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On Sal Mal Lane: A Novel

On Sal Mal Lane: A Novel

4.8 16
by Ru Freeman

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In the tradition of In the Time of the Butterflies and The Kite Runner, a tender, evocative novel about the years leading up to the Sri Lankan civil war

* A Library Journal Best Indie Fiction of 2013
• A Largehearted Boy Best Book of the Year *

On the day the Herath family moves in, Sal Mal Lane is still a


In the tradition of In the Time of the Butterflies and The Kite Runner, a tender, evocative novel about the years leading up to the Sri Lankan civil war

* A Library Journal Best Indie Fiction of 2013
• A Largehearted Boy Best Book of the Year *

On the day the Herath family moves in, Sal Mal Lane is still a quiet street, disturbed only by the cries of the children whose triumphs and tragedies sustain the families that live there. As the neighbors adapt to the newcomers in different ways, the children fill their days with cricket matches, romantic crushes, and small rivalries. But the tremors of civil war are mounting, and the conflict threatens to engulf them all.
In a heartrending novel poised between the past and the future, the innocence of the children—a beloved sister and her overprotective siblings, a rejected son and his twin sisters, two very different brothers—contrasts sharply with the petty prejudices of the adults charged with their care. In Ru Freeman's masterful hands, On Sal Mal Lane, a story of what was lost to a country and her people, becomes a resounding cry for reconciliation.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Cristina García
…this rich, sensory novel…is a…rewarding portrait of a community of families on a dead-end road in Colombo, [Sri Lanka's] capital…As she did in her graceful first novel, A Disobedient Girl, Freeman delineates the divergent worlds of young and old with great sensitivity.
Publishers Weekly
Political activist and journalist Freeman’s second novel (after A Disobedient Girl) is set in early ’80s Colombo, Sri Lanka, at the start of the civil war between the Sinhalese government and Tamil Tigers. Sal Mal Lane, named for its trees, is home to Tamils, Sinhalese, and mixed-race Burgher families whose children, aware of what separates them, still enjoy a normal life (cricket matches, romantic longings, a musical show), though Freeman never lets it be forgotten that tragedy looms. The Sinhalese Herath children take piano lessons with a Tamil teacher and befriend her ailing father. The strange Raju, a young Tamil man, looks after Devi, the youngest Herath—a neighborhood favorite. The Silva family’s two boys want to join the army to fight the Tigers, and Tamil boy Sonna Bolling feels so alienated that he falls in with thugs. When violence finally arrives, Sonna tries to stop it but is instead blamed—with devastating consequences. Sustaining adult interest in young protagonists is Harper Lee–hard, and had this saga—which is three-quarters foreboding, one-quarter violent, heartbreaking denouement—been more concise, it could almost have been called a masterpiece. Agent: Julie Barer, Barer Literary. (May)
Library Journal
As in Freeman's absorbing 2009 debut, A Disobedient Girl, the intricate lives of young children also take center stage in this latest work. In 1979, the titular Sal Mal Lane is a cul-de-sac on the outskirts of Sri Lanka's largest city and former capital, Colombo. The Herath family's arrival with four young children—Suren the musician, Rashmi the singer, Nihil the cricketer, and baby Devi the favored—reshuffles friendships and alliances along the lane. Beyond the safety of this quiet enclave, the rest of the country is at an impasse: ethnic, religious, and political differences stir among a population long plagued by divisions and colonizations. War looms, and tragedy proves inevitable: "Everyone who lived on Sal Mal Lane was implicated in what happened…while this story is about small people, we must consider the fact that their history is long and accord them, too, a story equal to their past." VERDICT Dates and events ground the novel specifically in Sri Lanka, but the universal narrative of family remains borderless. As witness and storyteller, Freeman never falters, revealing "what happened" with clarity and resolve in prose both lingering and breathtaking. The result is simply stupendous.—Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon, Washington, DC
Kirkus Reviews
Sri Lanka erupted into violence in the 1980s, with people identifying themselves as Tamil or Sinhalese, Hindu or Buddhist, Burgher or Muslim--the conflicts brewed over language policies, territories and curfews. Against this backdrop of sociopolitical unrest, Freeman (A Disobedient Girl, 2009) sets her second novel. The inhabitants of Sal Mal Lane, like a constellation of stars, orbit around the Herath family, whose house is in the middle of the street and whose matriarch embraces the songs and customs of many religions. A devout Buddhist, she nonetheless teaches her children to sing Christian hymns in four-part harmony. Gravity draws first the attention of Mr. Niles, who discerns a troubled soul through Nihil's uncertain voice; then Sonna Bolling, a bully and political thug-in-waiting; then the Silvas, whose own matriarch embraces every bias and prejudice; and later Raju, whose ugly face belies his lovely heart. Utterly devoted to his younger sister, Devi, Nihil negotiates the world of Sal Mal Lane and beyond, learning about Mr. Niles' previous war experience, which has left him chastened, aware that racial distinctions blur, and frightened to witness the rising turmoil. Slowly, the tensions ratchet up. Sonna joins an anti-Tamil gang, and violence intrudes into everyone's lives. Yet, the event that brings everyone to their knees has nothing to do with Tamil-Sinhalese tensions and everything to do with the pointless loss of innocent life. Freeman establishes her narrator in the prologue as the air, the road, the dreams that bind her characters together. The technique may weave the characters more closely, but it also distances the narrator and the reader from woes that befall Nihil, Devi, Sonna, Raju and their families. Lovingly written, historically rich and compassionate to all sides of the turmoil, this tale is also frustratingly distant, leaving the reader sympathetic but not fully engaged.
From the Publisher

