ISLA AND THE ASH TREE
Isla Mai Marsceill loved animals and trees and birds. Discovering paths that might lead to an adventure was their favorite pastime. Their family liked having plants and animals too. Their uncle Lolo always had a dog in his house and a cat or two. So did their Uncle Chris. Their grandmother, Gigi, and grandfather, Pop, liked vacationing in the country. Their mother and father enjoyed having a garden and having a dog as part of the family. When Isla was five, they got Moose, their drother, a combination dog and brother. And their grandmother, Mimi, loved to garden.
Isla liked spending time in Princeton at Mimi’s house. She had a tulip magnolia tree in the front yard that Isla enjoyed climbing. But Mimi and Isla’s favorite tree was the old ash in the back yard. Mimi and Isla worried about the tree. It had been hit by lightening and looked rather sick. Some of its dead branches had to be cut by the tree surgeon.
Isla sometimes stayed at Mimi’s house in the summer so they could swim in the Princeton pool. This summer, Dan, the tree surgeon, came to check on Ash, that’s what Isla named the tree.
Isla asked Dan, “How old is my tree?”
Dan guessed over 100 years. He was glad that the tree showed new growth but he would have to trim more branches and give it extra fertilizer. It needed looking after.
That afternoon, Isla sat down next to the tree as they often did after a swim in the pool. They tried to comfort the tree.
“I hope you aren’t too worried about having some of your branches cut. Dan is just trying to make you feel better,” they said as they stroked its trunk. “I wish I could bring you some special food or medicine that would help.”
“You are helping.”
Who said that, they wondered. It sounded as if it came from the tree. But trees don’t talk. Maybe Mimi was pretending to be Ash.
They went inside the house and called “Mimi. Mimi.”
“Isla, Isla,” Mimi called back. She always did that when Isla shouted for her.
Mimi came into the kitchen. She had been straightening up the house after their swim.
“What’s up, little one?” she asked.
“Did you just say something to me when I was sitting next to Ash?” Isla questioned.
“Not me,” she answered. “Why? What did you hear?”
“I thought the tree said something. But that can’t be. Trees don’t talk.”
Mimi furrowed her brow. Whenever Mimi did this, Isla knew she was thinking hard. Then, she told Isla something she had never told anyone.
“One morning when I was swimming laps at the pool, I looked to my right at a large oak tree. Suddenly, I felt it communicate with me as if it said, ‘Aren’t you happy? Life is good.’ I thought it must be my imagination, so after I reached the end of the pool and was swimming back to the other side, I looked at the tree again. It waved it’s top branch and I felt a smile inside me like a pleasant tingle. I know this sounds like make-believe but I’m sure it happened,” Mimi said in a far away voice.
“So maybe you did hear Ash talking to you,” she went on. “Scientists believe that trees talk to each other using chemicals and electricity just like humans. And they help each other by sharing food and sunlight the way friends and family support each other.”
Mimi was going to tell Isla more about tree science, but she could see that Isla needed to think this over so she stopped.
Isla went to their room and laid down on their bed to consider that they might have a friend that was a tree.
Isla discussed the idea of befriending a tree with their stuffed animals and dolls. Really, they were just thinking out loud. What would it mean to be a tree’s friend? If they thought about it, they were already Ash’s friend. They liked Ash, wanted to help Ash, and enjoyed spending time with Ash. Isla especially loved swinging from the tree’s branches.
Now they might even have conversations with a tree. That possibility excited Isla. Since their parents were taking them home the next day, they decided to visit Ash after dinner. Maybe the tree would talk to them again.
Mimi thought it would be a good idea to eat outside on the terrace. Isla tried to hurry her up. They wanted to talk to Ash alone. But Mimi wouldn’t be rushed. She liked looking out at the garden and talking about the flowers, the herbs, and the strawberries. Eventually, she decided to go in and do the dishes. She told Isla they could play in the backyard until it got dark.
“Finally,” Isla said to themselves and moved over to sit on the far side of the tree’s trunk out of Mimi’s view. They wondered what they should say or ask. But before they uttered a word, they heard the tree.
“I’m glad you came back. I was afraid I might have scared you away by talking to you. Are you scared?” the tree asked Isla.
“I was surprised. I thought it was my imagination. I don’t know anyone who’s heard a tree speak to them. Mimi and my mom talk to their plants but the plants never talk back.”
