CYPRESS AS SELF-PORTRAIT–ALEINA GRACE EDWARDS
No doubt Woman is sometimes a light, a glance, an invitation to happiness, sometimes just a
word; but above all she is a general harmony.
— Charles Baudelaire, “Woman”
Driving into San Francisco during a false spring, my stepmother exclaimed at every spray of
yellow and orange on the hillsides. She was hoping for California poppies, but the flowers were
just cheerful weeds.
We were on a road trip around northern California, the first time we’d spent one-on-one
since she married my dad five years prior. All week I lost her on hikes. Her tall body would duck
out of sight, and I’d backtrack to find her squatting in the dirt, taking a photo of a wild iris or a
Bermuda buttercup, her iPhone extended a bit too close to the petals.
My stepmother has hundreds of these flower images, each one shot in portrait mode, the
vegetation surrounding the flower of interest blurred out, the context completely obscured. The
photos strike me as scientific and grotesque. All the flowers look oversaturated, like yellow and
purple bruises distorted under a microscope. My stepmother swipes through her camera roll and
repeats names like a doctor identifying diseases—aster, iris, yarrow. I remember hands traced up
and down my back, the hush voices of doctors murmuring descriptions while a nurse or assistant
records them on my medical chart. Thoracolumbar, anteroposterior. I’ve studied my body the
way my stepmother has her flowers; I’ve memorized the degree of my spine’s curvature and the
offset of my shoulders, just like she’s learned to recognize the swell of certain petals and the
precise shapes of leaves. I have examined myself over and over with acute but detached interest,
an unyielding but loveless fascination. I’ve sought to categorize every sensation and shape, to
know my body so completely it can never surprise me again. Perhaps we are both looking to
recognize, not to discover.
We followed the Dipsea Trail into the forest near Stinson Beach. I didn’t stop to appreciate the
flowers as meadow grasses gave way to trees. I kept moving, eyes gravitating to the coastline, to
the tips of the pine trees reaching into the sky, seeking scale, not detail.
I remember standing inside the trunk of giant sequoia, ten years old, just months before I
was diagnosed with scoliosis—the wonder of my whole body inside a tree’s. If I reach further
back, I can remember sitting on my dad’s lap in the backyard at our old house in Los Angeles,
five or six years old, breathing in the cold, cleansing air after waking up with a cough, head
dropped to admire the scope of the sky and its stars, white lights in the darkest part of the night. I
crave that feeling now, the sensation of being both held and suspended, like lying in a hammock
that hugs your sides as it sways.
My stepmother stopped me every so often as we walked along the Dipsea, calling me
over to show me what she’d found: compact pinecones, sprigs pulled off shrubs, various flowers.
She beamed as she told me names and fun facts, the Texas colloquialisms for plants that also
grow in her home state. I swallowed the impulse to tell her I don’t care—that’s not true, anyway.
But I didn’t know how to explain the way it bothers me, how the names and descriptions she
rattled off festered like insults burrowing under my skin, how the information made me feel
claustrophobic. I wanted to tell her that she doesn’t know what she’s talking about, that she’s got
the names all wrong.
A snowmelt creek rushed past us down the hill we walked up, winding deeper into the
trees. My stepmother stopped to take pictures of the configurations of roots, rocks that caught her
eye, ferns in peculiar shades of green. I kept walking, wanting to stay loose, to keep my back
from clenching. Common pines became ancient redwoods. Tucked into a modest ravine, they felt
forgotten, or else stashed away, hidden in this fortress and allowed to grow in secret while
Sausalito and Mill Valley and all the other urban enclaves on this side of the Golden Gate Bridge
sprang up. I was far ahead of my stepmother, obscured by the winding trail and thick trees. I felt
like I was alone, dislodged from time and place and body. I walked and I hardly noticed my legs.
The motion was effortless, the sound of air flowing in and out of my lungs muffled by ancient
wood, time-softened to a receptive sponge. I felt like I could be underwater. This place almost
certainly was once.
We paused for lunch in a sunny meadow overlooking the ocean, the breeze shaking the
tall grass in a gentle percussion. We ripped chunks of crust off a loaf we’d bought in the city; we
shared an apple and nibbled squares of chocolate for dessert. My stepmother showed me new
photos: gnarled roots twisted into hearts, stones that spelled letters of the alphabet, an A for my
name. She wanted to find an initial for each member of our family. She’s fascinated by nature’s
morphology—signs, she thinks. I recall something I read once about men and women in
Impressionist paintings, that a man’s portrait was a psychological document, but a beautiful
woman’s face was purely physical—decorative and devoid of any deeper meaning. In his garden
scenes, Monet would juxtapose his wife Camille with flowers, treating them both as elegant
An hour into our drive south the next morning, my back started spasming. I twisted and shifted
in the passenger seat as the dusty valley became coastal forest again at Point Lobos Nature
Reserve, just past Carmel-by-the-Sea.