“[A] rich, sensory novel. . . . Freeman never strays far from the neighborhood's youngest inhabitants. They are wondrous to behold, with their intelligence, imagination and innocence. I don't know that I've seen children more opulently depicted in fiction since Dickens. . . . The novel soars [with] its sensory beauty, language and humor.” —Cristina Garcia, The New York Times Book Review

“Freeman's powerful second novel focuses on ordinary children living their lives as war clouds build.” —People, "Great Reads"

“Piercingly intelligent and shatter-your-heart profound, Ru Freeman's On Sal Mal Lane is as luminous as it is wrenching, as fierce as it is generous. This is a riveting, important, beauty of a book.” —Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild and Tiny Beautiful Things

“[Freeman's] individual characters are nuanced and richly written--you wish you could just stay on their peaceful lane forever, but of course you can't, and neither can they.” —Oprah.com, "Book of the Week"

“Freeman draws all of her characters artfully as she uses her lane and its inhabitants to reflect a larger, troubled world. . . . Not entirely pessimistic about human nature, Freeman even holds out a faint hope for reconciliation, in well-directed words of kindness.” —The Miami Herald

“I finished the novel . . . with a deeper respect for the human spirit, despite what politics, violence, and loss can do to it.” —The Millions

On Sal Mal Lane succeeds, gathering gravitas and emotional depth. . . . Freeman makes it a choice reading destination.” —Newsday

“Ru Freeman's On Sal Mal Lane is stupendous. . . . With prose both lingering and breathtaking” —Terry Hong, Bookslut

On Sal Mal Lane does not whittle war down to statistics or gory clashes; instead, it provokes deeper discussion of its manifestations and complexities by chronicling the lives of ordinary citizens living in pre-war Sri Lanka . . . It's the kind of book that makes your heart sink with every turn of the page, continually transforming your perspective on true love and loss. . . . Beautifully composed.” —PopMatters, 9 out of 10 stars

“Lovingly written, historically rich and compassionate to all sides of the turmoil.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Freeman's gift for verisimilitude is manifest with searing clarity . . . And in fictionalizing Sri Lankan history, Freeman accomplishes what reportage alone cannot: she blends the journalist's loyalty to fact with impassioned imagination.” —Booklist

“Freeman is a tender writer, deftly weaving culture, history and, yes, redemption into a story with a range of rich, earned feeling. It's highly likely that readers will close the book with a different outlook on life, love, and loss.” —ForeWord Reviews

