Monday, May 23, 2016

Comfort In Their Limbs

Review: The Eagle Tree by Ned Hayes

In the emotional life of the autistic child, there is no ambivalence. If young March Wong's mother is baffled, and child-services agents appalled by his insistence on tree-climbing, he himself has no doubts. A climb in each of his home's trees every morning is as essential to March's preparation for school as putting on his shoes or washing his face. Perhaps more essential.

March certainly feels more kinship with the trees he climbs and studies than with the people in his life. He can read the bark and see a climbing path more easily than he can figure out motivations and desires of his mother, teachers, and fellow students.

Or, as March himself confides,
Trees do not require you to make certain sounds to be understood. They are simply present and ready for you to climb at any time. Trees are easier.

March Wang's depth of knowledge about the trees he loves is impressive. His dream is to climb a true Ponderosa Pine, a tree which is disappearing from the forests of the Northwest. So when he climbs a neighbor's Red Cedar and spies an even loftier tree in the distance, he breaks his mother's rule about spending too much time in any one tree. He spends over two hours in the cedar, dreaming about climbing that distant tree.

The story is told entirely in March Wong's voice; he tells us the neighbor with the Red Cedar, Mr. Clayton, has informed him that the tree he spotted is called "The Eagle Tree" because it had a pair of eagles nesting in it in a previous season. He explains, March-fashion, how his "Uncle Mike" takes him to see the Eagle Tree close up, and chokes up at the sight of old-growth forests surrounding it:
“The people protesting to save these woods are right—these trees are almost untouched.” His voice was different somehow. It was exactly the sound in his voice that I heard at the funeral of my great-uncle.

When March finds out that the Eagle Tree is not only an out-of-range Ponderosa Pine, but also may be sold to a development company, he is stirred to extraordinary measures to save it. He must connect emotionally with his mother and Uncle Mike, Mr. Clayton, his school-mates, and the whole community, to share with them his knowledge of and emotional response to trees.

This is a fascinating novel with many levels to enjoy: an autistic boy's world-view; the bafflement of adults trying to deal with autism in their children; the science of trees and forests and their ecology. At its center and root is the courage of March Wong, who relies on knowledge and ignores pain to find the one sure comfort in his life: climbing trees. He is marvelous, and his story is no less so. March tells it:
The majority of who I really am is buried underneath the surface, and no one sees it.

But thanks to Ned Hayes, we do, March. We truly do.