A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.
– Joan Didion
When I lived in Senegal, there was a lemon tree growing in the yard of my friend Richard’s house. We used to sit under the low branches on woven mats, drinking tea and warm beer, talking about our lives and waiting for the heat of the day to pass. The smell of lemons was so rich and sweet. I will never forget it. When they were ripe enough, we picked them and made lemonade. It was a treat after months of drinking iodized well water.
The garden was simple. Walls of woven branches outlined the perimeter with a gate that was unhinged, leaning against the posts, tied at night with jute string to keep intruders and rogue goats from entering. A terrace was etched out behind the house with river stones, placed in the clay and dirt, spilling down the small slope to the back of the garden. Nothing else grew there. Just the tree. Maybe that is why I loved it so much. The land was hard and unforgiving, but trees found a way of surviving. Not just the lemon tree in the garden, but the palm trees, and mangoes. The orange grove that someone planted for the village years ago. No one remembered who it was. A Japanese aid group that came to the village someone told me, but they didn’t know who. It didn’t matter.
If I close my eyes, I am there now.
You asked me where I would go if I could go anywhere it would be to sit under the arms of a lemon tree on a warm summer’s day while birds sang in the trees surrounding the garden and I had nothing more to do than listen to them sing.
I dream sometimes about that tree and the garden that it stood in. It has been twenty-six years since I sat under it. I have lived several lifetimes since. Maybe I am too sentimental but I wish I could grow my own tree here. The air changes when lemons are ripening on the branches. I miss that sweet scent.