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Times Past: Back in Time with Trees

By Charli Mills,

A Gen-Xer

2017, Virgin, Utah (Rural)

Monkeys once flew over stunted juniper trees. I squint into the rosette of a setting sun and etch to memory the squared-lines of a mesa that had served as an Air Force Base in southern Utah. I never saw the monkeys who tested ejection seats after WWII, but I saw the gnarled desert trees.

Trees-rings mark my memories.

2016, Coeur D’Alene National Forest, Idaho (Wilderness)

Beyond tall pines squats a vault toilet. I have none of my own but a pressing need to use it. Between me and the trees, an angry bull moose swings his antlers. If I crap my pants before he stomps me to death will they think I was scared? Being homeless terrifies me more than a blustering forest moose. “Haw!” I shout, and he runs off to the river willows. I make it to the vault in time.

On other days, I squat behind the trees.

2012, Elmira Pond, Idaho (Rural)

Tamarack pines tower over 120 feet tall. Throughout their life-cycle, they reach for heaven but plunge into spring-fed pools instead. Eventually, their wood breaks down, and they form peat in the boggy ground. Thousands of years go into this cycle. On the edge of the tamaracks, the peat bog flashes like a signal-mirror to passing migrant waterfowl. I have moved to this paradise after 14 years in the suburbs. I’m out west again. Freedom!

Like the tamarack, I don’t see the fall coming.

2006, Minneapolis, Minnesota (Suburbs)

It’s ridiculous that I’m paying $70 for a balsamic fir Christmas tree. I long to poach a tree at night from the forest like we did in Montana.

I don’t have much to say about trees in the suburbs.

1996, Elk Horn, Montana (Abandoned Mining Town)

Kate maneuvers her van over potholes and exposed boulders as we wind our way up to 6,600 feet in elevation. It’s not as high up as where I lived from age seven to eighteen. But the view over the tops of the forest trees to the Boulder Valley below is magnificent. I’m researching a story I’ll never finish. As Kate and I trace our finger across weathered granite gravestones, we fail to consider our own mortality.

We think there will always be trees and time to write.

1986, Wolf Creek, California (Wilderness Area)

My dad is taking me and my fiancé fishing up Wolf Creek. Buckaroos-turned-lumberjacks like to tell stories. He tells my fiancé how we were driving up this rugged two-track five years earlier talking about the growing mountain lion population. My dad recounted how he responded that lynx were in these Jeffry Pines, but we’d never see them. He then laughed and finished up the story about how a lynx ran right across the two-track. “It happened right here,” he said as we turned the corner.

And a lynx ran out of the trees. Again.

1976, Hope Valley, California (Wilderness Area)

Twenty miles into the wilderness past the resort my great-aunt and her husband Milt ran, my Dad logged. He grew up on ranches across Nevada and California, a rambling buckaroo existence. He hung up his spurs and took on a chainsaw. We lived in logging camps in the summer, but my Mom ran a store in the small mountain town below so every morning we’d leave the forest. This morning my Dad stayed in the camp trailer bed with a herniated disc and a bandaged head from a widow-maker – the dead top of a tall white pine that snaps when a tree is felled, often killing the sawyer below. Dad lived but herniated his back. Now Mom leans in to kiss him goodbye. Crunch…she steps on his only pair of glasses.

They say bad tidings come in threes.

Like the Pinta, the Nina and the Santa Maria. My Dad once showed me a tree he felled, and we counted the rings back to when Christopher Columbus invaded America. Trees keep the record. And I’m certain they have better memories than I do. But I keep the heart of the stories alive. Me and trees, we have had many high times and healing together.


Linking up with Irene Waters for Times Past: Trees. Be sure to catch her monthly series at Carrot Ranch. She discusses dialog in memoir this month.


  1. cindy knoke says:

    How wonderful. Trees, mountains and wild critters, make humans appear just a little less interesting, but that’s just my view. Love this post!

    • Charli Mills says:

      Thank you, Cindy! I like the wild views we can take, and trees and critters, mountains and moving water, inspire many writing outbursts.

  2. […] Source: Times Past: Back in Time with Trees […]

  3. Ritu says:

    Love the memories you have connected with all those trees Charli!

  4. Annecdotist says:

    Lovely reverse chronology memoir, Charli. I wonder if you’ve discovered a new genre 😉 Irene would know!

  5. 2018
    I should be sleeping but I’m not. I read something that makes me sit right up in bed. I know that I just got schooled in writing memoir.
    I am with my uncle, a forester, who is taking core samples from trees to read their rings. The trees yield their inscribed history, stories held in lines of growth beneath their protective bark.

    • I think you’re right D…

    • Charli Mills says:

      Core samples seem a kinder way to age a tree. Logger’s slice it’s life-based and then count the birthday rings. But it was always fascinating. You can see records of droughts and heavy snowpack years, even decades. Immense emotion to point to a ring and realize this tree lived while history unfolded. Those are the thoughts that keep me up!

      • You definitely wrote memoir as far as I’m concerned. It sounded true to my ears and I believe you have written at least part of your life using the trees that were in it. It would make an absolutely beautiful memoir if you were to delve into more of your tree memories. Trees are amazing in regard to their rings. I agree it is awe inspiring to think what it may have seen.

      • Charli Mills says:

        What I’m realizing, Irene is that something as tangible as trees gives me ann anchor for exploring memories across time and space.

