ightning struck near our house, the storm’s roar shaking the warped hardwood floorboards beneath my feet. Birds and bees that were busy moments earlier disappeared. For a few heartbeats, the air was still. Then raindrops fell from the sky—slowly at first, but with increasing density as the clouds darkened. Our gutters overflowed and the streets became rivers. Soon the rain was pouring so heavily that a palm tree down the street fell over not from the strength of the wind, but from the weight of rainwater on its leaves.
Then the rain stopped as suddenly as it began.
The Florida sun poked its head back out, shining through the leaves of the magnolia tree in our front yard. Birds chirped. Everything was lush and green.
I emerged from our house with Skutull, walking face-first into a wall of humidity. Perspiration immediately started accumulating on my upper lip and across my forehead like a glass of cold sweet tea on a summer’s day.
We walked down cobbled stone sidewalks lined with early 20th century houses of various shapes and sizes. There was a marble house with pillars that looked like they were stolen from a Greek temple. And several remodeled, Frank-Loyd-Wright-inspired dwellings with flat ceilings that extended from inside the house, through tall windows, and outdoors onto an overhang. There were gated mansions next to bungalows smaller than some RVs. And manicured gardens full of blossoming flora and exotic plants next to yards overtaken by weeds and jutting tree roots. None of the houses had garages, which felt foreign to me since I grew up in suburbia where the front of every house is dominated by a two or three-car garage.
Our neighborhood sat on the west side of the St. Johns River in Jacksonville, which the locals just call “the river.” Skutull chased a lizard as we crossed a bridge overlooking its choppy, brackish waters. For a moment, I thought I could hear people hollering, “Doooo-vaaaal!” in the distance. Jacksonville is in Duval County and this two-syllable chant (made famous to non-natives by Jason in The Good Place) is the locals’ secret handshake—if you shout it for all to hear, somebody will return your call like a wolf howling into the night.
The streets were laid out in a grid and I let Skutull choose the direction we walked. He led us down a more erratic route than I would have selected. It was funny to see his unquestioning conviction at some street corners and paralyzing indecision at others.
We passed a man walking two large muts. They each wore purple harnesses and pulled so hard their front feet never touched the ground. I knew him. A few days earlier I had come out our front door and seen him sprawled on his back in our front lawn, the dogs pulling in either direction. I’d asked if he was ok and then I heard him say, “The dogs just pulled me over.”
“Do you need help?”
He didn’t respond. Then he pushed his way to his feet and brushed freshly cut grass from his knees.
“Ya. Ya. They pulled me over,” he said, picking his phone up off the ground.
I noticed he was wearing earbuds. “The trainer comes Thursday,” he said. He was on a call.
I waved at the man as we passed. He was talking on the phone again and returned my wave with a nod.
Skutull took us through a strip of restaurants and store fronts that blended in with the houses surrounding it. This stretch of buildings houses Biscotti’s, Shelby’s favorite local restaurant and our regular date night destination during our stay; a coffee shop with delicious blueberry muffins; and the dog groomer Skutull visited a few days earlier who sent him home with a pink bow on top of his head.
As Skutull and I approached a crosswalk, a black truck slammed on their brakes. We stepped into the street to cross and I grinned in the direction of the driver to show my gratitude, but never saw them through the truck’s dark tinted windows. We jogged to the other side of the street, which made my head spin. I nearly tripped on my own feet.
Shelby and I had visited Disney World earlier in our stay and on one of the roller coasters injured my inner ear. There were several agonizing days after where my world spun nonstop, like I had just ridden the spinning teacup ride at an amusement park. I saw a physical therapist and she performed a series of head movements called the Epley maneuver, which involved yanking my head this way and that way as I laid down, rolled over, and sat back up. Apparently there are a set of canals in your inner ear that contain crystals suspended in fluid. When you move, the crystals bump up against the edges of the canals, which enables your body to orient itself in space. One of my crystals was knocked out of place by the roller coasters and somehow this maneuver knocks them back into place.
A few blocks down the street, we walked by a gray house with marks next to the windows where red shutters used to hang. I knew this house used to have shutters and what color they were because it is the house Shelby grew up in.
