Some twelve feet above the ground, in a gutter along the drip line of my neighbor’s roof, a maple tree struggles to grow. In early spring, from my bathroom window looking upward, I first notice the green of the sapling supernaturally peeking above the gutter’s metal confines. Its single, verdant green leaf – for that is all it bears at the time – is in stark contrast to the shallow metal container from which it springs so high above earth, its roots never contacting a single gram of the ground below.
The gutter, having not been cleaned or rid of decaying debris for many years, moonlights as a lofted planter, a trough, a wholly unsuitable, obtuse vessel holding rich, alluvial soil in which a plant’s life somehow manages to flourish. Never was a scene more dichotomous. Mere inches from the sapling, the nearby downspout, clogged long ago, having never been cleared, acts as a dam of sorts, collecting every leaf, nut or branch the sloping roof above will tender until enough time and decomposed material exists to create such a phony and shallow habitat.
I watch throughout spring as the maple slowly inches above the walls of its stagnant, non-draining, seemingly inhospitable vessel, spreading forth new, though tiny, branches and leaves. It reaches up, exceeding all natural expectations despite such an unforgiving environment. The maple eventually achieves a height of two feet tall before the gentleness of spring is replaced by summer’s heat and intolerance. It wreaks havoc on the plant’s natural cycle. This is survival of the fittest. The “soil” in which it grows is no more than three inches deep. Yet, here, a few short months ago, a seed first fell, or was washed down from the roof, thus finally establishing contact with enough dirt to send forth a thread, a handshake, of a root. Here, in that shallow depth, with nothing sustainable to reach into, the nesting tree begins to succumb to summer’s drought and the direct baking of the metallic gutter and soil within, withering its gentle inhabitant to the brink of death. The brown curling along the leaves’ outer fringes are first hint that things are not well. Leaves droop, browning completely, and eventually fall. All that is left is a vertical twig, a skeleton of a young hope that, had it found its place among living, breathing earth, might have grown to be monolithic, bountiful in color, a merciful shade-giver, legendary.
Annually, this same maple tries to recreate its life in the very same gutter. Every year it fails. The rain comes too little, too late, causing it to die yet another small death. Every year I watch the tree’s straining, hoping for its survival and success, knowing that its insufficient setting will eventually stunt its growth, inhibit its thriving, wild nature, even exacting its own destruction. The small deaths keep coming. Eventually a life is saved.