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Trees, Seeds, Plants, and Forests Symbol Analysis

Trees, Seeds, Plants, and Forests Symbol Icon
Near the beginning of the novel, Melinda is assigned a tree as her yearlong assignment in art class. As the narrative progresses, Melinda’s attempts to draw a tree come to symbolize her ability to move past her rape, and to mature as a person. Trees, and plants in general, are powerful symbols because of the life, strength, and fertility that they represent. Although she originally draws trees that have died after being struck by lightning, just as she believes that her life stopped after her rape, Melinda eventually moves on to creating trees that are living and thriving. As Melinda’s life and mind become less desolate and hopeless, she moves closer and closer to being able to create her work of art. She fails at this task over and over, but never gives up, a fact that represents her resilience in the face of her trauma. Throughout the novel Melinda also experiences many memories of childhood associated with plants and trees; as she begins to heal, she also starts gardening, an action that represents how she is coming back to life from her previously frozen state. She even describes her former, untraumatized self as a “seed” that will one day emerge again. As the novel comes to a close, Melinda is finally able to draw what she calls a “homely sketch” of a tree; she knows the sketch is imperfect, yet feels satisfied with it anyway. Similarly, she knows that she has been damaged by her rape and its subsequent trauma, yet feels that she will be able to grow and heal once again.

Trees, Seeds, Plants, and Forests Quotes in Speak

The Speak quotes below all refer to the symbol of Trees, Seeds, Plants, and Forests. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Coming of Age Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Farrar Strauss Giroux edition of Speak published in 2011.
Part 1, Chapter 6 Quotes

I look for shapes in my face. Could I put a face in my tree, like a dryad from Greek mythology? Two muddy-circle eyes under black-dash eyebrows, piggy-nose nostrils, and a chewed-up horror of a mouth. Definitely not a dryad face. I can’t stop biting my lips. It looks like my mouth belongs to someone else, someone I don’t even know.
I get out of bed and take down the mirror. I put it in the back of my closet, facing the wall.

Related Characters: Melinda Sordino (speaker)
Related Symbols: Trees, Seeds, Plants, and Forests, Mirrors, Lips, Blood
Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:

While contemplating herself in the mirror of her bedroom, Melinda feels a surge of loathing. The protagonist often comments negatively about her own appearance, but this quote is one of the most vivid examples of her deep self-hatred. Melinda has essentially internalized all of the hatred and harm that she receives from her peers, and is projecting it back onto herself. In fact, in biting her lips until they bleed, Melinda has actually begun to self-harm, physically punishing herself both for her traumatic past and her current isolation, even though she is blameless in regards to both. The fact that she "can't stop" biting her lips only further emphasizes her feelings of powerlessness, illustrating for readers how out-of-control she feels, even within her own body. 

Throughout the book, Melinda will associate herself closely with trees. Here, though, she doesn't think that she is good enough to be a tree nymph, a "dryad," thus cutting herself off from the healing and rebirth that trees symbolize within the novel. 

Last, Melinda's admission that she "doesn't even know" her own reflection, and her decision to hide her mirror, illustrate how far Melinda is alienated from her own appearance. Inside, she is traumatized and wounded; her appearance, however, does not display those truths. Unable to verbally communicate her true internal state, Melinda hates her body for not expressing that state physically. 

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Part 2, Chapter 8 Quotes

Applesmell soaks the air. One time when I was little, my parents took me to an orchard. Daddy set me high in an apple tree. It was like falling up into a storybook, yummy and red and leaf and the branch not shaking a bit. Bees bumbled through the air, so stuffed with apple they couldn’t be bothered to sting me. The sun warmed my hair, and a wind pushed my mother into my father’s arms, and all the apple-picking parents and children smiled for a long, long minute.

Related Characters: Melinda Sordino (speaker), Melinda’s mother, Melinda’s father
Related Symbols: Trees, Seeds, Plants, and Forests, Warmth and Sunlight
Page Number: 66
Explanation and Analysis:

Triggered by the scent of apples, Melinda remembers a beloved scene from her childhood. This quote stands out as an unusual one within the novel—it lacks Melinda's usual blend of cynicism and pain, instead representing a moment of positivity and beauty. Given Melinda's hatred of the way that she has been growing up lately, it makes sense that she would be extremely nostalgic for her earlier childhood, as is shown here. Importantly, this memory also represents a time of connection between Melinda and her parents, during which they were an actual loving family, instead of simply three people living in the same house.

