The ways we measure
Joel said it so I couldn’t quite tell how big of a boast it was. We were standing in the farmers market, where the Christmas trees were cut and stacked, fluffed and set up for sale, and Joel pointed at the one he had standing in the corner.
“The tallest tree on the market,” he said.
The tree was scraggily on the one side, untrimmed and shaggy up high, with gaps between the branches below. But the tree was tall. It was up above the edge of the roof, jutting green past the rain gutter in a long, waving, waggling stem.
He said “on,” not “in,” and I don’t know if he meant the farmers market, the rows of sheds and this imported forest of fresh-cut trees, or if he meant the market in some more abstract sense. Did he mean this square of cement, this competition of Christmas tree farmers outside Atlanta, or of all the hillsides of Frasier Firs in North Carolina?
We all choose how we want to be judged, but who was measuring, in his mind?
Was he waiting for the approval of the customers, the young families or the fancy ladies or the wholesale buyers? Was he waiting for me?
“Look at that top,” Joel said. “It’s got to be … four or five feet above the roof.”
He was overestimating, though. Exaggerating. It was only about three feet past the roof, and that was a wild wiggle a Christmas tree farmer would trim, on a shorter tree.
But this one was the tallest tree. This one was reaching up where none of us could reach. And even if it was a little ugly, even if this measurement was a little Freudian, in the cheap connotation of compensation, if height was what mattered, than this tree was the tallest.
If I accepted that, judged it like that. Then none of the other stuff mattered. If I saw as a tree, and didn't worry about what it meant or make it all literary, then the questions wouldn't persist and this, the tallest tree, would just be.
(How did it grow this tall? Did he always know this is what he was doing, or did he just let it grow, ignoring it in some corner, some shadow? Was it a conscious decision, to hold himself to this standard, or did it seem like there was no other way to measure?)
I looked up at the tree and he looked up with me. I held a camera and Joel had a orange chainsaw. We were quiet, and the tree leaned into the building and into the sky, and we watched it, appreciatively, just looking at the way it didn’t really seem to belong here.
“How tall is it?” I said.
“Twenty-two feet,” he said.
“And how tall are you?”
“Four-foot-nine,” he said.