The generosity of trees, an elegy

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My son has always loved to draw trees from his imagination. The one here is recent and typical of his “style,” if a thirteen year old can be said to have style. We are both fascinated by the tracery of bare trees at this time of year – how they seem to mirror the design of our own circulatory systems, as diagrammed in anatomy books. Come to think of it, he used to love looking at the multi-colored drawings in anatomy books when he was younger.

One of my favorite passages in any book is Annie Dillard’s musings about trees in “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.” I loved it so much, when I first opened my own firm as an architect, I put a phrase from it on my business card: “Trees bespeak a generosity of spirit.” While that does sum it up quite neatly, the whole passage is a treasure:

“There’s a real power here. It is amazing that trees can turn gravel and bitter salts into these soft-lipped lobes, as if I were to bite down on a granite slab and start to swell, bud, and flower. Trees seem to do their feats so effortlessly. Every year a given tree creates absolutely from scratch ninety-nine percent of its living parts. Water lifting up tree trunks can climb one hundred and fifty feet an hour; in full summer a tree can, and does, heave a ton of water every day. A big elm in a single season might make as many as six million leaves, wholly intricate, without budging an inch; I couldn’t make one. A tree stands there, accumulating deadwood, mute and rigid as an obelisk, but secretly it seethes; it splits, sucks, and stretches; it heaves up tons and hurls them out in a green, fringed fling. No person taps this free power; the dynamo in the tulip tree pumps out ever more tulip tree, and it runs on rain and air.”

This simple observation — that we can’t come close to doing what trees do — rocked my world when first I read it, over twenty-five years ago. And that’s just one small part of what trees do. In her lovely exploration of trees in context, “Teaching the Trees,” Joan Maloof provides intricate details of the myriad creatures and life cycles that are sheltered by trees in forests.

In our defense, we may be tempted to say, well, humans have consciousness, and we’re smarter and cleverer than trees. Guess what? Trees have consciousness, too, and I don’t know about you, but I’m not going to go there about intelligence. What do I know about the intelligence of trees?

As I write this, I can hear the constant drone of a huge chipper-shredder parked three houses down. A crew is taking down one of the most elegant, oldest beeches on our block. The curves on that tree! The arcing, graceful shape of its branches against the sky, and today is one of those achingly blue, clear days. When I walked out of my house and saw the hardhatted guy hanging from a line high up in the tree, wielding his chain saw and belayed by three coworkers across the street, my heart broke.

I know every living thing, eventually, dies. My neighbors have done what they could over the years to keep this tree from dropping its huge limbs on the parked cars below — as it did after a direcho storm hit a few years back. Still, trees like this, our wise elders, have a mystery about them, a presence, that stands apart. The tree was here long before these houses. Hearing the crunch and whine of the shredder as larger and larger parts of this tree are thrown in brings tears to my eyes. I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye, and even if I did, what would I say?

I’m just recalling that when my across-the-street neighbor took down one of her huge trees — also a beech, coincidentally — I sent her a sympathy card, with one of my son’s tree drawings on it. I imagined how she must feel. Long ago, I was living in Philadelphia in a second-floor apartment on an urbane, leafy street. I came home from work one day to find that the majestic sycamore right in front of my building — my friend, who dappled the light inside my apartment and greeted me each day — had been unceremoniously cut down. Until that moment, I had been unaware of our friendship, so bursting into tears surprised me.

It doesn’t surprise me today. We live among these trees, they shelter birds and squirrels and insects, shade our houses, and touch our hearts with wonder. It is said that each tree has a spirit, just as humans do. It’s advisable to perform a ceremony before taking a tree down, to help its spirit move on. It pains me to think that wasn’t done, but maybe the tree guys do it. I like to think that you can’t spend so much time around trees without feeling something. I know I do.

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