It's also worth noting that both trees and sunlight figure heavily into this treasured memory—two important and positive symbols within the narrative. Trees represent strength and rebirth to Melinda, while the sun represents the gradual thawing of her inner sense of frozenness. That they both show up within this passage makes clear how important the memory is to her, while also explaining her positive associations with these symbols. 

Despite the beauty and happiness contained within this passage, it is important to remember that to Melinda, this feeling of innocence and connection is completely lost. The memory is a good one, but she believes that she will never feel happy or whole again—so although she is recollecting a blissful moment in her past, the very act of doing so is deeply painful to her. 

Part 2, Chapter 21 Quotes

I open up a paper clip and scratch it across the inside of my left wrist. Pitiful. If a suicide attempt is a cry for help, then what is this? A whimper, a peep? I draw little windowcracks of blood, etching line after line until it stops hurting. It looks like I arm-wrestled a rosebush.
Mom sees the wrist at breakfast.
Mom: “I don’t have time for this, Melinda.”

Related Characters: Melinda Sordino (speaker), Melinda’s mother (speaker)
Related Symbols: Trees, Seeds, Plants, and Forests, Blood
Page Number: 88
Explanation and Analysis:

By now almost entirely unable to speak, Melinda escalates her self-harm, this time cutting shallow lines in her wrist with a paper clip. Even this attempt, though, cannot adequately communicate her pain. Indeed, Melinda mocks herself, calling her action "pitiful," a "whimper" or "peep" for help at best. Neither her words nor her actions can truly express the deep emotional and mental pain that she harbors. Melinda says that she continues cutting "until it stops hurting," a phrase that can refer to her wrist (which becomes numb), or to her emotional pain, which she is releasing through self-harm. 

Note too that even during a time of peak emotional distress, Melinda thinks about plants, commenting that she looks as if she's "arm-wrestled a rosebush." Even in this dark moment, Melinda's obsession with her art project remains—a glimmer of hope in a disturbing and bleak episode. 

The end of the passage, meanwhile, only emphasizes what readers already know: that Melinda's parents have no idea what has happened to her, and that they are only making it more difficult for her to communicate. Melinda's mother sees her action not as a cry for help, but as a plea for attention. In a world of disinterested adults and hostile peers, it makes sense that Melinda remains silent; she has no reason to believe that anyone wants to hear what she has to say. 

Part 3, Chapter 14 Quotes

I stumble from thornbush to thornbush— my mother and father who hate each other, Rachel who hates me, a school that gags on me like I’m a hairball. And Heather.
I just need to hang on long enough for my new skin to graft. Mr. Freeman thinks I need to find my feelings. How can I not find them? They are chewing me alive like an infestation of thoughts, shame, mistakes.

Related Characters: Melinda Sordino (speaker), Melinda’s mother, Melinda’s father, Heather, Mr. Freeman, Rachel Bruin
Related Symbols: Trees, Seeds, Plants, and Forests
Page Number: 125
Explanation and Analysis:

In a moment of peak anguish, Melinda once again uses a botanical metaphor to express herself, thinking of all the obstacles and difficulties in her life as thornbushes ready to rip off her skin. Although it is frustrating to see Melinda remain silent and isolated, passages such as this help readers understand why she does so. To Melinda, everything in her life is hostile and sharp, ready to rip her to shreds. She does not feel safe with anyone, and so she can never release the terrible burden of her guilt and trauma. She is trying her best to heal from her sexual assault—to allow her "new skin to graft"—but everything in her life is making it more difficult to do so. 

This passage also makes clear Melinda's complicated relationship to emotion and appearances. Outwardly, Melinda is apathetic; she doesn't seem to care about school, friends, or life. Inwardly, however, Melinda is in constant torment, her guilt, shame, and regret eating her up inside. Given her inner pain, it makes sense that Melinda tries to remain as outwardly unfeeling as possible. If she ever lets out the powerful emotions inside of her, she is terrified of what will happen. 

Part 3, Chapter 19 Quotes

Slush is frozen over. People say that winter lasts forever, but it’s because they obsess over the thermometer. North in the mountains, the maple syrup is trickling. Brave geese punch through the thin ice left on the lake. Underground, pale seeds roll over in their sleep. Starting to get restless. Starting to dream green.

