Tree, a Love Story: One Woman's Reflections on Her Home's Aging, 40-Foot Conifer
The tree next to my house is dying. Yet it stands stock straight, a proud, grey obelisk with branches that look thick and defiant at the bottom, frail toward the top. In 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 heartbreaking.
The old conifer stands some 40 feet tall, rising up from the ground about 15 feet away 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 due to a talent for denial: we pretend not to know that repairing the roof would cost far more than removing the tree.
But there’s another reason we don’t cut it 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 big pine — it’s always been there, like a wise old aunt who sits silently in the background of family events. It 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 disappears that you realize it had a root system inside you. 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 dying conifer stands.
Our house is in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York, a 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. When 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 placards are tombstones: between 1947 and 1954 New York flooded these towns to create the Pepacton Reservoir, which provides water to the city. Locals still speak of it with bitterness.
In many ways it’s a landscape of loss, of dying. Yet there’s such abundance here, untold generosity: the Catskill Forest Preserve contains about 116,000 hectares (287,500 acres) of state land. Trails zigzag through the mountains, letting countless hikers reap the spiritual 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 and 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 people’s tradition, the Ceiba pentandra, or kapok tree, is viewed as the “father of all animals”. The forest as progenitor makes sense to me, and sadly, some among us 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 wrongheaded. Loss is what teaches us that we live in a state of grace. After you dress your wounds and 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, 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.