The story begins when a pinecone raises its knuckles and abandons its nuts, losing them to the birds and the chipmunks and the wind, only one of them taking hold in the earth. This is in spring, after the powdery snow has turned to a hard rain that makes the rabbitbrush go yellow and the cheatgrass green and sends floods of brackish water surging through canyons.
This particular nut, buried and dampened by the rain, opens softly and releases a green-tipped stem that, like a finger pointing the way, uncurls and stiffens and presses its way upward until it breaks the soil and takes in the warm air and the warm sun, so thrilled by them both that it grows three inches that day and three more the next. Its roots mine the soil, burrowing downward, extending like capillaries, drinking up precious moisture and gobbling up nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, knocking aside worms and grubs, feeding, feeding, feeding off everything, so that several other nuts can find no sustenance and wither and eventually break down into particles the tree consumes as well.
It is so hungry.
The tree grows, and growth remains its principal concern. It is a ponderosa, thick-waisted, towering already, with three-needled fingers and scab-colored scales of bark with black lining the crevices between them. For so many years its branches stretch skyward and its roots grope downward and it drinks with great thirst, allowing no neighbors except sagebrush and cheatgrass, knowing no company except for the turkey vultures that roost in its branches, and the ants and the beetles that scuttle in and out of its bark, and the occasional cow that takes rest in its shade.
The cows—and the tree, for that matter—belong to the Mosses, a family that for several generations has ranched this acreage. When the old man, Samuel, doesn’t wake up one morning—a bloody starburst filling one of his open eyes—his family begins to parcel the land to developers who build, on two-acre lots, homes of a similar neocolonial design, with rustic touches such as river-rock facades and wide-board hardwood flooring. Big bay windows look out over the patchwork of sage flats and alfalfa fields that stretch to the upthrust of the mountains.
Though the tree at first views the front-end loader and the concrete truck and the flatbed carrying lumber and the big-bellied men wearing tool belts as invasive, as if they form a strange garden that might steal nutrients from its soil, and though it at first spits sap and drops pinecones like bombs and makes of its interior a groaning complaint when anyone comes too close, really the tree is cautiously interested, after so many years of nothing but the birds and the bugs for company. It has not realized up to this point its hunger as a kind of loneliness.
Its hunger—once consigned to sunlight and rain and subterranean nutrients—suddenly transforms when one day a moving truck followed by a bullet-shaped car crawls up the driveway. The car door kicks open to reveal a little girl with hair the color and curl of wood shavings. There are a mother and father, of course, but the tree sees only the girl, who immediately runs to it and balances on a snakelike root and places a warm little hand on its trunk and asks her father if he might hang a swing from one of the branches. Aside from a construction worker who crushed out a cigarette against its bark, this is the tree’s first human contact, as welcome as a warm rain. It trembles its needles.
“It’s talking to me,” the little girl says.