Related Characters: Melinda Sordino (speaker)
Related Symbols: Trees, Seeds, Plants, and Forests, Birds, Water, Ice, and Melting, Warmth and Sunlight
Page Number: 133
Explanation and Analysis:

As the narrative progresses, Melinda's voice becomes slightly more hopeful. Emotionally frozen during the winter months, she begins to thaw as the weather turns towards spring. This passage illustrates the close relationship between Melinda's emotions and the changing of the seasons. The signs of spring—water thawing, birds returning, seeds growing—all have intensely symbolic and positive meanings for her. Water melts, just as her inward iciness melts as well. Birds fly free, just as Melinda hopes to one day be free of her trauma. Seeds grow from the cold ground, just like Melinda wishes to be reborn, and to come back from her trauma as strong as she was before. 

Like the "restless" seeds that are "dream[ing] green," Melinda too is starting to become restless, dreaming her way out of her cold, frozen shell. To her, spring is a metaphor for renewal and rebirth, processes in which she hopes to take part as well. Her close association with nature makes the tree an excellent subject for Melinda's artwork. Just as she uses natural metaphors to describe her own internal journey, so too will she use a representation of her tree to express her hidden emotions.  

Part 4, Chapter 7 Quotes

This looks like a tree, but it is an average, ordinary, everyday, boring tree. Breathe life into it. Make it bend— trees are flexible, so they don’t snap. Scar it, give it a twisted branch— perfect trees don’t exist. Nothing is perfect. Flaws are interesting. Be the tree.

Related Characters: Mr. Freeman (speaker), Melinda Sordino
Related Symbols: Trees, Seeds, Plants, and Forests
Page Number: 153
Explanation and Analysis:

While encouraging Melinda to continue working on her tree project, Mr. Freeman articulates one of the central beliefs at the core of the novel: that rather than attempting to escape the flaws and traumas in her past, Melinda must instead try to incorporate those experiences into her life. Urging Melinda to "Be the tree," Mr. Freeman hints that, on some level, he understands that he is talking not just about the art project, but about Melinda herself. He is a wise and empathetic teacher, and it makes sense that he would instinctively recognize his student's pain and her need to connect with others.

This passage also continues to support the idea of expression through art. Over and over, Mr. Freeman tells Melinda to put her feelings, her life, and herself into her artwork. Together, teacher and student work not just to create a satisfying final project, but to find a way for Melinda to find healing by creating a tree—a sentiment that is made clear within this quotation. 

Part 4, Chapter 22 Quotes

I crouch by the trunk, my fingers stroking the bark, seeking a Braille code, a clue, a message on how to come back to life after my long undersnow dormancy. I have survived. I am here. Confused, screwed up, but here. So, how can I find my way? Is
there a chain saw of the soul, an ax I can take to my memories or fears? I dig my fingers into the dirt and squeeze. A small, clean part of me waits to warm and burst through the surface. Some quiet Melindagirl I haven’t seen in months. That is the seed I will care for.

Related Characters: Melinda Sordino (speaker)
Related Symbols: Trees, Seeds, Plants, and Forests, Water, Ice, and Melting, Warmth and Sunlight
Page Number: 188
Explanation and Analysis:

Melinda returns to the scene of her rape and experiences a feeling of emotional release as she crouches by a tree. This passage represents one of the most intense instances of Melinda's identification with plants, trees, and nature. Recognizing that she has been frozen in place for months, Melinda here decides that she wants to come back, and to grow once more. 

At first, Melinda wonders whether she can cut away her trauma and terrible memories, but quickly realizes that this is not a real option. Instead, she decides that she must nurture the seeds of the person she used to be, until she can slowly grow into someone else. 

Communing with nature is a restorative act for Melinda. It helps remind her of who she is and who she wants to be, and gives her hope for the future. Although she acknowledges that she is "screwed up," Melinda is more optimistic and sincere here than we have ever seen her before. Returning to the scene of her trauma has had a healing effect on her, and gives both the protagonist and the readers hope that she may indeed continue to heal in the future. 

Part 4, Chapter 26 Quotes

IT happened. There is no avoiding it, no forgetting. No running away, or flying, or burying, or hiding. Andy Evans raped me in August when I was drunk and too young to know what was happening. It wasn’t my fault. He hurt me. It wasn’t my fault. And I’m not going to let it kill me. I can grow.
I look at my homely sketch. It doesn’t need anything. Even through the river in my eyes I can see that. It isn’t perfect and that makes it just right.

Related Characters: Melinda Sordino (speaker), Andy Evans
Related Symbols: Trees, Seeds, Plants, and Forests, Birds, Water, Ice, and Melting, Warmth and Sunlight
Page Number: 198
Explanation and Analysis:

Having finally created a tree that expresses her true self and her hidden trauma, Melinda is at last able to admit the truth to herself and to the readers, and explain what happened in clear terms. She at last cleanses herself of her guilt, acknowledging that her rape was not her fault, and that she will no longer remain frozen from the pain of the experience.