The reserve occupies a small peninsula on the coast, and the park’s big hike is a modest,
six-some mile loop around the perimeter. We wove in and out of trees for three miles, periodically emerging into rocky coves with sapphire water and romantic arch formations.
Ignoring the “No Collecting” signs posted along the trail, my stepmother plucked a branch from
a soft, fragrant plant and held it to her nose as we walked. She asked a woman wearing
binoculars, face mostly hidden by a sunhat, what it was—a type of wild sage, the woman
informed her with a distracted smile, not quite making eye contact. She reminded me of Mary
Cassatt’s ladies: pale and delicate, watching theater performances through their binoculars but
never looking directly at the viewer—that was considered gauche. Still, Cassatt was the only
Impressionist who painted women actually using their lenses, emphasizing their agency. We had
our own pair, tucked in the outer pocket of the backpack I was wearing. My stepmother was
buoyed by the new taxonomy and we continued around the park, following the L-shape of the
trail as it veered across the peninsula.
The terrain grew rockier, the landscape stark and dramatic. We were thrust out over the
ocean and under the sun, brighter on the south side of the reserve, the coastal pines casting harsh
shadows against the bleached rock. It was getting hotter, and my shoulders ached under the
weight of the backpack. I hooked my thumbs under the straps to make some space and circled
my head to relieve my neck.
Near the western tip of the park, the path led to a steep set of stairs in the cliff side. The
stone steps dropped into a tiny, shaded cove—Hidden Beach, the park map told us. We picked
our way down the steps and onto the sand. My boots sank and my stomach seized the way it does
whenever my balance is threatened, my body’s desperate way of compensating for my weak
The tide had just gone out, leaving behind wet beds of mussels and clams and crabs
scraped clean; we squatted in the rubble and started sifting for treasures. I thought of my great-
grandmother on my mom’s side. We had the same birthday—late August, Virgos. She died when
I was sixteen, so I remember her well; I remember her house. I saw her every July, the month we
always spent in Texas. She was a botanist, a birdwatcher, a gardener, a collector. Her home,
nestled into Austin’s wooded hills, was filled with objects: rocks and minerals, seashells,
figurines, instruments. An organ consumed an entire wall by the sliding door that led out to the
porch, though I never heard anyone play it.
As a younger child, I liked to sit in the nook under her stairs where she kept a tall display
case with glass doors. It was filled with seashells: tidy rows of swirling turban snails and smooth
sand dollars, and two magnificent conches with glossy petal-pink interiors. I would take the
shells out one by one, examining them closely and turning them over in my kid-hands, then put
them back, leaving just one or two out on the floor next to me, the ones I couldn’t bear to part
with, the ones I would beg my grandmother to let me keep. They were pieces of her world, one I
only saw traces of. Mostly wheelchair-bound by the time I was really aware of her, my great-
grandmother was like another item in her own collection. But old photos always show her mouth
stretched wide in laughter—she’d been lively. And she’d found all these shells on some beach,
clutched them in her hands. I stroked them with reverence. They seemed like pieces of her body,
like little fingers or toes.
On the beach, wet shells slid smooth against my skin. I wandered around, picking things
up and putting them down, only slipping a few favorites into my jacket pocket: three mussels
with brilliantly polished interiors that glittered with nacre. My stepmother was sitting in the sand,
stacking keyhole limpets buffed white by the waves, taking pictures of her piles. Happy with her
photos, she stood up and left all the shells behind. I used to sob whenever I left Texas, only comforted by the things I was bringing home with me—souvenir t-shirts and stuffed animals from museum visits. I still have this urge to keep shards of experience. Like a hermit crab in a found shell, I want to inhabit these objects, to create an extended body from fragments.
Our loop ended at Cypress Grove Trail, where the dirt path leads past the ranger station and
through an aisle of vibrant grass, rows of swirling cypresses and live oaks lining each side.
Monterey Cypresses are commonly used as decorative plants on hotel grounds and golf courses,
but those don’t look much like these misshapen cousins. This is one of the only two natural
groves of these trees left on the planet, and the trees here are warped, their bodies fractal, their
many hands flourishing dark foliage like black lace fans.
