The tree next to my house is dying. Yet it stands stock straight, a proud grey obelisk with branches sticking out emphatically, thick and defiant at the bottom, frail toward the top. In the spring, a smattering of green leaves flutters cheerfully from bone-dry branches; it’s a gesture of optimism I find touching—and a tiny bit heart-breaking.
The tree stands some 40 feet tall, rising up from the ground about 15 feet from our home: If a windstorm blew it down, it would likely tear a hole through the roof of our little 1850s farmhouse. Yet my husband and I have not taken measures to remove it, partly out of an aversion to costly capital improvements and partly out of a talent for denial: we pretend not to know that repairing the roof would cost far more than removing the tree.
It’s always been there, like a wise old aunt who sits silently in the background of family events.
But there’s another reason we don’t cut the tree down: it’s a part of our lives, a member of our family. My sons’ memories don’t extend back to a time without the tree—it’s always been there, like a wise old aunt who sits silently in the background of family events. The tree has served as “base” for countless games of hide-and-seek. The Easter Bunny has hung glittering foiled chocolates from its lowest branches. The boys have duct-taped bullseyes to its trunk for archery practice. They don’t think about the tree, or what it might mean to them, but we middle-aged folks know: it’s only when a taken-for-granted figure like that disappears that you realize it had a root system inside you. Then you begin the near-daily chore of discovering first this flesh wound, then that, where a now-torn out root once lay. I realize that removing an old, dead tree may not exactly affect a mythic loss of innocence in my children, but I’m not taking any chances. And so the towering old conifer stands.
Our house is in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York, a still-rural area that, decades ago, was replete with dairy farms. Now the descendants of those farmers struggle to make ends meet, working civil service jobs or selling organic jams and soaps to urban weekenders. Driving up from New York City on the winding, two-lane state highways nearby, signs sprout up: “former site of Arena” and “former site of Shavertown.” The signs are tombstones: in 1942, New York City flooded these towns to create the Pepacton Reservoir which provides water to the City. Locals still speak of the flooding with bitterness.
In many ways it’s a landscape of loss, of dying. And yet, there’s such abundance here, untold generosity: the Catskill Forest Preserve contains 287,500 acres of state land. Trails zig zag through the mountains, letting countless hikers reap the nourishment only a forest can offer, its particular beauty and quiet. Even when we’re at home, we’re receiving the forest’s gifts: trees clean the air, sucking up nasty emissions from fossil fuels, letting us literally breathe easier. Hiking through this forest, I feel small, and I’m glad of it. A shaman from the Ecuadorian Amazon told one of my colleagues that in his tradition, the ceiba, or kapok tree, is viewed as the “father of all animals.” The forest as progenitor makes sense to me, and sadly, there are those among us who behave as meth-addled, thieving grandchildren before it. For me, it’s humbling to feel so small, and in a way, a relief: we’re not so important. We’re just lucky.
In my anxious maternal heart, I want my kids to never know loss. To never know about climate change. Or war. Or racism. Or death. Or fear. Of course, I know this is not only unrealistic, but wrong-headed. Loss is what teaches us that we live in a state of grace. After you dress your wounds, mourn, you understand the fullness of what you once had—and more importantly, that you are in this very moment receiving gifts you are unaware of, or that you vaguely see but take for granted. Gifts such as those given to us by the forest us every day. Today, now, and hopefully tomorrow.
This may be the spring that we finally say goodbye to our dear old tree. And then I think we’ll plant a new one—just a little farther from the house this time.