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One person's weed

The first time I saw it here in the hard ground I didn't know it was a tree. It looked like a dead stick -- about as big around as a man's thumb and as tall as a yardstick. We had just moved to this house. The time was midwinter, blustery and cold. The cane was as naked and vulnerable as anything I'd ever seen, -- and it stood right in the path. No question, everybody said, it had to go. Everybody, that is, except me. I wondered how it got there and what it was anyhow. I took it into my head to champion it as if it was anything alive.

Feeling compassionate I drove a stake to which I could tie it -- just to show it had a protector, I suppose -- and made the family walk around it. Later I dug a small trench to hold the life-giving water I carried out to it now and then.

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At first breath of spring it suddenly awoke, showing soft green swellings like budding goat horns under the pale tan skin. Delicate folded leaves popped out overnight. From then on it was exuberant, furiously determined to grow in all directions at once. But since I had taken charge, I was determined too. The sapling and I began a silent battle.

If grew amazingly fast. Feathery fronds like plumes on an errant knight's helmet shot up from the roots as well as along its one stalk. Time after time I pruned all but the top plumes, until when it was well above my head I allowed it to make three branches. Then more battles -- it wanted to make branches all over!

After three -- four -- years, when it had spread up and out, making a round symmetric umbrella much too tall for me to reach, if fought one more battle -- a long, cold, harsh winter. Other shrabs and a few young trees were lost. This tree, usually so early and enthusiastic, was a long time leafing out. Even after it had leafed late, a hard frost took off that new growth and left stumps to show where the leaves had been frozen back. In spite of all this, when summer finally arrived, new leaves covered the tree in delicate beauty. Only it and I know of its battles and triumphs.

Today I sit in the shade as it shelters the patio, feeling like this year's Pygmalion, enjoying, immensely pleased but also somewhat awed. My tree has grown up graceful, tall, strong, and straight. And this year it blossomed for the first time. High up, above the plumes of its green leaves, it sent up lacy sprays of pale yellow flowerlets that filled the air with fragrance.

It's strange that in all this time I never learned what it was called. I didn't much care and I never thought to ask, but now that it was so beautiful I went along to the library and looked it up in the plant encyclopedias. Each one said practically the same thing. Still not believing what I read, I asked a horticultural acquaintance to have a look at it.

"Yes," he said, "it's called Ailanthus -- Tree of Heaven." Then he added, corroborating what all the books had also said, "It's a weed tree."

Educated professors with degrees from the university, and encyclopedias bound in real leather (as the children say) don't lie, so I suppose it's got to be true as far as names go -- it's a weed tree. Yet thinking of that watchful Eye on falling sparrows, on ugly ducklings, on me in my ignorance -- there is nothing unexpected in the discovery that heavenly weeds can grow into trees of heaven.

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