Creating art has indeed become a healing experience for Melinda, as a representation of her imperfect life, and her continued potential for growth. Although she has longed to escape throughout the narrative, Melinda now understands that flight is not possible; the only way she can continue living is to acknowledge her trauma and to continue growing as a person.

Melinda describes her tears as she finishes the sketch by saying that there is a "river" in her eyes. Throughout the novel, metaphors of freezing and ice have described Melinda's cold and static emotional state. Now, as she at last emerges, her "river" of tears represents the fact that she has thawed internally, and is ready to face the world again as a person with agency and a voice. 

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Trees, Seeds, Plants, and Forests Symbol Timeline in Speak

The timeline below shows where the symbol Trees, Seeds, Plants, and Forests appears in Speak. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 1, Chapter 4: Sanctuary
Communication versus Silence Theme Icon
Appearance versus Reality Theme Icon
...an emotion, and for the first time that day, Melinda is excited. She gets a tree, and though she believes that the assignment will be too easy, Mr. Freeman tells her... (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 14: The Opposite of Inspiration is...Expiration?
Coming of Age Theme Icon
Appearance versus Reality Theme Icon
Since the pep rally, Melinda has used watercolors to paint trees that have been struck by lightning. Mr. Freeman has not commented on them, however, and... (full context)
Part 2, Chapter 5: First Amendment
Communication versus Silence Theme Icon
...son from getting a job as a firefighter. As he fumes, Melinda doodles an apple tree, and thinks about the linoleum block that she is trying to carve in art class.... (full context)
Part 2, Chapter 7: Wishbone
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Family and Friendship Theme Icon
...class. Mr. Freeman, thrilled by her idea, allows Melinda to take time off from the tree to work on the bird. (full context)
Part 2, Chapter 8: Peeled and Cored
Coming of Age Theme Icon
Family and Friendship Theme Icon
Memory and Trauma Theme Icon
...to flash back to a happy moment in her childhood, when she visited an apple tree orchard with her parents. She remembers her father holding her mother, and the warmth of... (full context)
Part 2, Chapter 11: Winter Break
Coming of Age Theme Icon
Family and Friendship Theme Icon
Isolation, Loneliness, and Depression Theme Icon
Memory and Trauma Theme Icon
...two days till Christmas, Melinda’s mother tells her (via note) to put up the Christmas tree. Melinda drags her family’s fake tree out of the basement, cleans it up, and begins... (full context)
Coming of Age Theme Icon
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Isolation, Loneliness, and Depression Theme Icon
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...Christmas.” She bundles up and heads out into the snow, where she is surrounded by trees, bushes, and ice. As she plays in the snow, making a snow angel, Melinda remembers... (full context)
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Memory and Trauma Theme Icon
...complains as it melts on her back. She takes holly and pine off of nearby trees and bring them in to make a centerpiece. She wishes that her family could borrow... (full context)
Part 2, Chapter 14: Coloring Outside the Lines
Communication versus Silence Theme Icon
Appearance versus Reality Theme Icon
Family and Friendship Theme Icon
...even come by to write about his irreverent mural. Melinda, meanwhile, cannot figure out her tree. Having ruined multiple linoleum blocks, she describes the tree outside her house, “a strong old... (full context)
Part 2, Chapter 23: Dark Art
Appearance versus Reality Theme Icon
Isolation, Loneliness, and Depression Theme Icon
...the freezing cold art room, Melinda starts a new linoleum block, commenting that her last tree looked as if it had died of a fungal infection. (full context)
Part 3, Chapter 5: Stunted
Coming of Age Theme Icon
Appearance versus Reality Theme Icon
Isolation, Loneliness, and Depression Theme Icon
...a painted list on his wall. Next to Melinda’s name is a question mark. Her tree, she reports, is “frozen.” She claims that a kindergartner could do better, and that she... (full context)
Melinda looks at a book of landscapes brimming with trees and plants. She recalls that Mr. Freeman hasn’t said anything good to her since her... (full context)
Part 3, Chapter 8: Cutting Out Hearts
Coming of Age Theme Icon
Communication versus Silence Theme Icon
Isolation, Loneliness, and Depression Theme Icon
...picture of Ms. Keen as a bird (a robin) together. Melinda tries to make a tree for the bird, and is pleased with the results. When David’s hand brushes hers at... (full context)
Part 3, Chapter 12: Picasso
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...gone to high school with her. She does not, however, find a picture of a tree. (full context)
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Isolation, Loneliness, and Depression Theme Icon
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Inspired, Melinda draws “a Cubist tree” which looks like “glass shards” and “lips with triangle brown leaves.” Mr. Freeman is pleased... (full context)
Part 3, Chapter 13: Riding Shotgun
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Isolation, Loneliness, and Depression Theme Icon
