however, the admirable tenacity of toddlers and saints and cats; this is a grody stubbornness that results in the grumpy old man-trees being covered in grimy, unsavory old brown leaves well into spring.
I have never met a cat who I would compare to a pin oak. Quite the contrary: this fair species is exquisitely gifted at letting things go, far faster than we can even understand.
We see this constantly at Tabby’s Place.
A cat arrives; early intake-room fear falls off and springs into great green glee. A nervous Roxy shimmies off last spring’s memories and this summer’s hesitation for a new, living hope: these people just might be nice. (Weird, and let’s not get into the odors and vapors they emit. But nice.)
A cat moves; early hesitation flings its fragments off to make way for zesty curiosity. A questioning Coco comes from a long, lugubrious history, only to be hurled into the Lobby (currently competing with Amsterdam, Antarctica and Portland for Strangest Location On The Globe). A few hours — in this case, minutes? — of anxiety go fluttering down, and behind them are the darling buds of excitement. Coco’s colossal tail twirls with joy; she is here, and so are we, and everything just might be wonderful. (Not perfect. In this world, only rare entities, e.g. Coco’s tail, are perfect. But wonderful.)
Cats are no pin oaks. They’re far more like live oaks.
“Live oak” sounds ridiculous. After all, isn’t every non-dead oak tree technically, a live oak? But this term is reserved for those special, catlike trees who remain green — quite literally green — in all seasons. The winds may whip and the hurricanes may howl and the ice may fall like ammunition from the sky, but live oaks green on, a chorus of defiant color against a winter sky.
That would all be enough to liken live oaks to our feisty, formidably-alive felines. But live oaks’ liveliness isn’t even the main point of comparison.
For that, we’ll have to dig deeper. We’re talking roots (and we should also, if we want to feel happy and alive, talk about and listen to The Roots, but I digress).
Live oaks, it seems, don’t do their living alone. A tree may seem a solitary thing, but far beneath the surface, live oaks are leaning hard on one another. It’s not their personal, individual excellence that keeps them standing and evergreening against the odds; it’s a knitted network of roots and friendships with fellow oaks, all holding onto each other, all holding onto life itself.
They are utterly individuals, but they are no individualists.
They need to stand apart, but they need each other.
In this, they are like cats — and like us, at our best.
The wisest of cats will cuddle in a heap, sharing a blanket and a dream. But even the rugged individualists know, on deep levels, that they never thrive alone. It takes many voices to raise Suite C’s 3:59pm dinner cry; the cubbies are warmer when they are filled with purring bodies; playtime is much more thrilling when there are many long, skinny cat-arms flailing at the wand; humans have a harder time leaving when their laps are packed with personnel.
Cats remember. Live oaks remember. We forget. But we live it anyway, and so we live.
Like it or not, we are leaning — hard — on one another. We rely on the quiet man who picks our peaches; we need the postwoman who bears cards and parcels and bills from afar; we get a little more greenlike when we hear from each other, listen into each other, wrap our roots around each other, even across great divides.
Especially across great divides.
These days, we forget ourselves and each other across the gaps and chasms. We wrap our grody old leaves around us like Miss Havisham‘s past-prime finery, thinking we’re safe, when all the while our roots are still righteously hanging on to our neighbors. How much sweeter it would be if we would remember, and hang on above-ground, too.
Fortunately, there’s hope even for us pinheaded pin oaks. The one thing that forces those grumpy old men to get rid of their old grodies is new life, and sure enough, it always comes. Every spring, green leaves gang up on the grumps and burst on through, sending dead dry things flying in all directions.
Win with me today, kittens. Hold onto me, and I’ll hold onto you, and somehow we’ll grow in our grace and our greenness. Some in the world would call us green — in the sense of naive — but you know and I know what the cats and the live oaks know: we really do need us all.