“Usually, it’s just young people that plants talk to, so I’m glad we met before you grew up,” Ash said.
“My name is Isla,” they told the tree.
“I know. I hear your family call your name. I also heard that you gave me a name, Ash.”
“Is that okay?” asked Isla. “Did you already have a name?”
“Well, we don’t use names. We call each other by our place in the community,” answered Ash. “I’m known as Elder because I’m the oldest tree in this area, but you can call me Ash.”
“I’m sorry I’m leaving tomorrow because we just met,” Isla told Ash.
“But don’t you have trees in your backyard?” the tree asked Isla.
“Yes, I do. Do you know those trees?”
“Sort of. When trees live close to each other and are from the same family, in my case, ash trees, they look after each other: we communicate through our roots and through the air. Look over to the side of the yard. Do you see that tall ash by your grandmother’s bedroom window?”
“I see it,” said Isla.
“Well that’s my child, known as Sprout for now. We send messages through chemicals, electricity, and smell, a bit like you humans. If there are dangerous insects close by, we send out an alert. If I need more water, Sprout sends some in my direction. We even communicate with other species of trees.”
“But aren’t my trees too far away? Could your roots go that far?” asked Isla.
“No, I couldn’t reach all the way to your house. But there are other ways you and I can keep in touch. I know you like adventures. Would you be interested in having one with me, my family, and my friends?”
“What type of adventures?” Isla asked.
“Traveling between trees, meeting animals like moles, voles, and squirrels, assisting us if we need extra help” answered Ash.
“But how? Is it dangerous?”
“I’ll look after you. If you are thoughtful and kind, all will be well,” the tree assured them.
“Should I tell my family?”
“You can but they may not believe you. When you get home, talk to the tree where your swing is attached. That tree will tell you how to enter our world and how time will stop for everyone else when you are visiting us. That way no one will know you are missing and they won’t worry. What do you say?”
“I say YES!” Isla shouted.
“Isla, it’s time to come in. Time for p.j.’s and a show,” called Mimi.
“I have to go,” Isla told Ash.
“Okay. Talk soon,” Ash replied.
The next morning before Isla went home, Dan, the tree surgeon, and his crew came by to cut the dead branches off Ash. Mimi made Dan promise they would only take the dead parts. After he left, she watched the workers from her kitchen window. They were getting too close to the live branches. She rushed outside just as a leafy bough tumbled down. Isla heard Mimi calling up to the workers and ran to the screen door to see what was wrong.
“Stop! Stop!” Mimi yelled. “Don’t cut any live branches. We must protect what life this tree has left.”
They heard her. Ash was safe.
Isla breathed a sigh of relief and heard the tree sigh along with them.
When Isla got home that night, it was too late to talk to the tree. Early next morning before breakfast, they went to the tree that held their new swing just as Ash held their old swing in Mimi’s backyard.
They stood in front of the tree and quietly said “Hello.” The tree didn’t respond. They waited for what seemed like a long time, but still no answer. Had they gone to the wrong tree? They decided to count to 20. If the tree didn’t answer, they would return after breakfast and try again.
“One, two, three, four, five, six,” they counted. Then they tried singing the numbers. “Seven, eight, nine and ten, should I try again” they rhymed. Isla began to worry. Maybe Ash was wrong and their tree wouldn’t be able to talk to them.
They sang all the way up to 20, but the tree was quiet. Disappointed, they turned to go inside.
“You have a nice voice,” they heard behind them.
They turned to face the tree. “Thank you. I was afraid you wouldn’t hear me.”
“I’m glad I did. I understand you’re going to be traveling in our world. We have work to do, so you can learn the ropes, that is, how to get around.”
“Isla, breakfast is ready,” they heard their mother call.
“I’m not hungry” Isla told their mother.
“Well, you have to eat something before we go shopping,” their mother called back.
“I don’t want to go shopping. I want to stay home,” shouted Isla.
“Isla, come in now and have a quick breakfast,” their mother answered.
“I wish I could eat when I wanted to and stay home if I wanted to,” thought Isla.
Then they sighed and told the tree “I’ll be back later.”
The tree responded, “When you return, I’ll start teaching you the ways of trees.”
Isla went inside, raced to the dining room, and ate their yogurt and granola as fast as they could. Then, they took their bowl out to the kitchen,
“I’m just going outside until we have to leave,” they told their mother who was emptying the dishwasher.