“Deeply moving and brilliant. . . . A vivid, beautiful and deeply tragic tale of the families that live on the lane and the ethnic divisions that ultimately destroy the fragile harmony of the lane and the country of Sri Lanka as a whole. . . . Devi reminds me of Scout from To Kill a Mockinbird and Swede from Peace Like a River, small girls who make very large impressions, and IÕm sure that On Sal Mal Lane will join their ranks as a new perennial favorite of booksellers, librarians and of course, readers.” —Cathy Langer, Tattered Cover

“Loss of innocence is probably a universal mark of coming-of-age, but much of the innocence lost in Ru Freeman's captivating On Sal Mal Lane, shouldn't be visited upon young people, or any people for that matter. This beautiful novel gives us children of a Sri Lankan lane at a certain historical moment. . . . Utter heartbreak is here--for the rapacious violence and madness of the world does come--and smile-as-you-read passages of larger spirits and powers being realized to the better. Ru Freeman's excellent A Disobedient Girl is now followed by a major leap up in accomplishment, empathy, artistry.” —Rick Simonson, Elliott Bay Book Company

“An elegaic and powerful portrait of a troubled time. Ru Freeman beautifully interweaves humanity and history, creating a wise, thought-provoking and deeply felt novel.” —Madeline Miller, winner of the Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles

On Sal Mal Lane is a finely-wrought sculpture of the capillary systems by which nihilism and violence travel from the political realm to the intimate, and back again.” —Rana Dasgupta, author of Solo

“Ru Freeman has written the masterwork of Sri Lanka's bellum civile, a novel that patiently and lucidly witnesses the daily lives of children on a single lane as the violence builds. There are no acronyms, no convoluted battles, no dreary expository detours. This is a civil war about a garden wall, a cricket game, a bicycle ride, music lessons, the shopkeeper that won't sell to you anymore and a teenager choosing between the house of one friend or another's to burn. It distills one of the last century's most complicated wars into what it really was on the ground--the everyday reality of that timeless threat, the neighbor turned killer.” —Lorraine Adams, Pulitzer Prize winner and author of The Room and The Chair

Product Details

Graywolf Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.54(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

Read an Excerpt

On Sal Mal Lane

A Novel

By Ru Freeman

Graywolf Press

Copyright © 2013 Ru Freeman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-55597-072-7



The Listeners

God was not responsible for what came to pass. People said it was karma, punishment in this life for past sins, fate. People said that no beauty was permitted in the world without some accompanying darkness to balance it out, and, surely, these children were beautiful. But what people said was unimportant; what befell them befell us all.

The Herath children were different from all the others who had come and stayed for a while on Sal Mal Lane. It was not simply the neatness of their clothes, washed, sun-dried, and ironed for them by the live-in servant, or their clean fingernails, or the middle parting on their heads for the girls, on the side for the boys, or their broad foreheads and wise eyes, or even the fact that they didn't smile very often, some inner disquiet keeping their features still. It wasn't their music-making or their devout following of deities of all faiths who came and went through their house with the predictability of monsoon rains. It was the way they stood together even when they were apart. There was never a single Herath child in a conversation, there were four; every word uttered, every challenge made, every secret kept, together.

These things, discovered as the months wore on, came to bear upon a day of loss, a day crystallized into a moment that the whole neighborhood, yes, even those who had encouraged such a day, would have done anything to take back, a day that defined and sundered all of their lives. But let us return to the beginning, to the year when, in a pillared parliamentary building that had been constructed overlooking a wind-nudged blue ocean, a measure was passed under the title the Prevention of Terrorism Act. It was an act that built upon a previous one, an act declaring a State of Emergency, the kind of declaration that made adults skittish, elevated small quarrels into full-blown hatreds, and scuttled the best of intentions, for how could goodwill exist under such preparedness for chaos, such expectations of anarchy? The only goodwill to be had was among children unaware of such declarations, children like the ones on Sal Mal Lane, children moving into a new home that brought with it the possibility of new friends. Let us return then to the first days of that year, the days that filled so many people with hope for what the new family would bring to them. Let us pay attention to their words, to the way they enter this house, alone and together, close or from a distance, intent and wish inseparable. Let us return to observe the very first day that foretold all the days that followed.

