Friday, February 7, 2014


It comes into view from the eastbound lane of Route 2 near the top of the hill in Harvard, just as you pass the closed rest area on the other side of the road. When it first impinged on my consciousness, looming up from the top of a wooded hillside, my reaction was: What is that? At first glance it looked a little like a white pine, but twice as tall as any of its neighbors; and no white pine, or any Massachusetts tree, ever grew like that. The top foot or so was about right, a symmetrical cone of green needled branches much wider than it was high; but from there to the line where the other trees hid its base, it grew straight down, all the branches the same length. There was something vaguely tropical about the shape. Whatever this thing was, I had never seen the like of it, either in the Northeast or in California.

I wondered about it every Sunday as my husband and I plied eastward on Route 2 (it wasn't visible from the other direction, except in the rear view mirror on the way past the rest area), wondering how it had managed to grow so high without coming to my attention before. Then one Sunday, two things were different: first, for once, we weren't on a schedule and thus had time for side trips; and second, most of the tree's lower branches were missing, apparently preparatory to cutting it down. If we were going to investigate this odd specimen, it would have to be now.

We turned off at the next exit, Routes 110 and 111 in the Harvard direction, and turned right onto a road that obligingly led back along the highway, exactly the way we wanted to go. A few twists and turns later, we came to what was obviously the tree we had seen from the highway, boxed in by a chain link fence a dozen feet each way on which was posted an unfriendly notice of the don't-even-think-about-coming-in-here kind.

The bark on the branchless trunk looked approximately normal for a white pine, but wrong somehow -- too light in color, or a different shade of brown. Apparently diseased or deformed, it was subtly horrible, like something in a nightmare. I turned my nearsighted attention to the branches piled on the ground outside the fence. They had proper dark green white-pine needles, two or three inches long and attached to the branches in bundles of five; but, like the trunk, they were not quite right somehow.

I must have scrutinized this thing, trunk, branches and needles, for all of a minute before I realized that I was looking at a tree made of plastic. I explained this to my husband, who didn't see well and was willfully ignorant of things botanical. He,a ham radio operator and electronics aficionado, then recognized the structure as an antenna -- probably, he suggested, a cell phone tower -- made up to look like a tree.

I have lived all my life in a world of technological wonders and plastic fakery. I knew from the first that this thing wasn't any kind of white pine. It wasn't even meant to look enough like one to fool anybody. The intent was to camouflage the antenna, not to disguise it. But never having encountered such a thing, I had no mental category other than "tree" to put it in. That it took me as long as it did to figure out what I was seeing confirms that we see what we already know about and can easily misinterpret the unfamiliar.