Remember when Aiona and I thought you were dying? The big kids kept breaking up, so they tattooed your body with the names of their lost loves. Viscous sap seeped from your freshest scars, and we stored grass and mud in a first-aid kit in case you needed surgery. We named you Bo because it was etched into the most exposed and vulnerable part of your roots.
A few years later, Aiona and I drifted apart – she liked singing, but I liked reading. Liking turned to loving when I discovered Harry Potter during lunch break on a warm Monday, slouched against your trunk. I can still smell the mildewy scent of your soil-clad twigs, mingled with the cool fragrance of magnolia flowers in elusive wafts of summer freshness. I shopped with Harry and Hagrid for school supplies on Diagon Alley, peaking through the store façade of Flourish & Blotts, where leather-brown tomes like giant chocolates were stacked to the ceiling in rickety spirals. Under the invisibility cloak, I snuck into the Restricted Section of Hogwarts Library to unravel the purpose of the Philosopher’s Stone. When the school bell shook me back into the muggle world, I picked up one of your fallen twigs before running off to my afternoon class. I had a magical wand now – English Oak, 10’’, unicorn hair, unyielding flexibility, I imagined – and was expecting my Hogwarts acceptance. Although I never received that Hogwarts Express train ticket, I returned every day to read and dream in your protective shade – my Platform 9 ¾ to the universe of magic.
After I had finished the entire series in my native Dutch, I learnt that Hogwarts’ headmaster Perkamentus, meaning parchment, was named Dumbledore, meaning bumblebee, in the original English. I was angry with the translators – a humming old wizard with twinkling eyes and a jolly laugh should not be called a shriveled piece of goatskin! English works needed to be read in English, and as my vocabulary expanded, I gained access to a wealth of English literature, diaries and memoirs, and popular science.
Over the years, I forged bonds with the downtrodden and forgotten characters I read about not because I understood them, but because I was stunned by the profound humanity in their isolation, their resilience, and their complicity in their tragic downfall. There was 13-year-old Theodore Decker, who drifted through cities full of nastiness and apathy in search of a home, weighed down by his nagging guilt for an unspeakable theft. There was 11-year-old Pecola Breedlove, who descended into a madness that delivered her from the endless sneers of more beautiful and more eloquent people, and from her burning desire for the bluest eyes. But there was also 36-year-old Humbert Humbert, a vile man with a ruinous, excuseless, but sickeningly passionate heart that coaxed him into child rape, barely possible to like yet uncomfortably hard to judge. If you were an orphan, a lunatic, or a deviant, these characters asked me in unison, would you do better?
In moments like these, I could neither invent an answer nor turn the page. So, I would take a nap under your awning of leaves until your shadow blackened the sunlit insides of my drowsy eyelids. I would roll over to the left and roll over to the right, but you turned and turned as time passed by, chasing me around like a tireless clock-hand, blocking the light and absorbing the warmth from my furry mattress of matted grass.
Sit up and keep reading, you commanded. But this time, a different author, a different subject, and a different genre. So, I read the works of activists who had suffered much but complained little and of scientists who had discovered much but shared everything. Malala Yousafzai, for example, lost the left side of her face during a Taliban shooting in her school bus, while Nelson Mandela sacrificed 27 years of his freedom to a 56-square-feet cell on Robben Island. Their narratives were authentic, generous, and filled with hope, and they showed me that we choose the interpretation of our past that lays out the blueprint for our future.
Carl Sagan, Michio Kaku, and Stephen Hawking took me on an exciting journey through black holes, parallel universes, space clouds, and, finally, back to the pale blue dot that is planet Earth – our mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam – as captured by the imaging system of Voyager 1. Their tales of pink skies, cannibalistic pulsars, and planets made out of solid diamond filled me with wondrous questions. Some inspired a quick web search. Others introduced the very next chapter.
Despite astronomers’ warnings against anything-centrism, many of my fascinations and obsessions had less to do with deep space and more to do with human history. From the 2 million animal species on planet Earth, how did we end up at the top of the food chain? Why did we give up the carefree romanticism of hunting and gathering for a sedentary life in destitute villages? These questions had their answers hidden in the fields of biology, psychology, and anthropology, and I looked for them in the writings of Richard Dawkins and Noah Harari.
For 10 years, Bo, you have shielded me from sunshine and drizzle so that I could live inside the pages of my newest conquests from the school library. Thank you for allowing me to meet Harry, experience joys and sorrows with Malala and Mandela, explore space-time, reflect on the heritage of our tribal ancestors, and be an inveterate reader. I wish you lots of sunlight, water, and nutrients in 2019!
Yingtong Guo is an emerging writer and undergraduate student
pursuing a double major in biology and PPE (philosophy, politics, and
economics) at the University of Pennsylvania. Her work has been
published in Deerfield Magazine and Pacific Ties Magazine. She lives
in Leuven, Belgium.