“Okay. It’ll be about 20 minutes,” their mother advised them.
Isla ran to the tree but stood behind it, so their mother couldn’t see what they were doing. They weren’t sure their mother would understand.
“I’m back but I’ll have to leave in a little while,” they said to the tree.
“Okay. Let me introduce myself. In this yard, I’m known as oldest maple or O.M. for short. Since we don’t have much time, I’m going to tell you how we will visit with each other and with other trees. “
“Nice to meet you O.M.,” Isla replied.
“And you,“ O.M. answered. “If you decide to join us, you will enter inside our community of trees by actually going inside, for example, inside me. Once you are in, I’ll show you around. You’ll learn how to travel through roots or even branches. You’ll meet others that make a home inside me and inside Ash.”
“Do you mean animals and insects?” Isla asked.
“Yes, and you’ll see fungi, a plant that keeps us connected, like your Internet.”
“I’m a little scared,” Isla admitted.
“I understand,” O.M. agreed. “How about we give it a quick try, and if you don’t like it, we won’t continue.”
“Okay,“ Isla answered with a bit of worry in their voice. Before they knew it, they were in a dark place, but they didn’t feel scared. They heard O.M.’s voice.
“How are you? You are in a small tree hollow. Do you want to leave?” O.M. asked.
Isla couldn’t speak. Once their eyes adjusted to the shadows, the light amazed them. They could look up and see spots of sunlight fall on the tree almost like stars on its golden wood. It reminded them of their living room at sunset, warm and peaceful.
Suddenly, they were outside.
“I put you outside because you didn’t answer me: I was worried you might be frightened,” O.M. explained.
Isla couldn’t make their lips move as they tried to understand what had happened to them.
“Isla, Isla. Time to get going,” their mother called.
“Isla, are you okay?” asked O.M.
“Inside was so beautiful,” they answered.
“Isla, do you want to take anything with you?” their mother called.
“You go,” said O.M. “We’ll do this again and I’ll explain what you were seeing. You might even meet some of the other inhabitants.”
“See you soon,” said Isla and patted the tree goodbye.
It was late afternoon by the time Isla got home. They told their mother they were going to play in the back yard after they changed their clothes.
“Aren’t you comfortable?” she asked.
“Yes, I am” Isla answered emphatically. “Don’t be like Mimi, always asking that question. She worries too much about people being comfortable- what they wear, where they sit, are they too warm or too cold. It’s annoying.”
“Okay, okay. I’m going to start dinner. Let me know if you want to cook with me.”
“I’d rather be outside,” Isla called as they ran upstairs to their room.
“I think I should wear my boots in case it gets muddy inside the tree. Maybe I should bring my flashlight. It might be really dark. And a magnifying glass might be useful” Isla said aloud. They decided to wear a backpack to hold all their gear and allow their hands be free.
“Would you like some company?” called a soft musical voice. It was Croquet, Isla’s imaginary friend who wasn’t always imaginary. Her hair was white except for a big poof of pink hair on the top of her head. Her eyes were black with green bags around one eye and pink bags around the other. Isla liked her looks: they were so interesting.
“Yes, oh yes, I would,” Isla answered. “I’m going to visit inside a tree in the backyard, and I’m a bit nervous.”
“I would be too. Sometimes, it’s hard for me to be in a new place with new people. Even people I’ve met before can make me feel shy. Together, we won’t be as worried.”
“Agreed,” Isla told Croquet as they made their way down the stairs, out the back door, and over to the tree.
“I’m back, “ she told O.M.
“And who did you bring along?” O.M. asked kindly.
“Can you see her? You’d be the first besides me. Her name is Croquet. She’s one of my closest friends.”
“I don’t see in the same way you do, but I sense a being. And my sense is that your friend is kind and generous,” O.M. replied
“Thank you,” said Croquet who sounded as if she were singing.
“Okay folks. Here we go. Welcome to my world,” invited O.M.
Immediately, they were inside the tree. Isla fished out their flashlight and lit it. They could see through the floor. It looked like their hair after a bath or like their mother’s hair which is very curly.
“What are all those tangles below?” she asked O.M.
“You might say they’re my life blood. They’re my roots and attached to them are a type of fungi.”
