Goodbye to the giving tree
Our majestic elm was much more than a collection of branches, roots and leaves, Jeffrey Morry writes
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What an odd feeling. This spring I found myself looking out of different windows in my home toward my front yard. More specifically, a corner of my front yard. And nothing was there. Just a double bean-bag-size footprint of newly grown green grass.
Last winter, my stunningly beautiful, 75-foot American elm tree disappeared. This silent, arching, leafy giant had stood guard over my home for a century-plus and over a decade since my wife and our three boys – then 2, 6 and 8 – moved in.
The summer before, I spied on my tree the dreaded orange splotch of spray paint the city places on trees that have been infected with Dutch elm disease. The mark of impending death on a tree that can have a life span of hundreds of years. Grim Reaper graffito.
My family is very fortunate to live in one of the oldest neighbourhoods in the city known for its graceful streets with relatively old American elm trees that create awe-inspiring canopies. A walk, ride or drive down these avenues feels like entering a welcome womb of nature with streaming natural light and a warm emerald glow. My tree was part of this storied collective.
After settling in, I appreciated the look of my tree but quickly recognized that with it came the fall work of endless leaf-raking, dealing with roots piercing the sewer line to my home, worrying about falling branches and guarding against Dutch elm disease.
Over the years though, something slowly changed in how I saw my tree. I watched as my deliriously happy boys leaped into huge mounds of its aromatic fall leaves and played hide-and-seek behind the massive trunk. Leaning against its rough bark while playing guitar seemed to make my music that much sweeter. I welcomed the leafy shade on my home during many hot summer days and saw how my tree was a home and playground to umpteen racoons, squirrels and birds.
On quiet summer nights I watered the lawn and would always be drawn under the sheltering wings of this gentle leviathan. I loved looking up through swaying branches and catching fleeting glimpses of billowing clouds glowing with moonlight. I may have even hugged it when no one was looking. I had become a cliché.
Sitting on my porch, I smiled as leisurely summer strollers would invariably stop and crook their necks skyward to soak in the grandeur of my tree. I shared in what they felt. A sense of being humbled in the presence of majesty. In bed, I dreamt my family was in the safe embrace of my tree's umbrella of branches hugging high.
I imagine all the events that took place during my tree's existence, including the sinking of the Titanic, the Russian Revolution and the First World War. It heard the strains of the first TV broadcasts of I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners, the first Elvis records and conversations about American Prohibition, opening of the Panama Canal, the end of the Second World War, the civil rights movement and the first moon landing. My tree was no doubt witness to ferocious dog fights, car crashes, cyclist wipe-outs, marriage proposals, lovers' quarrels, delicious picnics and generations of playful children growing to adulthood.
Though I always saw the beauty in trees and forests, I never felt connected to a particular tree until I inherited this awe-inducing titan. Though it protected me, I felt responsible to protect it. This anonymous tree became my tree.
I had the high privilege of sharing a fleeting moment in the very long life of a giant and saying goodbye in its end years. I couldn't bring myself to be there when the city crew unceremoniously dismantled my tree piece by piece on a cold winter day. All that was left was the emptiness of space. And mounds and mounds of sawdust settled on four feet of snow all over the yard. With the spring thaw, I sadly spread grass seed on the gaping scar of earth feeling as if I had let my tree and neighbourhood down.
It is ironic that over a life crossing two centuries, it probably survived 500 lightning storms and more than a handful of strikes, tropic-like rain and windstorms, woodpeckers, over a hundred wintery deep-freezes and was ultimately brought down by a swarm of lowly elm bark beetles.
What did my tree represent? Greatness. God. Beauty. Protection. Love. Perspective. Permanence. Continuity. Time passage. It was none of these and it was all of these. It was only a tree. But it was much more than a collection of bark, branches, roots and leaves. And it was mine.
I have to admit that at first I felt guilty lamenting the loss of my tree. Why would its end mean anything compared with the harsh realities of life? There is an overabundance of genocides, human-rights abuses, perpetual wars, vicious diseases, hunger, hatred, violence, slavery, environmental degradation, accidents, life-altering natural disasters and senseless murders including mind-numbing massacres. These are the most profound challenges that continue to face humanity.
I soon realized that my tree was about something that allowed connection and understanding. It was an intoxicating reminder there is something beyond us. In this case, it was a simple tree. For others, it could be almost anything else.
I'm thankful that this quiet colossus, a tree no less, acted as my conduit to a deeper and more meaningful life.
I've never planted a tree. It's about time.
Jeffrey Morry lives in Winnipeg.