Memory and Trauma Theme Icon
...praises her Cubist sketch and the “growth” in her work. Melinda, however, believes that her “trees suck.” He responds that she is too hard on herself, and Melinda actually replies back,... (full context)
Part 3, Chapter 15: Germination
Coming of Age Theme Icon
Melinda studies for a biology test about seeds, and finds herself interest in the topic, noting the different ways that seeds grow (they... (full context)
Part 3, Chapter 18: Stupid Stupid
Isolation, Loneliness, and Depression Theme Icon
Memory and Trauma Theme Icon
...on the bus with her peers. She greets her poster of Maya Angelou, her Cubist tree, and her turkey-bone bird sculpture, and curls up for a nap. Sleeping at home has... (full context)
Part 3, Chapter 19: A Night to Remember
Coming of Age Theme Icon
Appearance versus Reality Theme Icon
...climbs out of her window onto the porch roof, comparing the stars to “fat white seed.” She notes that the slush has turned to ice, but believes that spring is coming... (full context)
Coming of Age Theme Icon
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Memory and Trauma Theme Icon
...Feeling insecure, Melinda drank three beers and wandered away from the crowd into the pine trees. (full context)
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Isolation, Loneliness, and Depression Theme Icon
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...sees Rachel’s angry face, feels a slap on her face, and remembers crawling through a forest of legs. (full context)
Part 4, Chapter 4: Genetics
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Isolation, Loneliness, and Depression Theme Icon
Rather than pay attention, Melinda sketches “a willow tree drooping into water” to tape on the inside of her closet; she considers moving in... (full context)
Part 4, Chapter 6: Thin Atmosphere
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Isolation, Loneliness, and Depression Theme Icon
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Melinda looks at the walls of the closet, which are filled with pictures of trees. She categorizes them into different periods, and notes that she is getting better at drawing... (full context)
Part 4, Chapter 7: Growing Pains
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Isolation, Loneliness, and Depression Theme Icon
Melinda opens by calling Mr. Freeman “a jerk” because he is criticizing her tree. Although she’s annoyed, she does agree with him. Despairing, she decides that real artists like... (full context)
Coming of Age Theme Icon
Memory and Trauma Theme Icon
Melinda remembers that she played a tree in a second-grade play because she was bad at being a sheep. She recalls how... (full context)
Part 4, Chapter 14: Real Spring
Coming of Age Theme Icon
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Isolation, Loneliness, and Depression Theme Icon
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...raking aside layers and layers of moldy, decomposing leaves from the bushes in her front yard. She notices that her house is the only one on the street without a perfect... (full context)
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...work. He tries to encourage her, but she doesn’t answer. They both look at the plants in the yard, and as a cloud covers the sun, Melinda shivers. He points out... (full context)
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...the leaves out of my throat,” and asks him if he will buy some flower seeds. (full context)
Part 4, Chapter 19: Prom Preparation
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...what she’s thinking—that Heather betrayed her and deserves to fail—but adds that she needs to plant over the weekend, and doesn’t need help redecorating. Melinda asks Heather to leave, and Heather... (full context)
Part 4, Chapter 20: Communication 101
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Feeling empowered by standing up to Heather, planting marigolds, and asking her mother if she can redecorate her bedroom, Melinda attributes her newfound... (full context)
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Melinda writes a note explaining that she was raped at the party “under the trees”, adding that she “was stupid and drunk,” and then “was just too scared” to speak... (full context)
Part 4, Chapter 22: Pruning
Isolation, Loneliness, and Depression Theme Icon
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...a warm and sunny Saturday morning, Melinda watches as arborists come to cure the sick tree outside her house by trimming off its dead branches. The scene becomes horrific, however, as... (full context)
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Melinda bikes to the barn where the party took place, and walks to the tree-filled spot where she was raped. Her heart pounds as she stands on the spot, crouching... (full context)
Part 4, Chapter 26: Final Cut
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...in his grades, Melinda reports. She takes advantage of the delay to work on her tree one more time; as she does so, Mr. Freeman uses white paint to cover his... (full context)
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“My tree is definitely breathing,” Melinda reports. She tries to create an imperfect tree with initials in... (full context)
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Melinda decides that her tree is missing something, and uses chalk and water to draw birds above it (although the... (full context)