“What’s fungi?” asked Croquet. Isla was glad Croquet felt at ease and asked the question they had also considered.
“Have you ever seen a mushrooms growing by trees?” asked O.M.
Isla and Croquet nodded yes.
“We have some in our backyard,“ added Isla. “They’re called morels and they aren’t poisonous. We had them for dinner one night.”
“Well mushrooms are the fleshy part of the fungi, like an apple is the fruit of its tree. The parts that grow the mushroom underground live along side my roots. They’re partners with trees. We give them lots of nutrients like sugar for energy and they transmit information amongst the members of the community.”
“Like what?’ asked Isla.
“Well you know that other maple in this yard, the one close to your house?” asked O.M.
Isla and Croquet again nodded yes.
“If that tree, which is smaller and younger than me, needs water, it sends a message to the other trees in your yard that it’s too dry. When we get the information, we send it some water, so it can be healthy.”
“OW!” cried Isla and Croquet in unison.
“What’s wrong?” asked O.M.
“Something just pushed by us and bumped us hard,” Isla cried out.
Croquet whispered in Isla’s ear, “I’m scared.”
“I’m sorry. I should have warned you. That was Skiouros, my resident squirrel. He lives here. It was cold last night, so he’s busy looking for nuts and places to hide them. When he gets anxious, he doesn’t notice anything around him. “
“Skiouros. I never heard a name like that before,” said Isla relieved she hadn’t been hit by some weird tree monster.
“It’s Greek for squirrel. By mistake, Skiouros ended up in Greece one summer and took a liking to it. He can’t get back, so he holds on to his memories by having a Greek name.”
“Why can’t he go back?” asked Croquet.
“He traveled through the system used for transporting visitors from tree to tree and, by mistake, got caught in a loop. He ended up in a pine tree on Mount Parnassus. That method of travel is only for visitors like you and Croquet, not for the residents of the community. “
As O.M. was talking, Isla got out their magnifying glass. They wanted to see the fungi more closely. They bent over, lost their footing, and fell between two large roots. They let out a big groan.
“What happened now?” asked O.M.
“Isla fell,” answered Croquet. “They can’t talk because they had the wind knocked out of them.”
“Another warning I needed to give you. Walk carefully because this isn’t a flat surface. It twists and turns. It’s like walking on a log that isn’t straight. Can you get out?” O.M. asked worriedly.
“I’m out,” answered Isla. “Croquet has many skills. For example, she can twist herself into any shape. And she is very strong. So she helped pull me out.”
Isla put their arm around Croquet and gave her a thank you hug.
“Isla, time to come in. I need help with dinner. Where are you hiding?
I want to see my beautiful bean,” called Isla’s mother.
“Who’s bean?” asked O.M.
“That’s a nick name my dad gave me,” said Isla.
“Well, you better go. Will you come back or did you get too scared?”
“We’ll be back, won’t we Croquet?” Isla assured the tree and Croquet smiled in agreement.
Isla was moving up to the first grade and was busy for the next few weeks, so they didn’t have a chance to visit O.M. At school, they began looking at trees more closely, wondering which ones talked to each other, which ones helped each other. Finally, on Saturday morning, Isla approached O.M.
“O.M., I’m here,” they told the tree. “Can I visit?”
For a while, there was no response. Then they heard O.M. speak in a whisper.
“Hello Isla. I’m afraid I’m not feeling well today. I think I’ve got a virus. I’ve alerted the community. I wonder if Ash is okay. I know the Emerald Ash Borer is killing many of them. Have you heard anything about Ash because I haven’t and I’m worried?”
“No, I didn’t know Ash was in danger. I’ll ask my mom to call Mimi. She needs to know about this disease. What ails you?” Isla questioned worriedly. She didn’t want her new friend to get sick. She didn’t want to lose O.M.
“I think it is just mildew and lichen, which won’t do me in but makes me tired. See what you can find out about Ash from your Mom, or if you’re game, you could visit Ash and find out yourself. It will be your first voyage. We could try tomorrow. Are you interested?”
Emerald Ash Borer
“I am but I’m nervous. I’ll talk it over with Croquet and we’ll decide together. I’ll let you know later today. I hope you feel better.”