On the day that the Heraths moved in to the last empty house on Sal Mal Lane, the one located exactly at the center where the broad road angled, slightly, to continue uphill, the Herath children happened to be learning hymns and hallelujahs from their mother. The children's mother, Mrs. Herath, herself a staunch Buddhist, was given to taking on other faiths based solely on the musicality of their songs, faiths of which she partook like others tasted of side dishes, little plates piled high with crispy fish cutlets and vegetable patties. Right now she was going through a Jesus phase, having not yet discovered the chants of the modern Hindu sage Sathya Sai Baba. On the very first afternoon, even before she tended to her anthuriums and pride of Japans and other potted plants that had been brought over in an old borrowed Citroën, she sat at their piano and played while her sons and daughters, two of each, belted out "What a Friend We Have in Jesus," in perfect harmony.

In the house across the street, an old man, Mr. Niles, long confined to spending his days reclining in his armchair in languorous apathy, stirred. With some degree of exertion he pulled himself up to a sitting position and listened. Although he was, himself, raised in the Catholic tradition, it was not the familiar hymns that moved him, but the voices. He tilted his face this way and that, trying to untangle them, one from the other. He picked out four distinct voices: one imbued with refinement, the word endings clear and elegant, the notes held to beat; another sensitive and rich, the melody heroic; and a third that did not seem to care for timing and so was lifted with a too-soon, too-late delight that was refreshing. The last, a boy's voice, he could not place. It seemed both dogged and resigned. Earnest, as though he wanted to please, yet not entirely committed to this particular form of pleasing, it wavered between ardent expression and the mere articulation of melancholy words set to music. Mr. Niles listened more intently to that voice, which spoke of a spirit that required soothing, curious as to what could trouble a boy so young. Unseen by anybody, not even his wife and daughter, each busy with her own weekend preoccupations, he listened through that afternoon, piecing together the unuttered feelings that lay beneath those angelic voices, conjuring up an image of each child and imagining a life for them in the house into which they had moved.

This house was very much like every other house down Sal Mal Lane, rudimentary if with a little style added by the verandas at the front and the back, both shaded by crisscross wooden half trellises, and the bordering hedges that rimmed all but two of the front gardens. At its heart was a large open space that Mrs. Herath had turned into a sitting room and whose focus was the upright piano. At the back of the house, Mrs. Herath had chosen to install her dining room, which, therefore, sat right next to the kitchen in defiance of the centuries-long tradition that dictated a dining table never to recall the kitchen in which food is prepared. The children shared two rooms, she and Mr. Herath shared a third, and the live-in servant, Kamala, was given the store room tucked next to a garage for which Mrs. Herath had found no good use since they did not own a car. Nobody down Sal Mal Lane, a dead end traversed almost exclusively by people on foot, owned a car except for Mr. Niles, who could no longer drive it, but this did not matter since all the neighbors felt able to ask for its use when necessary, and all the neighbors glanced with distant possessiveness at their empty garages and contemplated a future date on which they might convert them into fee-charging flats.

The real reason that Mrs. Herath had wanted this particular house, however, was the potential for a real garden that would meander wide on three sides around her home, the fourth side dedicated to a shared driveway. Unlike her neighbors' properties, which were graced by plumes of dancing hibiscus, bunches of creamy gardenias, and bold thrusts of anthuriums, her own, untended for many years by a previous owner, seemed barren. In little more than a year Mrs. Herath's garden would become a showpiece, decked with ferns, flowering bushes, and fragrant varieties of orchids that many of her neighbors had not heard of, she would become an authority on landscaping, and all the little flower thieves who lived down other lanes would flock to her garden in the early-morning hours and reach for her flowers like large butterflies. Today, however, her garden was depleted and the one person staring at it as he stood, hatless and scorched in the still, noon day heat, wondered why the children who had come to inhabit it, smartly dressed as they were, did not seem less pleased with their surroundings.

