“This is my lucky day,” says John, as he carefully descends the ladder. “Now take a look.” He holds out his hand, and I see a creature about two inches long. Two beady eyes are darting around on a body that looks like a piece of tree bark. “I’ve been doing this job here for 40 years,” he says, “and this is the third time I’ve seen a gray tree frog.”
John works at a company that monitors the trees here in gardens and parks. This week he came every morning with a cherry picker onto the site. I walk with him. I want to make sure he doesn’t leave trees that pose a danger, that have rotted and can fall over.
“Look, it bends with the wind, it’ll be fine,” he says, as he stares up at spruce about 250 feet high. “But this elm” — he knocks on the wood — “Sick! It must be cut.” I take John’s word.
“I started at this company when I was 16,” he says. “I was the youngest worker. I was a skinny kid who didn’t have to shave yet.” He rubs his hand over his beard. “I was posted on guard at the bottom to warn if danger was imminent. Never worked anywhere else. I know all the trees around here like the back of my hand. I have planted some still here. That one, for example.” He points to a red oak that seems to burn in the Indian summer sun. “It was just a seedling. And now look. ”
They say that people start to look like their dogs over time. A man with wild curly hair with a poodle, a woman with hair combed straight back with a greyhound. John has come to resemble the trees he works with, year after year. Tall, straight, and solidly built. Not someone who would blow over, just like that.
The amphibian sits comfortably in his large hands. “Aren’t they dangerous?” I ask. He looks serious. “You are afraid of nature because you know little about it. The more you immerse yourself in it, the less fear you need to have.”
“This frog is a female,” he says. “You can see that in the length. As long as you don’t touch your face, there’s nothing wrong. ”
He puts her on the bark of another tree before continuing to prune. The frog shoots her eyes in all directions before she jumps away.
Who will stay with the same company for another 40 years now? I wonder. Young people start a job for a few years at the most and then they seek other things. You have to develop constantly, they say. People who keep working until they get a golden watch for retirement? That’s a thing of the past.
John works in silence among his trees for the rest of the day. “Trees are my friends,” he says. “I’m not much of a talker. That’s why I never married. To get a girlfriend, you have to have something to say.”
For John, the silence of the trees speaks volumes.
Pia de Jong is a Dutch writer who lives in Princeton. Her bestselling memoir, “Saving Charlotte,” was published in 2017 in the U.S. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.