Only in ideal conditions, in loamy, well-drained soil, do a tree’s roots grow deep. Most trees do not even have tap roots, those thick, muscular roots that cleave the ground directly under the tree, staking it firm. Instead, most trees are anchored by roots that only extend three feet deep into the soil–80% of all roots are at this relatively shallow level. But the extent to which the roots spread horizontally from the tree is vast. Usually roots extend away from the trunk as far as the tree is tall, sending twiny tentacles outward like fingers reaching, tangling with the fingers of neighboring trees. Of these roots, 80% lie only eighteen inches below the surface, but their entanglement and density clamps a twenty foot tree to the ground with a root system that, if diagrammed, would create a perfect semicircular arc of solidity.
Branches share this sideways solidity: a horizontal branch is securely jointed to the trunk, but a branch growing vertically, parallel to the trunk, is unstable and weak, inviting the splitting of storms, toppling the tree. These vertical branches are called double leaders; rather than establishing solidarity wit the trunk, these branches vie for position as a second trunk and thus weaken the whole. Horizontal limbs, however, balance the branches and create the crown, thickening with leaves.
Lie on the ground, with your limbs outstretched. Let your gaze travel up the ridged and plated trunks that surround you, past where horizon divides land from sky, up to where branches cut ether into scraps of lace. Feel the coolness of dirt seeping into your shoulder blades and know that when you feel shallow and at loose ends, you can stand firm and reach heaven.
Now roll over, face against the dirt, and feel your heartbeat reverberate beneath you, expanding in sound waves beyond your body, beyond these trees. Dig your fingernails beyond leaf meal and damp hummus; will your fingers to plunge below the soil’s surface until they touch tangled tendrils, twisting sinewy fibers that can wrap your wrists and pin you to earth. Your trunk, enmeshed with miles of blood vessels and nerve endings, lies parallel with a circuitry of roots just inches below your heart. Lie still and feel the shared pulse.