Lessons From Strangers: Even the Trees Change

By Chris Fryer

Capture - Even the Trees Change - Quote


I was on my way home from the liquor store, smacking the bottom of a fresh pack of cigarettes, when I looked up to see a woman standing in the middle of the road, cursing at the bulky camera in her hands. Her long black dress blew loosely in the storm-scented wind that sent tiny tornadoes of dead leaves swirling across the street around her. When I neared her, she looked up and asked with a British accent, “Do you know about these things?” 

“A little,” I said, fishing a cigarette from the pack. 

“I can’t get the flash to work.” She pushed a strand of hair behind her ear with a flustered frown. “They used to be so simple.”

“What’re you taking a picture of?” I asked, both of us now standing in the quiet road. The lighter was useless in this wind. 

“This tree,” said the woman, pointing to an arrowhead-shaped redwood with a YARD SALE sign stapled to its thick trunk. The moon was hidden behind its branches, giving the tree an eerie aura, and I saw nothing special about it at all. 

She handed me the camera. 

“Why?” I asked.

She removed a metal tin from the leather purse draped over her shoulder and revealed a stack of black and white photographs. She shuffled through them until she came to a photograph of a tree on a street corner. “My grandfather took this one,” she explained, holding up the image to show that the featured tree was the same one blocking our moonlight. “It’s the last one he ever took, for some reason.”

I noticed how none of the modern houses around the tree existed in the photograph. There weren’t even any sidewalks. The tree used to have a lot more breathing room with the nearest structure, a barn, at least a hundred yards in the background. 

“Things have changed,” I said. “When was this taken?”

“1955.”

“There are others?” I asked, pointing at the metal tin with my unlit cigarette.

“From all over the world. He was a journalist and he never went anywhere without his cameras. We found these photos under his bed when we cleaned out the house.” She handed me the other photos. The Eiffel Tower, some exotic waterfall, an ocean, the Golden Gate Bridge, a canyon, a Middle-Eastern mosque… “I’ve been able to recreate all of them. I saved this one for last.”

“You went to all these places?”

“I didn’t know my grandfather very well. I thought this would help me get to know him. Follow in his steps. Stand where he stood.” 

“How long did that take?”

“A year. He left me a chunk of money and I couldn’t figure out why, until I found the photos. It seemed like a fitting way to spend it.”

“That’s really impressive.”

Turning my attention to the camera, I tried to figure out how to turn on the flash, but was overwhelmed by all the buttons and dials. “Thislooks expensive.”

“It was. The clerk was persuasive.”

“This thing looks like it could run NASA mission control.”

She laughed. “The other photos are on there, if you’d like to see them.”

Together, still standing in the middle of the road, we perused the thirty color images that showed how much the world had changed between now and 1955. The Eiffel Tower looked crowded. San Francisco had sprouted a few more buildings in the background. Even the nature settings looked jaded by visitors and time, with more cars and people in the foreground. It was rather remarkable how accurately she was able to recapture the scene from precisely the same angle. 

“So did it help?” I asked.

“Help what?”

“Help you learn about your grandfather?”

She let out a long sigh. “Yes and no.”

“Why no?”

“There have been so many changes. The world is not the same today as it was when he was travelling. Whenever I got to the spot where he’d been, I wished that I could wave a wand and erase all the new things. I guess I wanted to experience it the way that he did. But that’s impossible.”

I’d never left the country, so the thought of going to all these places was mystifying. It had only taken her one year to do this? How had she known how to find the exact locations? I looked again at the redwood tree and realized that I was standing where her grandfather had been standing fifty years ago. The neighborhood had grown tremendously since then, but the tree was mostly the same, perhaps a little taller. A chill of latent energy flowed through me as if her grandfather had put his hands on my shoulders. 

“I shouldn’t be so harsh,” she said, returning the photos to her purse. “I am lucky I had this chance.”

“What do you want to do with the photos?”

“I’d like to print them. Maybe in a book. I want to give them to my mother.”

“Do you know why he took a picture of this tree?”

She smiled. “It’s where he proposed to my grandmother.”

“Big moment.”

“No kidding. It changed everything.”

I asked, “How did they end up in California?”

“She was American. He came here to write about the opening of Disneyland and they met in line for the Jungle Cruise, says my mother, and two months later they were moving in together.” A sudden sadness reversed her smile and she looked again at the tree. “He stopped travelling after that. He never took another picture. I’ll never understand that part about him.”

“People change, too,” I said, glancing at my cigarette.

“But he was so good at it.”

“Yeah,” I said, “but we’re humans. We’re designed to change.”

“Even if things are good how they were?” she asked.

“Maybe we get bored.”

Unconvinced, she shook her head and asked, “Have you changed?” 

“Are you kidding?” I laughed. “I don’t have enough fingers or toes to tell you how much I’ve changed in the last year alone.”

She shrugged. “I guess the same is true for me.”

“Even that tree has changed. We grow. We learn. We experience things. Even if we don’t want to change,” I said, “it’ll happen.”

“So we have to adapt.”

I held up the camera. “If we want to keep up with the changes.”

“Teach me how to turn on the flash?” she asked.

Together we navigated the myriad of menus until finally the flash feature revealed itself, and we laughed as we accidentally took a bright photograph of our shoes on the lane divider. She took the camera and positioned herself in front of the redwood tree, lined up the shot, and snapped the image. I let her stand there alone for a while as it seemed like she was deepin thought. She turned and said, “I guess that’s the end of that.” 

“Your collection is complete.”

“Yes, I suppose it is.”

I brought the cigarette to my lips and sheltered the lighter.

Then she said, “I think it’s good to remember who you were before you changed, for better or for worse. Otherwise, how can you learn?”

The cigarette tasted unusually bitter. Here was one change in my life that I wasn’t especially proud of. Was this a habit I was meant to learn? With newfound willpower I plucked the cigarette from my lips and flicked it down the road. If change was inevitable, it felt better if the change was mine to make. 

“Thank you for your help,” she said.

“Of course.”

“I hope your adaptation goes well.”

“Same to you.”

She smiled and walked away and of course I wanted to follow her, find out her name, get to know her better, marry her, have kids, grow old, and all that… But a part of me was pleased with the little change she’d planted and I walked home and let it grow, curious what it would teach me. 

About the Author

Chris Fryer was born to tell stories. Amidst figuring out what to do with the rest of his life, he’s been submitting short stories, working on a novel, and actively building the blog Thousand Thoughts. On a path toward a teaching career, he looks forward to teaching English and creative writing in the future.

This post originally appeared on Niche’s website on April 17th, 2013.

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