Author's Note : Mesmerized by beauty of the palms trees along the roads of Los Angeles, I often wondered how they ended up there. Then a yellow bird told me a story. Story about trees of life and bout birds of consciousness.
‘It has never happened before!” El Grande said somberly, peering down at El Pequeño, the "small one", who stood full four feet short of him.
El Grande, the ‘big one’ was big. Topping twenty-five meters, it was the largest Mexican Fan Palm tree in Redondo Beach. Towering over all other palms, El Grande would sway in the ocean breeze as it looked proudly over the heads of the other one hundred and twenty nine palms that lined Catalina Avenue.
The trees were planted on both sides of the road that ran along the ocean before stretching up on to the hills of Palos Verdes. Scattered on either side of the road were pretty houses with neatly manicured lawns, occasionally interrupted by apartment buildings with balconies that craned their necks in unison towards the Pacific Ocean.
The other hundred and twenty seven palms swayed in agreement. Nobody messed with El Grande. The tallest palm tree stood on an intersection that was manned with a flashing red light. All vehicles plying on the road had to come to a complete stop before moving ahead – almost as if they were paying a tribute to the big palm tree. Just across the road was the smallest palm tree on the road - El Pequeño.
The trouble started this spring when a pair of Hooded Orioles built their nest on El Pequeño. The youngest and smallest palm tree of the lot, it had a lot of palm scales or fronds that were still intact. Spared by the gust of ocean winds, these fronds offered right amount of shelter to the bright yellow birds, almost the size of a common sparrow. The migrating birds were just a bit late in the season - late enough to have all the coveted nesting spots in the area already claimed.
‘Never Before!” El Grande’s calm voice was laced with urgency as its leaves shivered betraying the made up somberness.
‘Viejo - you old fellow, get a life! I don’t care if you and your gang have never before allowed birds to nest on you!! ’ El Pequeño laughed aloud from across the road. Its Spanish had become better because of its recent residents. It was a bright spring day when the pair of Orioles had arrived from Mexico and asked if they could build a nest on it. The birds chirped in Spanish, looking at the tree expectantly.
‘No hablo español’, El Pequeño had responded to the enthusiastic birds with a slight hint of embarrassment in its voice. The birds had laughed.
‘We thought you could speak Spanish because … you know … you are a Mexican Fan Palm’, the mommy Oriole had replied in accented English , ruffling her olive and yellow feathers as the papa Oriole shifted on his feet hiding his embarrassment on the politically incorrect remarks of his mate.
‘No hay comentarios racistas’, he chirped under his breath. His mate was new to the country. He had told her to be cautious about racial comments but her innocent excitement always trumped – even in embarrassing situations like this one.
‘I do have a Mexican name’, El Pequeño had laughed, ‘But I have never been to Mexico – I guess my parents may have been born there … actually am not sure of even that!’
‘We go to Meheco everrry yearrr’, the mommy Oriole had chirped enthusiastically, rolling the r’s and pecking the black stripes on her wings, ‘me and my mate - everrry single yearrr’
‘It is far - isn’t it? Can you tell me more about Mexico and other places you have visited? I have been blessed with limited view of the world as you can see’, El Pequeño forced a chuckle.
Being the shortest of the palm trees, its view along the road was blocked by taller palm trees up and down the road. Just across the road from it was El Grande whose somber face was not something he could claim as ‘view’. It’s only solace was the small Mediterranean cottage next to it that gave it an unobstructed view of the ocean across it.
‘You don’t have to be rude!’ , El Grande responded to El Pequeño’s retort. It had been keeping an eye on the younger Palm tree since the day the palm across the road was been uprooted in the big storm and had been replaced by the young sapling that had refused to be as obsequious as the other hundred and twenty seven companions.
‘You are just a few feet taller than me!’, El Pequeño, would respond to El Grande’s demand of respect, ‘ I am much younger than you and I bet I will be taller than you when I am your age … and by the way, what has height anything to do with respect anyways?’ it would say looking up at El Grande as the other trees would shake in disapproval.
‘The birds told me something that is important for all us’; El Pequeño was serious. All the palm trees lined up their attention and swayed in silence.
‘Those Spanish speaking birds ...’ El Grande mumbled, ’What can they know?’
‘No hay comentarios racistas - the birds know!’, El Pequeño responded. ‘We have spent all our lives living on this road, barely getting a glimpse of the ocean over the heads of those houses there’, it said pointing to the row of homes with manicured lawns that lined the avenue. ‘And getting choked by the smoke from all these fancy cars ...’ El Pequeño said looking at the steady stream of traffic on the road next to the trees. ‘The birds have seen more than us …’
‘What did the birds say?’, several of the onlooking palms could not resist their curiosity and whispered from along the road, shuffling their long trunks to get a better view of El Pequeño.
‘The birds said that we will be replaced by other trees’ , El Pequeño said raising his voice so that everyone could hear ‘ The town folks are considering exotic trees called Oak … and Sycamore … it seems they handle the car smoke better ‘, it said as a Hummer rolled past the stop sign just under it, belching a cloud of fumes.
There was a pandemonium of rustling leaves all along the Catalina Avenue. ‘But how can that happen? ’ the palm next to El Pequeño asked as the mid afternoon breeze rustled its leaves softly as the din died down.
‘They say we are old and can get toppled by the winds anytime. They say it is hazardous for the buildings. They want to replace us ‘,El Pequeño replied in a hushed voice as an hundred and twenty seven palms froze in horror.
‘Nonsense!! Palm trees live for a long long time!’, El Grande’s voice boomed along the road.
As El Pequeño, looked at the defiant palm tree across the road, it recalled what the yellow birds had said just before they left the nest today morning.
The birds had been the best thing that had happened to El Pequeño ever since it could remember. The birds had told him stories of faraway lands that it would not have imagined existed. Mountains, deserts, oasis and a strange city in the desert that confused the heck out of birds migrating to Europe because of its collection of hotels that looked like buildings in Paris, Venice & Rome.
‘You all were planted here about eighty years ago!’ The birds had told El Pequeño that the Mexican Fan Palm trees in the area were planted during a big human gathering called Olympics that happened eighty years ago in Los Angeles.
The Orioles were about to fly back to Mexico for the winter with their offspring’s - four brightly colored Orioles chattering excitedly in Spanish and just before they left, El Pequeño had thanked for their visit and had requested them to return.
‘Come back with your friends …’ it had said ‘There are hundred twenty nine palms here, enough for many nests !’
‘But the other palms are not as welcoming as you …’ the mommy Oriole had chirped as daddy Oriole glanced around embarrassed. ‘Don’t worry’, El Pequeño had smiled, swaying gently ‘You all will be welcomed next year’
El Pequeño took a deep breath and collected his thoughts. Just before they left, the birds had told him that Mexican Fan Palm had a life span of hundred years and therefore most of the trees along the road did not have many more years to live.
There were six more months before the migrating birds came back from Mexico after the winter. El Pequeño could almost imagine the chirp of a hundred Oriole hatchlings, perched on palms up and down the road as he began to speak.
‘Mommy , the yellow sparrows are back !’, six year old Tanu ran into the living room.
‘How many times should I tell you … they are called Hooded Orioles! ’, Rishi shouted from the balcony overlooking the Catalina Avenue.
‘And this time there are a lot of them !! ’, Tanu panted, ignoring her brother’s comments, ‘ All along the road… even on the big palm tree … come look !! ‘