The Equivalent and Opposite of a Photograph (in 1000 words)

January 13, 2009

An alley-way between a tacqueria and a hardware store in a Mexican neighborhood on Chicago’s shallow south side is caked with muddy snow. It is late in the evening, about 10 o’clock to be exact and a fresh dusting of about an inch has just finished settling on the churned mess of yesterday’s fall. If one were to gaze directly at a streetlamp, one might glimpse a few stray flakes in the light, but otherwise, the snow and the evening are still. A woman, who until very recently, never referred to herself as a woman, opting instead for girl, is walking her dog through the alley. The plow tracks in this passage have created imposing embankments on snow lining the sides. To the left, the embankments butt against a crooked row of black dumpsters at varying degrees of overflow. The dog struggles to urinate on their edges, ascending the embankments and then, hind-leg raised, sinking into their midst. To the right, the wall of snow climbs some 2 and a half feet up the battered brick of the hardware store. There is a family that lives atop the hardware store with three little dogs that run around the unfenced parapet in the back. Someone is doing laundry in this house because a plume of fragrant condensation is blasting out of a dripping pipe, into their path.

The woman stops to smell the laundry and then notices a peculiar sight: a coniferous pine growing out the snow embankment on her right. This evening is the evening of January 12th, 2009. It is the time when people begin to get rid of their Christmas trees. Someone has taken a discarded Christmas tree and planted it in the snow just so. The tree looks delightful here, but the delight, of course, is uncanny. There is a tree where there wasn’t a tree before. There is a tree where a tree cannot remain for long. There is a tree where, plainly, a tree cannot grow. A tree cannot grow here because beneath the snow is concrete that’s been patched with generations of asphalt that still crumbles in the spring, revealing divots, pocks and an undercoat of pallid bricks. You cannot plant a tree in any of these things. Furthermore, this alley has been cleared of trees for the express purpose of making room for cars and delivery trucks and special restaurant dumpsters meant only for used grease, and women walking dogs. Not only is a tree not permitted to grow here, this tree cannot grow. It cannot grow because it is not exactly alive anymore. Once, it was. One cannot say it grew, for rather, it was grown- on a lot in Illinois, a lot cordoned off with bits of red tape tied to blanched, jagged sticks. Sometime in December of the previous year, the tree was cut and it was sold. Either it was sold to a company like Lowes who loaded it up, with a hundred others, at bulk discount, and took it to a temporary tent erected in the parking lot of its store, or it was bought by a family in a truck on a Sunday expedition who tied it to their roof of their Jeep with twine. Either way, it was severed and it was sold. So this tree cannot grow because it has no roots. If one were to dig through the embankment of snow, one would find, of course, a clean round stump from which nothing could sprout without the tender affections of a dedicated and highly knowledgeable horticulturist and even then possibly not since this is only the guess of the woman walking her dog, someone who knows nothing about plants.

The tree planted in the snow speaks in more ways than just this. It is a joke that mocks the very mechanics of growth, because as we know from watching the nature show, and living in Chicago, the frozen wasteland of winter is the opposite of growing and what’s grown. Snow is composed of: water, cold, particles of smog, petroleum, nitrate and other noxious pollutants. Of these ingredients, only water really is the one that makes things grow. But trees need more than water. They need earth and they need soil. In this neighborhood there is virtually no soil, save for the measured squares interrupting the sidewalk to house a skinny tree encircled by wrought iron. Wrought iron does not need soil to grow. So a severed tree planted in snow, is, for many reasons what someone might consider ironic, but also poetic. It is sad because it’s funny and it is funny because it’s sad. It is also funny and sad because it out of place. It is also poetic because it is out of place. The Christmas tree is also stripped of its ornaments. No one buys Christmas tree and puts it in the house without dressing it. If you wanted a naked plant, you would buy a living one in a pot. The ornaments have either been removed and packed away for next year, or they have been removed and thrown away. Most likely they were packed away because some might have been made by the children at school and some might have been christening presents, or heirlooms from parents. Ornaments stay, the tree goes away. It is natural, this time of year, to see discarded Christmas trees on the curbs and in the alleys. Often, they are tossed summarily, stray strands of glittering silver still whipping in the wind, tickling the bulging black bags of trash the tree reclines upon. That is a usual, normal poetic/funny/sad. But a severed tree planted in the snow in the alley on its way to the trash is a re-routing of procedure, a re-invention of feelings. It stands in the snow, in the laundry steam and asks either to be or to be photographed. The woman will not photograph this tree because in all likelihood, it will be gone come morning. Monday, the garbage comes.

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4 Responses to “The Equivalent and Opposite of a Photograph (in 1000 words)”

  1. it’s a trip reading this while outside in Oakland it’s nearly 70 degrees.

    who knows? maybe your tree will live, everyone will start planting their christmas trees and Chicago will turn into a christmas tree forest.

  2. anisaerah said

    I think given how cold it is, I don’t know how anything could live…

    this essay cheered me up for some reason 🙂

  3. Liza said

    After reading through this article, I feel that I need more information on the topic. Could you share some resources please?

  4. Thanks for this info, I really enjoyed reading it!

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