As we walked down the grove’s aisle, I saw the dizzying movement in The Scream by
Edvard Munch, and Van Gogh’s vertiginous fields—how a landscape can reflect a state of mind
and provide a record of feelings. How the decorative might be meaningful beyond motivic. A
cypress stands tall in Starry Night, Van Gogh’s most famous painting, which he made during his
stay at the asylum in Saint-Rémy. He made hundreds of paintings while he was there. I feel
jealous when I consider this, how well he could transmute some pain into an external body of
The most remarkable trees are at the very edge of the grove, wrapped around the cliff and
reaching out over the ocean. Their trunks are thick and irregular, some branches gray and
desaturated, others dark with new bark. They look like composites, as though some sculptor
stuck their pieces together, molded the fresh, wet limbs onto a base of old, dry clay.
I took a picture of my stepmother next to the largest tree; in the photo, her head rocks back as the cypress burst upwards like a flame in front of her, its many branches covered in burnt orange algae, sinewy arms raised in praise or lamentation. Its shape is defined by movement, trunk blown and blasted by wind and water, branches encouraged upward by the coastal sun. The whole grove is an active record of passing time; not a single marker like a fossil, but a clock ticking slow and steady. The image is backlit and the contrast is striking. My stepmother is a small silhouette compared to the tree’s large mass; she is neat and contained compared to its twisting form. The tree must have spent hundreds of years tethered to this rock; she is so young, a sapling by comparison.
I passed her my phone. She smiled at the picture, then pointed to the pale green bluff
lettuce clinging to the rocks around us. I was deflated, but not offended. Maybe we’re on
separate expeditions, collecting different parts of the world. It seems like she wants to capture its
ephemera, to wear its pretty skin and learn its seasonal language. I want its bones, its gravitas.
Back in the parking lot, my stepmother talked to one of the reserve’s docents and collected
information about the trees and the orange algae covering them. She took notes on her phone and
I pulled an informational pamphlet about the park’s vegetation from a shelf in the ranger station.
I learned that parts of the cypress will die, but the tree clings to those withered limbs as
long as it can, until eventually, finally, they fall away, and new bark grows to cover the
wounds. A Monterey cypress is different from other trees in this way, not like the graceful
redwoods further north, which are marked by time in a clear directional sense—the older trees
are always taller. Cypresses shoot up in their youth, but expand and warp with age; if the bent
body of an old cypress tree is a sign, it’s of disease and decay, injury and suffering. The cypresses here are haunted, shrouded in mist, quite literally tortured by the elements. An older, unpruned cypress holds its dead bits inside a nest of new branches.
I wonder if I am like this too, gripping old feelings with rigid fingers, holding on to dead
parts. Surgeons straightened and fused my vertebrae twelve years ago but the old torque of my
spine lingers in my hips. I crack my neck and worry that I can feel muscle move against the
metal crossbar that spans the gap between my shoulder blades. My surgery was considered
successful, my acute condition resolved, but scoliosis is a chronic disease. My body clings to the
Cliffside. Nerves kink and muscles curve.
There is a painting by Edgar Degas I think about sometimes, a painting I hate: Portrait of
Henri Michel-Levy. The artist Henri is painted in crisp black and white, standing tall in his
studio. The woman slumped at his feet is a mannequin: Her head tilts back to reveal a vacant
expression and her arms sit at awkward, useless angles. She is dressed in pink, fleshy and soft.
Curator Sidsel Maria Syndergaard describes this prop: A woman “compliant and devoid of inner
life, an empty shell, abandoned to the mercy of the surrounding world’s gazes and needs.” She
suggests this representation could have been tongue-in-cheek, an ambivalent challenge to artists
at the time to bring a “new woman” to life. To make her more than her skin or shell.
Back in the car, I read more about cypresses. They are historically symbols of
immortality. A few websites suggest this is because they’re tall, shooting toward the heavens like
wild church spires, but that seems too simple—it could be true of any tree. I open the picture of
my stepmother and the cypress on my phone and I see it: The tree is an exquisite corpse. It’s
found a paradoxical harmony between life and death. It dies just as it grows, twisting toward the
Aleina Grace Edwards is a writer from Los Angeles. She’s currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Nevada Reno-Tahoe, and lives in Reno alongside a herd of wild horses. Her work is forthcoming in Heavy Feather Review, The McNeese Review, and other publications. Find her on Instagram & Twitter @aleina__grace.