toni mcnaron's garden


The first words I read about trees was the much-panned poem by Joyce Kilmer.  My mother had me memorize and recite “Trees”  when I was about ten.  I remember the opening and closing lines–“I think that I shall never see/A poem as lovely as a tree,” and “For poems are made by fools like me/But only God can make a tree.,”  Though I was a generation before Maurice Sendak’s books, I was drawn to his powerful trees when reading his poems to children.  And of course I adored J.R.R. Tolkien’s Ents, heroic trees who helped the good guys elude the bad guys in the Ring Trilogy.  Even Shakespeare gave me important trees in “Macbeth,” when Macduff disguises his army to look like the woods of Dunsinane.  

I have my own experiences with trees, three of which I will share.  I was encouraged to learn to amuse myself as a child and one of my favorite outdoor games was with my fleet of tiny cars/trucks.  I’d take them into the side yard and put them on adventures around and through open spaces of a huge old sycamore tree.  My game was “getting away,” so I’d hide them from an invisible enemy intent on forcing them back into their tiny, dark garage.  The tree was both protection and helper.  When I rested from trying to escape, I’d hide myself close to the gnarly trunk and feel hidden.  As an adolescent, I had learned to garden with help from my mother who was on her knees in the dirt as often as time allowed,  She let me plant tiny bulbs one fall–snowdrops–telling me they would be the first things to show life in the spring.  I chose to put my bulbs at the base of our adolescent magnolia tree in the back yard and in early Mlarch, I’d run out and see if there was even the tiniest show of pale green.  Again, I’d sit next to the magnolia’s sleek trunk for long stretches, perhaps hoping I’d be on site the moment first-life showed itself.  That never happened, but I loved the tree with its huge, shiny leaves and magical white blooms.

My ;third tree story happens decades after my childhood ones.  When my then-partner and I moved into our house–where I still live forty-seven years later–we enjoyed a big elm out back near the garage.  When Dutch elm disease began ravaging trees all over town, we signed up to get biannual treatments of a chemical researched at the University of Minnesota that protected injected trees from the dreaded beetles.  That tree still is in the back yard but lost a giant canopy about ten years ago in a straight-line storm.  It broke my heart to watch the caring group of men come and saw her branches into portable segments and take her away.  She now has a solid metal cord connecting her two remaining segments so storms can’t tear them off the major trunk.  My arborist and I know that the open wound means her life is ebbing, but he supports my wish not to lose this ancient tree– an Ent of my own, I like to think.

In the last decade, several germinal books have been published documenting how much trees communicate with other trees, support offspring of their own kinds, watch out for other trees that are having trouble, and, of course, keep temperatures where they exist measurably cooler as we heat our planet to dangerous levels.  The OverstoryIn Search of the Mother TreeThe Island of Missing Trees, and Entangled Lives are just a few of these fascinating works.  Whereas I used to think of trees as fundamentally different from creatures of the earth and the sea and the sky because they were stationary, I now understand that underground, trees live an active and sentient life, grounded in cooperation and community and defying Darwinian thinking based in competition and mere survival.. 

So Kilmer’s words come back to me, fresher and truer than before.  And I no longer join in judging them as  sentimental.  He wrote his lines because he had gleaned  their majesty and mystery.  We could do well to follow his lead before we clear-cut more old-growth forests, and before we destroy some of the noblest works of creation.,

The Holy Family

A while back I read an article that fascinated me and has stayed in my mind. It was about a lesbian living in Tennessee who went through the process of adopting a child. It seems that the state allows a single woman to do this but forbids a lesbian couple from doing so. This seemed so patently illogical that I read the piece several times to be sure I understood what it was saying. The author found out about this conundrum when she heard of a lesbian couple who were married and financially secure (one was a college professor and the other some kind of computer expert) were told they could not apply for adoption.

The reason, seemingly stated with no hesitation, was this: “Y’all do not mirror the Holy Family.” After recovering from loud laughter, I decided to think hard and deeply about that two-some. We have the young Mary who is engaged to Joseph, who is considerably older than she. He has assumed she is a virgin, of course, so is startled, dismayed, and confused when she tells him she is pregnant. He is not the father, she assures him. Indeed no human male is the father. An angel has visited her with a long-stemmed lily handed to her as she is told she is to be the mother of God’s only begotten son.

What is Joseph to do, I ask myself. Most men would have rejected their bride-to-be, seeing her as “damaged goods” at the very least. But Joseph carries on and they are wed. In due time, the baby boy is born and begins a relatively short life before becoming the founder of one of the world’s major religions. And things don’t end with Joseph’s good heartedness because another angel comes to warn them to flee their home because Herod will soon order his troops to find this baby and kill him. So the brand new mother packs a few necessities, I assume, and they set off, fearing to try and stay at regular sleeping places and ending up in that famous manger. The Holy Family spends time in a barn with at least one ox and one cow so they can rest before completing their journey to temporary safety.

So the Holy Family that the professional lesbian couple does not “mirror” is comprised of a woman pregnant out of wedlock, who starts life with no security or peace of mind, sheltering with her broad-minded husband in a cold outdoor place with some kindly livestock.


Twenty-six years ago, I began co-ordinating a program offered at my university (University of Minnesota) for bright high school seniors. The course is taught in their high schools by their teachers and carries university-level credits recognized by colleges and universities such students attend. This excellent educational program is called College in the Schools and I was Co-ordinator of the Literature offering. When I assumed this role, the program had been led by a professor in the English Department who was not fully committed to either the curriculum or the teachers, so morale was quite low. One of the veteran teachers was good enough to tell me this and ask that I spend time immediately trying to improve that morale so more excellent teachers wouldn’t leave because they felt undervalued by the man in charge. Today, twenty-six years later, College in the Schools Literature (CIS Lit) is the largest of the thirty-something disciplines the University offers. Each year, about 1,000 students enroll from about fifty schools in Minnesota.

