Within the past few years, we've had two replace two front porches, one at my family's "old home place" in West Virginia, which serves as a vacation retreat, the other at our residence near the south shore of Lake Superior. The two porches  are about the same size and general structure, although one is entirely of frame construction, while the other has brick pillars. It is interesting that both homes are about the same age, but while the West Virginia home was built by a hard-up country pastor, the Michigan one, with its fancier trim and ten-foot ceilings, was obviously built by someone more prosperous.
Now that both porches have been replaced and upgraded, both are pleasant places to sit while drinking coffee or reading, or just watching the day go by. Both are fine jumping-off places for my long morning walks. But the atmospheres of the two places vary greatly, I've found, having recently returned to Michigan after a couple of weeks at The Upper Place.
From my Michigan porch, I look out over the garden I've worked on for years. By my neighbors' standards, it isn't a garden at all. In their kinder moments, they call it "a jungle." For their tastes, it has too many trees, and the flower beds aren't square, although they started that way when my husband planted them.
As the garden evolved, the trees came first. Grandmother of the lot is a "swamp cedar" my son and spouse rescued from a road project. Cedar, the "sky tree," is sacred to the First People of this part of the Great Lakes.  We planted the clump of spindly seedlings in the southeast corner of our yard. Now they have grown into one tall, healthy tree of several trunks. 
Not long after that, we traveled to Japan, visiting many beautiful gardens. That's when the garden changed, for I had taken over most of the work. I laid out curved beds extending from the square ones, and planted collections of hardy heathers.
But I could not stop planting trees. Walmart got in some Japanese dwarf cyperus, hard to come by. I bought one, doubting that it could endure this bitter climate, but what the heck--I would give it a try. Twenty years later, it is as big as it will ever get, about six feet high, and quite happy near the front fence.
Then, despite warnings from family and friends, I purchased a baby white pine, which resembled a Christmas tree about four feet high. I put it not far from the front gate. "It will be too big," everyone said, but I was confident I could manage it. Now it is the tallest, widest tree on the place. White pines symbolize "North" to me.
So it has gone, with a rescued locust on the "parking strip," along with a volunteer aspen that has turned into a pest, sending up shoots all over my garden. A mountain ash has established itself at the end of the heather bed, and the four columnar cedars in the side yard are doing nicely.
It was only this year that I realized what I was doing, planting all those trees and keeping the volunteers. I was sub-consciously trying to bring, to a small corner lot in a town, the spirit of the Place on the Mountain.
For from the mountain front porch, I see only a yard close-mowed, under the spreading limbs of a black oak that is now over a hundred years old. The big maple to the east is only a few years younger. All around, in all directions, are trees, second growth and older growth, white oak, pin oak, shagbark hickory, mocker nut hickory, beech, tulip poplar, black gum (known as tupelo everywhere else), sugar maple and every other kind of maple, and, in the understory, small starts of American Chestnut.
I can hear the wind coming through the leaves long before it reaches me, and I can guess the weather from its direction, for I learned the four directions here, in this place, sitting on the predecessor of this porch with my grandfather. This old house faces south, he told me, so north was behind me. That was easy. East, then, was to my left as we sat facing south, and west to my right. If I turned to face east, north was left, south was right, and so on. I still find directions by imagining I am on that porch. As long as I can find east, I'm good.
Surrounded by trees, I am at home, I am safe. I am shaded during summer, and protected from the fury of storms. I love the songs of the leaves, and the birds who live among them. I enjoy the percussion section led by flickers and pileated woodpeckers. Crows flying over wake my mornings. And so, for better or worse, if I don't have a forest, I try to make one. With either home, I must have trees.


    Lillian Marks Heldreth is a Professor Emeritus of English and Native American Studies from Northern Michigan University. She has worked as a technical editor, travel writer, and paste-up artist, among other activities. 


    November 2012