Isla went to their room to confer with Croquet about taking that first trip through the trees. They discussed whether they were ready. After all they didn’t know what to expect. But they hadn’t had any trouble inside the tree and it seemed that O.M. did look after them. The tree had taught them how to walk along its underground roots. They decided that they were pretty safe and would probably go tomorrow. But first, Isla wanted to get a grown-up’s advice.
That afternoon their father was taking them to the dog park so their drother, Moose, could play with his friends. While they were there, Isla would find a way to get his opinion. Isla went outside to find their father and Moose. He was getting Goldie, the car, ready for the trip.
“Should I get Moose?” they asked him.
“Sure. I’m just about ready,” he answered.
On the way to the park, Moose whined and cried most of the way. He couldn’t wait to romp around with the other dogs. When they got there, they could barely hang on to his leash as he pulled them towards the entrance. Once he was inside, he tore around the perimeter of the park. After he found his friends, they licked their faces and started jumping on each other.
As they watched Moose, Isla approached the subject.
“Dad, when you were young did you ever do something that nobody else knew about?”
“What age are we looking at?” he asked.
“Well, my age.” Isla answered.
“I did. One day, I needed to have an adventure, to do something risky but something I thought I could handle. I didn’t want to get into trouble and I didn’t want to hurt myself. And I didn’t want my parents to be involved. They might not have approved. So I got my bike and rode down the street to visit my friend, Drew. We decided to pack a lunch and ride up to the woods at the end of our neighborhood.”
“What happened?” asked Isla.
“We put snacks and fruit drinks in our backpacks and made for the trees. We tried to find paths to ride on once we got there but that didn’t work, so we parked our bikes and took a walk instead. We found a log, sat down, and ate our lunch. After awhile which seemed like a long while, we began to worry that our parents might find out. So we rode home. We’d only been gone a half-hour. No one knew or so we thought. When we were older, we found out that our parents had seen us riding in the street and decided to watch us but not interfere. They wanted us to feel independent, but they were making sure we were safe.”
Neither of them said anything for a while as they watched Moose cavorting. After their father gave Moose some water, they sat down on one of the benches.
“Should I be looking out for you Isla?” asked their dad.
“I think I’ll be all right. We read books about kids traveling through time and solving problems. I’d like to have some adventures too and I’d like to help plants and animals if they’re in trouble,” they told him. They knew he wouldn’t ask a lot of questions. He trusted them to take care of themself.
After lunch, Isla and Croquet visited O.M.
“How are you feeling?” Isla asked the tree.
“I’m recovering. Some others in the community sent more nourishment my way and it helped. I’ll be fine by tomorrow. Have you decided to take a trip to Princeton and see Ash?” O.M. asked the two friends.
“We want to go. I have horseback riding lessons tomorrow morning, so it will have to be after lunch “ Isla explained.
Is there anything we need to bring?” asked Croquet.
“Wear shoes that have a good grip. Bring some wipes in case your hands get dirty or you touch something that might infect me when you return. And bring a flashlight just in case.”
After lunch on Sunday, Isla went to their room to get ready for their trip. Moose came into the room while they and Croquet were packing their gear. He started sniffing around and putting the wipes in his mouth. Then, he wouldn’t let go. Isla had to be stern with him.
“Drop it Moose,” they told him. “Drop it.”
A few seconds later, he obeyed. They needed to get going. When they left the house, he followed them. Isla knew once they disappeared into the tree, Moose would make a fuss, so they took him back inside and told their mother he was bothering them.
Finally, they were ready and called to O.M. that it was time. Instantly they were inside the tree.
“I see you came prepared. Once you get going, it may feel a bit strange,” O.M. informed them.
“How?” Croquet and Isla asked in unison.
“Of course, I’ve never had the pleasure, but I understand it might feel like you are on a fast boat with the wind at your back. It doesn’t hurt but you might feel the pressure. It also doesn’t last long. Ready?” O.M. asked.
Isla and Croquet held each other’s hands and nodded yes. Then, they felt a surge and a whoosh pushing their bodies through what seemed like a tunnel. Seconds later, they landed on their backsides as the force dropped them off inside Ash.
“Well hello you two,” said Ash and chuckled to himself. “I see you had a safe landing, sort of.”
They stood up and brushed themselves off, excited and still a bit nervous.
“Is that really you, Ash?” asked Isla.
“Are we really here? asked Croquet.
“Welcome to Princeton,” Ash said to the two friends. “What brings you here?”