Sonna, the Bollings' son, fourteen years of age, had spent the day leaning against his uncle's gate, watching the activity across the street. He had arrived that morning dressed in his Sunday church going clothes, though if someone had pointed out that he was trying to present himself at his best, he would have denied it. Sonna had come to assess potential, which, in his mind, meant one of two things: the ability to bully others or being susceptible to bullying. He had watched the children all day, his face arranged in an expression between scorn and disinterest, trying to gauge to which category they belonged. So far he had not been able to tell, and not even his uncle, Raju, who peered over the gate with him, had a definite opinion.

"Can't tell if they are good or not till we talk to them," his uncle said at last, hitching up his loose trousers as he went inside.

Sonna continued to watch. The boys were not muscular, they were lanky and long-fingered, their mouths full and at ease, which augured well for classifying them as victims. Yet there had been a steadfastness to their gaze when they had first seen him that confused Sonna. They had nodded, their arms full of bags and boxes filled with books, but had not smiled, which he took to mean that they, too, were able to judge character and had him pegged as a neighbor but not one they were likely to befriend. He spat into the ground. They were adversaries, those boys, though the source of their strength was not one that he could identify. The girls, too, had resisted the title of victim that he yearned to pin on them, they with their matching dresses and their laughter. They resisted it by not noticing him at all, though how was that possible? He was tall, good-looking, and strong — and standing right across the street from them! He had been standing there for hours. How could they not have noticed?

"Fuckin' snobs," he said to his uncle, who had come back out to ask him if he wanted some tea. "Think they're too good for us. Probably only wan' to talk to the Silva boys. Probably jus' like them. We'll see about that. We'll see how they manage to live here without talkin' to us Bollings. Think they can jus' talk to themselves?"

"Maybe they are busy today, moving and all," Raju told his nephew. To be proximate to Sonna when he was not happy was not something that Raju ever enjoyed; in the end he always wound up being clobbered for nothing he had said or done. "Youngest looks sweet," he added, watching the little girl, who had abandoned her siblings and was skipping in the veranda, the rope smacking rhythmically both on the floor and on the ceiling above her. After a while she called out to someone they could not see, dropped the rope, and ran inside. Raju craned his neck toward the front doors of the house through which the children had disappeared, one by one. From inside came the strains of a piano being played.

"Din' even smile once," Sonna muttered.

Raju lowered his head, anticipating trouble. He tried to think of something soothing to say, knowing, as he had known on every other such occasion, that words would fail him.

Sonna had accumulated a list of unhappy accomplishments: bullying his twin sisters, riding the buses without paying his fare, cutting the clotheslines in his neighbors' backyards and rejoicing in the way everything clean turned instantly muddy, things he did without a second thought. But what he enjoyed the most was tormenting his uncle. In truth Raju, who hid the ropey muscles of a bodybuilder underneath layers of flesh, could have felled Sonna to the ground with a single swipe, but he lacked two things. He lacked what Sonna had, the idea that he deserved to be top dog, and, though this would change, to Raju's dismay and shame, he lacked, for now, a good enough reason to fight Sonna.

"Don' go an' try to suck up," Sonna said, as Raju hung his head and listened. Sonna smacked him on the side of his head. "You're fuckin' retarded anyway. They won' wan' to talk to you, an' I don' wan' to see you runnin' after them, you hear me?" He shoved his uncle with a fist and Raju staggered back. "You hear me? If I catch you ..."

"No, no, what to talk, I won't talk. Too much for me to be doing," Raju said, unbuttoning the top of his shirt and trying to get some air down the front of his body. "I have too much to do."

"Too much to do," Sonna scoffed. "You got nothin' to do, you fool. Thirty-five years old an' still livin' with Mummy. Don' even have a job."

It was at that moment that the Herath household erupted into "What a Friend We Have in Jesus," which proved too much for Sonna, who shoved Raju once more, spat again for good measure, and strode down the street, his hands in his pockets as he contemplated his next move. He stumbled over a stone as he went, turned back to make sure that nobody had seen, then kicked the stone into the bushes, wincing as a sharp edge caught the end of his toe.

