Growing Pains among Sycamore Sentinels

by Courtney Baxter, Puget Sound conservation coordinator

I spent my early years with a Virginian forest as my backyard – but that’s not the story I am going to tell. No, I won’t tell you how my older sister used to torment my middle sister by tying her to a tree and stealing her snacks. Nor will I tell you how we would spend hours in that forest most days, playing hide and seek until my mom called us home. Instead, we will fast forward to a time after we left that forest in Roanoke and found ourselves in the almost-treeless desert of Phoenix. That’s where my tree story lives.

Courtney’s sycamore sentinels stand guard outside the family home in Phoenix, AZ.

Courtney’s sycamore sentinels stand guard outside the family home in Phoenix, AZ.

After my parents divorced, my mom packed up her three daughters, our Pekapoo Peabody, a strapped-down 12-inch box TV and a slew of VHS tapes into our Aerostar and drove all the way across the country. We lived in an apartment riddled with cockroaches for the first six months, so you can imagine how beyond thrilled we were to move into an actual home – even if the carpet was a musty blue. For being a house in the center of Phoenix, it was drenched in green: Vines covered the façade as if they had been painted by Claude Monet himself, a front lawn of grass that would eventually dry, brown, and poke at my small, soft feet, and two enormous sycamore trees that stood side-by-side like sentinels protecting our small family.

I had just turned four when we moved into that house. My fingertips could barely stroke the bottom of the lowest branch of one of the sycamores. As I grew, the branch appeared to move gradually closer to me, much like a timid dog slowly gaining trust. I would weave myself through the willow-like leaves, hiding in its shade on hot days, and pretending to be a sneaky ninja when my mom came looking for me to come inside.

These trees were my protectors, my stability, my roots. Being uprooted from my home so young, I longed for permanency, and I felt that with these sycamores. Their soft bark was comforting – especially considering most plants in the desert are rough and covered in spikes – and the day I was able to wrap my small hands around that low branch, interlocking my fingers and letting my feet dangle beneath me, was a pivotal day. I felt accepted by the trees. I felt connected to the trees. I felt loved by the trees.

We moved from that house when I was 8. I recall weaving through trunks and the leaves as I always did, but this time I hit the very top of my head on that low branch. For 4 years these trees brought me love and comfort, and during my final days, only pain and heartache. I thought the sycamores were angry at me for leaving, but now looking back, they were merely showing me how much I had grown. I wasn’t that 4-year-old who could barely stroke the bottom branch. No, I was a big kid who could take on the world, even if it was in a new house in a new neighborhood at a new school with new friends. I didn’t need the trees to protect me anymore, because I knew that each new challenge was just a branch that was just a little too high… for now.

Banner photo by Justin Bailie