Suburban Forests: White Women and the Trees
In the suburbs, you will never want for anything.
In the suburbs, you will always have everything.
In the suburbs, you will sometimes wish for something more.
It is early October 2017 and Donald Trump has been President of the United States for nearly eight months since his inauguration in January. Nothing has changed for most of the people living in Marlton, New Jersey, mostly white, mostly wealthy, mostly the same. Growing up, I was not exposed to much violence or unrest, and this was the point of the suburbs. Likewise, I was not challenged to entertain opinions too different from my own, because if they were too different, I may have become too different. The suburbs are prone to their own subversive violence, in which they perpetuate an environment where people must submit to normalcy, lest they stray too far into depravity and offend the community, who in turn, will respond with the violence of social isolation. Social outcasts can survive, but can never thrive, in the suburbs. The sight of the token homeless woman in our neighborhood, shouting at the oncoming traffic entering the Main Street square, reminded me of this as I drove my vehicle by her, watching her give the trees voice as they shook from the blustering wind, accompanied by her angry cries at us, warm and safe within our cars.
I round the corner, pull up to my home, and continue to avoid the wind, only flirting with it for two seconds before entering the shelter of my garage. I focus on the trees again. They rock in the wind, looking to the sky for a sign of an oncoming storm. There are no clouds in the sky, but the noise of the trees still rattles me, if ever so slightly. I know they are alive, but normally, they feel less than fully sentient, than when their branches rustle and rattle. They have escaped the confines of the background and are now at the forefront of my attention. Still in the garage, an unsettling question flashes across my mind. Am I afraid of the woods? The trees rustle even more intensely, answering with a resounding yes. I run inside.
My house smells as artificially produced as the neighborhood of which it is part. Some sort of air “freshener” is plugged in above the kitchen countertop. It floods the air with a scent called “autumn” and signals my mom’s desire for the summer season to change into brisker days. Suburban women love nature when it is packaged into a cute, environmentally unfriendly carton and sold with promise of temporary happiness through a home that will smell like “autumn,” at least, until the scent diffuser runs out. It is getting ever so slightly darker out, earlier, every day. The darkness is equally as worrisome as the woods. The women of the suburbs still have a schedule to follow, errands to run, and children to pick up and bring home. Darkness does not override the schedule of the suburban woman, but makes it harder to accomplish comfortably. In other words, the irony of the darkness is that it highlights the mundaneness of suburban life— while the darkness might suggest sleep and self-care, white women are on a mission to complete their daily schedule, rushing against the clock and succumbing to the ritualistic turning on of street lights in the same way the moon should appear naturally.
The suburban white woman of South Jersey experiences nature as an unnatural force. She is limited by her overfull schedule, but blames nature for limiting her ability to efficiently perform all the duties of her agenda. She tries to balance work and childcare, but is overwhelmed by both in the darkness. By the time the sun begins to set, the children are finished school and need shuttling back and forth from their afterschool activities. The men are demanding meals at home. The neighborhood women are chattering on Facebook now about the time and locale of the next book club meeting. When autumn rolls around, I watch my mom struggle to tread water again. For some reason, it is the sun setting and the wind rattling the trees, that sets her off. It’s impossible to drive after five o’clock! My skin gets so dry with the seasonal change! In order to recreate an appreciation for the season, she purchases fall-themed décor and pre-made autumnal goods, like cider donuts and pumpkin pies, from the grocery store.
My mom, like nearly all the other white women of the neighborhood, is burdened by something of a double consciousness, seeking freedom through schedule, craving to be the woman who can do “it all,” even though “it all” can never be accomplished or attained. She struggles to admit that her schedule is less inflexible than that of the sunset, fully immersed in a rigidly set lifestyle that she wants to believe is of her own design. Her time is shoved into the boxed quadrants of Google Calendar in an effort to find “free” time for herself, while freedom remains synonymous with the forest, the rogue trees that are perceived to be without any sense of structure, rustling in the wind. Growing up, when we were upset with my parents, my brother and I would often threaten to run away into the wilderness, to which my parents would laugh. Rightfully so, they had nothing to worry about— growing up entirely in the suburbs meant that we were more fearful of the trees than our parents’ wrath.
Suburban white women are more fearful of their failing to complete everything on the to-do list than they are of international political snafus. Unlike the rest of the country, they share something in solidarity with suburban white men in that they can suppress the continued legacy of historical oppression. Meanwhile, both suffer from the insularity and normative realities they must create to disavow their past and present privilege, to protect themselves from the pain of the homeless woman on Main Street, crying out as the leaves clatter together with the first autumnal winds. I feel that she envied people like us and our willful ignorance, our salon-highlighted hair, our thirty-minute shopping sprees to TJ Maxx in between ballet class and soccer practice. But perhaps, we envied her even more than she us, and we sped past her in our four-door SUVs, trying to erase her existence from confronting us about what the weather change and the movement of the forest would mean for her, and what it meant for us.