Raju listened absentmindedly to the music from the house across the street as he watched Sonna walk away. The voices and the piano were equally balanced and the singing was different from anything he had heard before. His immediate neighbors, the Niles family, owned a piano, and their daughter, Kala Niles, was a piano teacher, but there had never been any singing next door, just the strains of scales in quick tempo and difficult pieces of music. He wondered if the children took lessons and, if they did not, whether they would go to Kala Niles to learn. He hoped that if they did, they would not end up simply playing the same pieces over but would continue to sing as they were doing now. He turned his face toward the Nileses' house, wondering if they, too, were listening to the new children. He shaded his eyes and took stock of Kala Niles's rose bushes, which had just begun to show over the top of the wall that separated the two houses. At this time of day, the flowers scented the afternoon air; he tipped his head back and flared his nostrils, inhaling deeply as he listened a while longer to the voices from across the street. He felt his spirits lift. Whatever Sonna had to say about these new people, they could hardly be ignored when they sang so beautifully.

Listening to the hymn, the Heraths' immediate next-door neighbors, the Silvas, exchanged looks. The Herath house had been abandoned due to the joint suicide of its previous owner and Raju's father, the tragic culmination of a found-out affair. That, and the resulting insanity of the left-behind spouse, was a hair-raising tale meant to dissuade hasty purchase and one that the Silvas themselves had told Mrs. Herath the day she came house-hunting. It was a tale that Mrs. Herath had, to their consternation, taken in her stride. Now Mr. Silva sighed audibly as he pulsed his knees together in agitation, irritated by the fervorful notes flowing out through the Heraths' open veranda and in through theirs; the determination and flamboyance of his neighbor threatened, even on this first day, a life buttressed by a few good prejudices and much keeping-to-ourselves.

The Silvas' sons came into the veranda where the couple were seated. Mohan, the older of the two boys, frowned as he peered through the climbing jasmine plant that shaded one side. A bunch of flowers caught in his hair as he did so, and he pushed the vine away aggressively. A few crushed flowers fell to the floor and the veranda was filled with the sudden sweet smell of jasmine, a fragrance that instantly made all four of them think of Poya days at temple, of mounds of flowers and incense and oil lamps flickering in the dark.

"Catholics?" he asked.

"No, not Catholics, Buddhists," Jith, the younger one, said. "The older boy, Suren, is in my class at school." Jith picked up the broken flowers and arranged them in a row on the low ledge that circled the veranda; they were already beginning to turn brown. He flopped down in a chair and tapped the sides of his armrests. He and his brother had been on their way to buy some marbles, but he sensed that this, this singing, was going to delay that trip.

"Then why are they singing hymns?" Mohan made a face that signaled that he was disturbed not merely by the fact that a Buddhist family was singing Christian hymns but that the hymns existed in the first place. He glanced at his father as he said this, searching for his approval.

"Anyway, nice voices," Mrs. Silva said, though she couldn't keep the begrudging note out of her own. She could be excused, having two sons like these, neither of whom had yet revealed much artistic talent and, this being their twelfth and thirteenth years, a revelation of genius in that regard was hardly to be expected. "If there is going to be singing, then it is best that the singing is good," she added and chuckled a little, stretching out a section of the white tablecloth that she was embroidering with pale yellow and lilac blooms that bore no resemblance to any flower grown in soil, tropical or otherwise; she cocked her head this way and that in approval of her own considerable imagination and skill.


Excerpted from On Sal Mal Lane by Ru Freeman. Copyright © 2013 Ru Freeman. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Ru Freeman is the author of A Disobedient Girl, a finalist for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature that has been translated into seven languages. An activist and journalist whose work appears internationally, she calls both Sri Lanka and America home.

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On Sal Mal Lane: A Novel 4.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
U killed it. Great fanfic person. U should right more.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
In the end Mike took back over and then he won
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
"Does anyone know what this prophecy is about?"
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Sorry but im not talking about you. She will unleash what you call tryers. There true name is nichevo'ya
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Im herw im here
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
He walked in. He had soft blonde hair that swept to one side and baby blue eyes. He was well muscled and had a six pack. "Hi." He said smiling.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Out of no where rocks fell onto a stranger cat who was following them. She had redorange fur. Like the trees.