A Dying Friend

The second year I taught fourth grade we spent time learning about the value of trees as part of a grant I had for an outdoor nature trail and because Virginia education standards mandate students learn the natural resources of Virginia. As a project to the PTA and to the fifth graders, my students created an acrostic to the phrase Trees are Terrific! Here is their poem:

Trees are Terrific

Trees are terrific

Reduce soil erosion

Energy conservers

Ecosystems need them

Sound break and wind barrier

Are a major source of paper

Recycle your paper; save a tree

Endangered species need them

Trees help people heal faster

Even a part of the water cycle

Reduce flooding

Renewable natural resource

Interdependence with us, and other animals

Fruits and food products

Intakes water with roots

Care for a tree; they need us and we need them!

It seems my students learned well. Their poem indeed shows an understanding of trees, these massive organisms with which we share the planet. But I’m not sure. I wish I could do that lesson again; I would tell them there are other important reasons to love trees besides their natural resource values. I know human life would not exist without trees, so maybe I can’t separate their nature resource values from this love I feel. It’s akin to how we don’t need friends for basic survival, but we do need friends for a rich human experience.

I have a special friend that is dying. A maple tree situated right beside our house on the dining room side. We think she is at least 150 years old – sorry, I like to personify other species I connect with, and tend to equate ones so full of life as she; her demise pains me and I cannot just use it. I’m sure she was here before the two-over-two part of our farmhouse house was added. Maybe she witnessed the core of the house built, the slave’s quarters, or maybe she germinated sometime while its inhabitants worked the land.

She’s watched at least four families live their lives in the house and she towers over the property we now call Halcyon. Every time I pass by her or see her from afar, I smile. Isn’t that enough to call her my friend?

Her demise began with the derecho in June 2012 (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/capital-weather-gang/wp/2013/06/28/derecho-2012-ten-tell-tale-images-of-historic-land-hurricane/ ). A huge limb was torn from her main trunk by winds that also knocked out power in much of Rockbridge County for a week. We were sad and a little horrified at the force of nature that could rip away something so heavy, so strong. But there was work to do. It took days to clear the debris, and cut and stack the wood. She gave us a bounteous supply of firewood for that winter and we thought about her loss and her gift as she warmed us. We dismissed suggestions to take the whole tree down. How could we kill the oldest, biggest tree at Halcyon?

The following summer, she lost another large limb in another summer storm. We started to worry that she did need to come down. Both stricken limbs had fallen away from the house leaving the main double-trunk, and a large limb, which the laws of physics dictate would fall towards, if not on, our house. But she’s a friend. She makes us happy; her mere presence commanded respect and an understanding beyond our lifetimes. You can’t easily cut that down.

At 1:30 in the morning, July 14, 2015, the laws of physics prevailed. I thought it was a lightening strike, frighteningly close to my head. We stumbled out the front door with flashlights. The massive branch lay almost parallel to our house, blocking all three doors on that side with smaller branches on the roof, right next to our bedroom. The gutters were damaged and the picnic umbrella broken. It seemed incredulous. No broken windows, no ripped screens, we felt very fortunate.

I went back to bed, but not easily to sleep. And this is where I struggle to articulate the intense sadness I felt. I resigned myself to the fact that indeed, she had to come down, and I felt such heartache for her, for all the life she’s seen, for all the life she’s fostered, for all the future life that can no longer live on and in her.

It turns out we’re more fortunate than we could tell in the dark. The upstairs bathroom has numerous plaster cracks and ‘pop’ out spots. It appears that the falling branch did hit the roof, but then lifted back off being counterbalanced from the weight of the end near the trunk hitting the ground. I am grateful to my husband and brother-in-law for building such strong walls when we redid the bathroom.

We’re still not done clearing up her remains. I’m staring at the main part of the branch that fell as I type, resting on the rock wall above my strawberries. It took a day to cut up enough to open the kitchen door, and a week to cut up, haul and stack the rest that was on the ground next to the house. It was a long week, and I did not have the words to express my sadness. Or was it courage I needed to express such strong emotions for a tree? Serendipitously, the very next week, I found a picture book in the library that came brilliantly to my rescue. Our Tree Named Steve by Alan Zweibel and illustrated by David Catrow (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2005) tells of a family’s love for a tree that they grew up with, and the Dad’s heavy heart when he must tell them it fell down in a storm.

This book was just the therapy I needed.

And ironically, we may not need to take the rest of our friend down. With the weight of that lost limb, the laws of physics now say the rest of the tree would fall in two opposing directions, both away from the house. We’ll keep an eye on her of course, but this realization made me happy. I don’t know if she knows she’s dying, but we’ll take the best care of her we can.