In my thirty-seven years as a professor in the English Department, I made two last friendships with women colleagues, and was warm friends with several men who were able to accept me and my intellectual interests. But the department and I never truly shared priorities. For me, my energies were directed first to teaching young people to love good writing, second to pursuing my own research interests, and third to being a citizen in my department. The department value research first, research second, and teaching/service a distant third. I came to know and value faculty in a college called General College, established for women and men who had not gone directly from high school to college because of work or family or both. But the University neglected that college until they closed it completely, so once again, I understood that my priorities were not in alignment with the institution that I employed me.

When I begin my work in CIS Lit, the women and men who were teaching the course in their schools were so eager to strengthen their pedagogical strategies when I talked about new ways of engaging young learners; they wanted to read new books by and about a growing body of multi-cultural writers; they wanted me to help me learn about critical approaches to those writers; they wanted to share best practices with each other rather than hanging on to successful techniques in an effort to benefit their own positions. They wanted me to help them establish and maintain community as what they needed most to thrive in their schools. Because I was so excited finally to have found a group of people who did share my priorities, I have worked as hard as I possibly could to answer those rigorous requests from the cohort.

Recently, I attended my last professional development meeting with the teachers before stepping back so a superb colleague can take on the role of co-ordinator of the course. I was to give my usual lecture on a critical approach–intergenerational trauma and its connections to the two original sins of this country–genocidal treatment of Indigenous peoples and enslavement of black people brought here from Africa and then spawned here through rapes of black women by white landowners. Then we were to have a good-bye lunch where I said my formal goodbye and the teachers had an opportunity to share a favorite memory connected with me. It was intense and beautiful and so loving for all involved. I knew almost immediately what I wanted to say to these wonderful women and men. So I told them that they had given me the only community I had had in connection with my decades of working at the University of Minnesota. That is because they put first and foremost what I tried to put first and foremost when I was teaching my own courses. We all want young learners to become adept at reading words written by writers determined to push the language into new areas and new linguistic formations. They want those same young learners to listen to themselves and their fellows rather than relying on some sage at the front of the room to offer intellectual colonialization by pouring great truths into the minds of the unlearned and unwashed. They are modeling for their students the deep value of literature and the arts in general to saving our world from impulses that divide and frighten one group in relation to other groups. And, perhaps most important of all, these teachers have met me every step of the way for these twenty-six years, pushing me to push them so we all keep growing.


For over twenty years, my neighbors to the north of me have been part of my chosen family. Ten years younger than I am, they have assured me they’d stay in place till I was gone. We have keys to each other’s homes; they let me cut out the crossword puzzle six mornings a week which means they never read the end of some articles in that section of the local paper. He and I share watching backyard birds whom we feed all year. He and I love to garden and compare which of his newly planted bulbs come up while my similar ones often do not. She and I meet early mornings when she’s out being quiet as the day begins and I arrive with my little scissors to collect the puzzle.

About a month ago, they told me they are moving back to D.C. where they lived and worked before becoming my neighbors. They want to stop shoveling snow and keeping up a two-story house; they have found lodging at a lovely complex open to former officers in the armed service where he served when a young man. I accept that this is the right decision for them, even as I grieve losing important people with whom I have a long and rich history.

Recently as he and I shared lunch in my dining room, I saw the bidding site set up by a group that helps people get rid of household items. Hundreds of photographs were on the website and I even saw current bids. We laughed because things they know are valuable often had tiny bids, while things they considered trivial or even junky garnered double digit contests. We agreed there truly is no accounting for taste.

The bidding ended a couple of days ago and today was the day folks were to come collect their booty. So since about 9:00 this morning, a parade of cars, trucks, and vans have parked along our street as their owners brought out one or two items and drove away. I stopped looking out because I was too sad. Sad because this parade makes the move real to me; there’s no going back now. Also sad because their loved household objects are being divided and so their life here has lost its coherence. She just told me it feels like they will be sort of camping here, just as they are camping in their new space in D.C. as they drive out and test to see what kinds of new objects will fit in a small smaller living area.

I am working hard to be excited for them, especially for my bird/garden buddy, since he tells me how this feels like starting over. He seems younger when he talks to me about buying new things that are very different from their old things. So, as his good friend, I want to be excited for him. So I talk about my sadness with friends since I know he knows how I feel. At our recent lunch, he asked me if I’d like his most beautiful brass whirlagig that I’ve commented on to him often as it twirls its flashing parts in the wind as we lunch in their gazebo in their back yard when it’s warm. Of course I want the whirlagig.

One of the tangible things he has done all these years is coming over whenever my computer does something I don’t understand and cannot fix, or when my television won’t work the way it’s supposed to. Sometimes all he has to do is touch something on the keyboard and all is well. He assures me I can still FaceTime him and he’ll try and talk me through the problem, but I realize part of the pleasure of his help comes from his knocking on my front door and being in my space. I may get help but without the proximity that I so cherish.

By summer, these two fine people will be gone. I will have many sustaining memories of his and my exclaiming over the pileated woodpecker we both saw the only time one such magical bird graced our feeders. Or his willingness to come over at lunch time to give my beloved kitty, Patches, her tiny lunch when I’m out of town. Or our jumping when early acorns fell noisily onto the gazebo roof as we were having lunch in the sunshine. Or wondering if there would be another season of “Endeavor” or “Foyle’s War” or our other favorite Mysteries on PBS. Finally, we have agreed that we will keep having “lunch” but on Zoom, with him in D.C. and me in my dining room.


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