  6. Liz H says:

    Amazing how trees thread their roots into our hearts, and shelter overhead in our spirits, and are sometimes most noticeable in their absence.

    Shoulda checked out the suburbs on the east side of the Mississippi. 😉

    Wonderfully crafted… <3

    • Charli Mills says:

      Ha, ha! I LOVE the trees on the east side of the Mississippi. Oh, yes, I could have mentioned the pilgrimage to the Big Woods, Laura’s cabin and picking up pebbles on Lake Pepin. I needed more trees in my Minnesota life, but it was a lonely and disconnected existence filled by “better opportunities.” I’m not a good spokesperson for security and suburban values. Love your comment, Liz: “…trees thread their roots into our hearts, and shelter overhead in our spirits…”

      • Liz H says:

        I’m sad MN was that kind of inhospitable, but I totally get it, having run myself ragged and sad from too much rat race, myself. And so we gather what we got and stash it away in support of more and better freedoms-to. 🙂

      • Charli Mills says:

        Minnesota has such an incredible infrastructure of families and suburbs, but everyone is so busy with jobs, families, and school, there is no room for new friendships. The community food system is remarkable and the community systems are strong. It wasn’t all bad and I know and love many great Minnesotans.

  7. You saw a lynx, in the wild? I always hoped to see one when I lived in California, but alas, no lynx. A beautifully crafted work of memoir Charli…poignant and heart wrenching, this story of your trees and the people who marked them <3

    • Charli Mills says:

      Twice! It was funny because my dad was saying that was one critter I’d never see and it proved him wrong. He was beautiful, fast and not afraid to stand up to my father. 🙂 I’d like to think that at some moment in time you and I were both sheltered by California trees. <3

      • Incredible story! I loved this post and the depth and emotion and beauty of each one and the way they blended in so perfectly with the location of your trees and the stories they also tell. Always been fascinated by their rings…and to go back so far to Christopher Columbus too… Ahh….what a beautiful thought… <3

      • Charli Mills says:

        Of course, I also love the trees captured in the geological record, too — petrified wood!

  8. A very interesting read, Charli. Little snapshots of interactions with trees in different places is a brilliant idea.

  9. TanGental says:

    fascinating; a life in trees; I’d not thought of it like that but it makes sense

  10. Delicious memoir of life and trees – funny and sad. The crunch of the glasses sent chills through me, being dependent on them. I keep an extra two pairs on hand just in case. You are my writing role model, Charli. – Molly

    • Charli Mills says:

      I think that was a low moment for my dad. But he adopted safety measures after that summer! I’m always careful with mine and keep an “old pair” just in case. Thanks, Molly!

  11. You already know that I think this is a wonderful memoir piece. You could do a flash fiction memoir with the focus not you but on eg trees and label each chapter eg Trees. You have wonderful reflection in all these pieces eg “Like the Tamarack, I don’t see the fall coming.” and “we think there will always be trees, and time to write.” Charli you are such a talented writer it is a pleasure to read your work whether it be fiction or memoir (that you don’t believe you do.) Thanks for joining in Times Past.

    • Charli Mills says:

      Thank you for your encouragement, Irene. Memoir is certainly more creative than I thought and perhaps I’m learning it can still be considered memoir if I express my memories or experiences in creative ways. I like the idea of flash memoir. I had started a project when I still lived on Elmira Pond that combined historical fiction with memoir in trios of stories that were all to be about a single river. Thanks for creating a challenge that challenges me in this area of literary art!

  12. How cool, Charlie. I really enjoyed your memories. We lived in Montana for 17 years. I visited most of the places you talk about. I love Irene’s comments by the way. <3

    • Charli Mills says:

      Did you live in Great Falls? I remember the base being there. We lived in Lewistown when the base was still active and I loved that part of Montana — so different from the west side of the Rockies. I loved Helena, too and Boulder. Have you been to Elk Horn? Of course, you have cool ghost town in Colorado! Thank you! <3

      • LOL! Yes, we lived in Great Falls. I worked for D. Michael Curran for a few years. He had an 86,000 acre Angus Ranch. I was his admin assistant and did the books for the ranchs (he another one on Blackleaf Creek too in Bynum) and his oil company. I loved the job and the ranch was gorgeous. It was in Wolf Creek and we lived in Great Falls. Loved it there, just got too cold. We haven’t traveled much around Colorado even though we’ve been here almost 3 years. We had the two elderly Pomeranians that held us back. Now that they’re gone we’ll start traveling more. I love the west. I grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Ron grew up in Long Beach, CA. We love it here. So cool we have that in common, Charli. I love it!! <3

      • Charli Mills says:

        Oh, yes! I know Wolf Creek — such a beautiful area. Sounds like an interesting job, Colleen! It can get inhumanely cold in Montana, especially on the east side of the divide. It’s such a heartbreak to lose out pets. We are down to one “old lady” who likes to stay on the couch except to eat. If you are interested, I don’t think you are too far from Pueblo or Florence. My characters from Rock Creek went on to settle that area. Cobb’s brother founded Florence. I’d love to go ghost-town exploring with you! My son lives in Baraboo and he went to Milwaukee this weekend. We share much in common! <3

  13. Jules says:

    I have some reflections on trees… I wonder if there is still time…
    I suppose there always is – though I used to think all trees live forever. I know know that some have shorter life spans… some shorter than humans.

    I enjoyed reading about your trees and memories. Cheers, Jules

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