the pine was tall and proud. full of grace, really. its boughs reached wide. brushed against the screens of the summer porch i love. tucked that room right in its branches. made it feel just like a cabin in the woods. like you’d been invited in, to something blessed.
the boughs, like the arms of all good trees, were generous, full of heart and full of possibility. birds hopped there. played there. a mama robin just last spring unwisely built her nest there, down too low, where one by one, pulled from the mama’s keeping by some wild thing that didn’t care, the naked little baby birds were flung to the forest floor. i found one each morning, five mornings in a row last may, a slow parade of death.
i’ve never moved the nest, left it undisturbed, a grassy shrine to the birds that would not be. to the mama, too, who tried so very, very hard. and finally flew away, broken-hearted i am certain.
that tree, besides its solitary virtues, is part and parcel, one-fifth, actually, of a grove. a sacred little swatch of earth i call, “the magic place.” i have said since the day i first came upon it, since it stopped me in my tracks, it’s the reason we bought this house. it’s a place where light comes through in shafts in the morning, and then, later in the day, it’s dappled.
it’s as holy a place as any i can think of, and i can walk there in the time it takes to shut the door behind me, lope 20 steps down an old brick path, and be lost in pines. just far enough to be a place to escape to, near enough to get there any time.
well, that tree i love, that tall green spruce, was scalped the other day. the whole west side, the side that hugged the screens, a good third of the way up–shaved clear.
it happened in no time flat. i was out there, just minutes before, the other morning, talking to the guys putting up a new roof on the old garage and its better half, the tacked-on, screened-in porch we call the summer house.
the thing’s been leaking buckets. with every rain, it was getting worse.
long as we’re at it–you might know how these things go–we figured we’d do a little tucking and lifting. a modest facelift for the saggy room i love so much. it is, i swear, the last item on the re-do list, a list we knew was long when we bought the place, already nearly five years ago.
bit by bit, we’ve been nudging this old shell a little closer to our vision of where we want to spend the whole rest of our lives. this house, i hope, will be the place from which i draw my last deep breath.
but about the tree. no one said a word about it being in the way. and i sure didn’t notice. i thought anyone with eyes would see the beauty of the tree was the way it hugged the porch.
apparently, i was wrong.
when i heard some hollering just 20 minutes later, one builder calling to the other, asking what bush the crazy lady wanted saved, i wandered back out. to make sure they didn’t botch the bush, a whole other bush that had been my only worry.
and that’s when my heart stopped and my eyes fell on a mound of branches piled halfway up the screens, some four feet of piled branches, i tell you.
i could not comprehend. i looked right, looked into the heart of the magic place, where three humongous pines are full of naked branches on the bottom, but i won’t cut them because i love the way they interlace, make it feel just like a room for trolls in the middle of a forest.
those trees weren’t touched. so i looked up, the only other place to look. and that’s when i saw. branch after branch, 28 in all, sawed off. lying in a heap.
i stood there gulping. eyes filling fast with tears. i was utterly bewildered and bereft. no one had ever said a word about cutting, or about those blessed branches being in the way.
but the builders, standing on the roof, they must have seen my broken heart. one shouted: “hey, if we’re gonna build your dream cottage in the woods, we’ve got to clear the branches.”
i’ve been crying ever since. the tree has too.
oh, not in the way of some concrete underpass that they say is stamped with an outline of the blessed virgin mary, and she is weeping and the true believers or the just plain curious line up for hours, bring their folding chairs, stop the flow of traffic what with all their dabbing fingers to the seeping wall, proving to themselves that this is real this time, that the underpass is crying.
no. not like that. but the stumps from where the branches were, they are dripping tears. it’s sap, of course, the sticky blood of trees that courses through its veins. and it is dripping from its wounds. looks for all the world like tears. far as i can tell that tree is crying.
but then i am a true believer.
it’s been a few days now. once i took in the damage, i could barely look. it hurt too much. i cannot stand to see the gash. it is the most lopsided old spruce i’ve ever seen.
at least, along the path, on the east side, the branches still fall with grace. they brush up against you when you wiggle through. on one side you can still pretend you’re in a forest. but on the other…
“it’s so empty,” as my nine-year-old across-the-street neighbor put it.
it’s bare, all right. it’s naked. the summer porch is fully exposed and filled with eastern light. no more dappling.
i admit i take these things too hard. i cannot stand to watch a tree, any tree anywhere, come down. i run for cover. and not because i’m scared of falling limbs or mighty trunks.
no, because to me a tree is a holy sacred contract with the future and the past. that tree does not belong to me, or you, or any of us. that tree is of the earth, and it’s reaching for the heavens. it’s our part of the deal to stay out of the way. to let it be.
i met a woman, a fine woman down on her farm, just a few weeks back. she’s a woman who turned to farming after her oldest son, a marine in iraq, was killed. she is plowing through her grief and resurrecting beauty.
as we walked her farm, she pointed up to a 100-year-old hackberry, growing in a field of golden rod and grasses.
“i lost half that hackberry,” she told me. “that’s an inspiration to me.”
half the tree, a half that held a rope swing, a half her firstborn used to climb, came down in an ice storm last november. the half that stands, though, is a beacon to the farmer woman.
“even when half of you dies, you still can live. you still can be. the birds can still come sing in your branches.”
trees are like that. trees tell stories. trees stand where they are, and life fills their limbs. trees are witness to what came before we did, and will probably be around long after we’re not.
trees rise, full of hope, and harbor to our dreams.
when a tree, or a part of tree, comes down, something dies. and not just old wood with soft green needles or scissor-cut leaves.
i don’t yet know how i’ll ever fill the hole, from where the branches spilled. don’t yet know where the dappled light will come.
for now, i only have a half a tree that’s crying. and i’ve yet to stop the tears.
do you have a tree you lost? or just a big old limb you loved? do you feel hardwired to the growing things around you? do you feel the pain when one is hurt or felled or lost? is there a tree that might still grow somewhere, but you’re the one who’s gone, moved on? does this not suddenly make you want to grab shel silverstein’s “the giving tree,” from the shelf, and go sit under a branch somewhere and read it once again?