Shelby and I had walked by her childhood house earlier in the week and she told me about her favorite trees in the yard. There was the maple tree that she planted as a kid, then mowed carefully around as an adolescent; the towering pine trees that her family always worried would fall onto the house in a hurricane, but could never bring themselves to cut down; the unidentified, hearty shrub that had a thick enough trunk to pass as a tree and grew pink flowers that she liked to cut in the Spring; and the decorative trees lining the driveway that she avoided because they were filled with banana spiders.
The house was different, the truck in the driveway was different, the family inside was different, but the trees were the same, only a little taller.
Trees are more than they appear, because no tree is independent. A forest is an organism and the individual trees inside are its cells. They signal each other, their roots share nutrients, and when a tree falls to the ground, its trunk decomposes into food that nurtures the next sapling into the sky.
Trees are dependable. You know they’re going to grow toward the sun and they never break this promise.
Trees are methodical. You can look at a gap in the forest ceiling and know how the trees will fill it, yet they take years to complete the task.
Trees provide shelter.
Trees provide food.
Trees provide oxygen.
Like an iceberg, much of a tree is hidden beneath the surface. Their root systems typically extend laterally 2-5x the width of their canopy and can grow to depths exceeding 25 feet. When a tree puts down roots, they extend in all directions, searching for the best sources of water, nutrients, and symbiotic relationships with other plants and fungi.
The way trees grow roots got me thinking about how we humans feel rooted in our lives.
“Putting down roots,” is a prevalent expression in Western culture that refers to the moment when someone physically commits themself to a location—buying a house, having kids, or accepting a dream job. In effect, our culture defines “putting down roots” as “making it logistically difficult to leave.”
My current nomadic lifestyle is the opposite of this definition, yet I feel more rooted now than I ever have. I’ve maintained my connection to my family and friends back home, but the freedom and adventure of living as a nomad has helped me get more in touch with myself and the rest of the world.
This got me thinking about defining a new interpretation of the saying, “putting down roots.”
When we put down roots, we don’t start from a lonely seed in a barren field. The seeds within us sprout in unfamiliar forests, then entangle themselves into the root systems of the people we come to share our lives with. Over time, these systems grow, like aspen groves that stretch up and over rocky mountains. Home is not a place we live, but the symbiotic forests we become intertwined with.
When we leave a forest, we leave our roots behind, like a deer dislodging a blade of grass from the earth. These roots don’t die. They continue to nourish the other plants in the grove. And when we return, we can often graft ourselves back onto our old roots and regrow our foliage like we never left.
A person is made up of not one plant, but a garden-full. Each species living in our garden represents a facet of our being. Parts of ourselves that struggle to grow in one environment might thrive in another.
This is one of the reasons I love to travel. As I venture to new places and meet new people, my garden is exposed to new environments. Sometimes an unexpected part of me will germinate and green shoots will spring from the soil. I discover parts of myself that have been lying dormant my entire life, waiting for a change in the weather.
According to Skutull
Skutull managed the Florida heat better than I expected. In fact, he did better in Florida than he ever did in Colorado. I think it’s because of the intensity of the sun. In Florida, when it’s hot, it’s hot everywhere; in Colorado, the difference between shade and sun can be drastic because the sun is so intense. His black coat exaggerates this difference and makes it difficult for him to be outside during the day in Colorado summers.
We taught Skutull how to “take us home,” while we were in Florida. He became quite good at it. Whenever we’d ask him to “take us home,” he’d lean forward and wag his tail, leading us down the sidewalk with a confident stride.
My strategy for getting home would have been to look at a map on my phone and zigzag down the shortest path. Skutull had to rely only on memory of sight and smell. He’d select the nearest north-south facing street and trot down it until we intersected King Street. There was a strip of shops and restaurants on King Street, which was near our house. Skutull knew King Street—once he made it there, he turned toward the river and led us straight home. I asked him to “take us home,” dozens of times and from all different directions during our time in Florida, and he always used this same strategy.
Skutull’s dubbed Florida name was “Skuuuu-tulllllll!” after the Duval chant.