Monday, June 01, 2009

Tuning In

At the end of April, some vandals cut down the Honking Tree, a huge white pine on the road near town. When locals came back to the North Shore, they would greet the tree with a honk. I was sad and mad about it, but that was about it. It became kind of a joke among former (and current) newspaper people, because the newspaper covered the hell out of it, until there was really something of a backlash ("It's only a tree! SHEESH!"). A friend of mine has done some work for MPR, and mentioned to someone in St. Paul that I could write a commentary about what the tree meant to people. They liked the idea, I wrote it, and this morning I went into Duluth and carefully read my essay into a giant microphone in a glass booth. This evening we listened to it on the radio. There isn't a link from the Web site, but here is the original essay. I read an edited version for broadcast.

When I heard that a 113-year-old white pine near Two Harbors, Minnesota, was cut down by a vandal or vandals April 29, I was sad and angry. There are other trees, but not another honking tree.

My family and I moved to Two Harbors almost four years ago. We hadn’t planned on it – we looked at houses in Duluth before stumbling upon one here on the north shore. Living here meant a half-hour commute each way into Duluth to my job, but that was half as long as I had been driving into Minneapolis, and besides, the view was better, too.

Two Harbors is a small town, with a lot of people who have lived here their whole lives and raised their kids together. Matt and I are from larger towns – he grew up in Duluth and I grew up in Omaha, Nebraska. We were warned about what we were getting into, with a small town – people will know what you’re doing! All the time! They’ll know your business! -- but we figured we could make it work. We dove into the local history – 3M was started here; the railroad shut down in 1967, devastating the town; and everyone here seems to have a nickname. And in the 100-year history book Matt bought, we found three sentences and a photo about the honking tree, a white pine in the median of the expressway about three miles south of town. We learned that North Shore residents honked at the tree, which was spared by a highway worker when the expressway was put in, to mark their return home. We were charmed, and started honking.

I worked as a copy editor in Duluth and my shift ended late at night. After making it back safely through snowstorms and herds of suicidal deer night after night, I honked quietly at the tree when I came by– you didn’t need to lay on the horn for it. It was a little like checking in with your parents after a night out, to let them know you were back. It felt homey.

We pointed it out to our children and greeted the tree when we came back from visiting grandparents in Duluth. On our way home from longer vacations, spotting the tree meant we really were home, we were on the North Shore, and had returned from far lands without lakes or tall white pines or seagulls. And in fact many visitors from points south hailed the tree as they came up for vacations or to open up cabins. So it meant different things to different people – for some it was escape, a holiday, Someplace Else. For others it was familiar, a haven, home. It belonged to anyone who knew about it, to anyone who honked.

My family has lived in many places and has struggled in many places. Moving to Two Harbors felt right in a way that other moves hadn’t. Even with job slowdowns and small-town uncertainty, the life we have made for ourselves here feels like a long-term decision, a good decision. Learning the local lore was part of that, and now this town is where my son and daughter play hockey and have sleepovers, where my husband works, where I greet people at the grocery store and stop my car in the road to talk to a friend.

Yes, there are other trees, and yes, it’s ONLY a tree. But when people find and then recognize and then love something, it becomes an icon. It becomes something everyone shares. There is comfort in coming home after a long day and seeing the door opening for you. It is, after all, ONLY a door, but it welcomes you home day after day, and you are sad and angry if someone takes an ax to it.


  1. This is so beautifully written. It brought tears to my eyes.