Please note: Each of my public radio essays was written and aired at different times between 1999 and now. None of them is posted in chronological order. Hopefully, the ideas and insights in each of them will transcend the times and places about which I’ve written. I hope you enjoy what I have to offer.
When we moved into our house a number of years ago, the two old, sprawling willow trees on each side of our lawn stood like lazy guards at an open gate. They graciously waved their long, leaf drenched branches at us, ushering us into our new home. Over time we settled into a lackadaisical relationship with our trees; we let their chaff choke our gutters, and we fought back very little as their roots pushed up under our driveway. Branches large and small fell with increasing frequency under the weight and pressure of snow, ice, and wind, yet we looked on and cleaned up after our aging neighbors. We left them in peace, and they let the breezes whisper to us through their thick leaves as we sat on the steps of our house on summer nights. An ice storm broke off very large limbs of both willows, littering our property and endangering passersby. Realizing that we had waited too long to care for them, we contacted an arborist who owns a tree service. After a brief check, he told us that the old willow on the right side of our house was rotting. With its massive, drooping branches forming a looming canopy over our street, large parts of it –or the tree itself- would eventually fall down as it continued to rot and die. The tree would have to be cut down.
I struggled to keep myself grounded with the pragmatic rationale that cutting it down was the sensible, responsible thing to do. Yet on the morning that the tree service was scheduled to arrive, I woke up with the queasy feeling that we were about to euthanize a dying grandparent. Turning to my wife, I whispered my fear that our youngest daughter -a great lover of these trees- would be traumatized by the day’s events. A compassionate and practical woman, yet still half asleep, she whispered back to me: “It’s just a tree, she’ll get over it.” Annoyed by her response, I bounded out of bed to start the day in a state of agitation.
The tree servicemen came and went, mustering their impressive arsenal of saws, cables, and cherry pickers that dismembered Old Man Willow from canopy to stump with tidy, almost robotic dispatch. Watching them, I could not shake the powerful images of trees personified as people that are found in the Bible. Yet as increasingly large pieces of the old man thudded to the lawn, I allowed my fascination with the technology to push aside my uneasiness, and I reasoned to myself: “It’s a rotted old willow tree, Dan. You’ll get over it.”
That afternoon, my wife, daughter and I stood around the stump, as we easily poked holes in its spongy center and half heartedly attempted to count its many rings. We performed an informal ritual of “arboreal memorial” by alternating between quiet murmurs of regret, acknowledgment of the stump’s rotted sponginess, and respectful silence. Neighbors and friends stopped by over the next couple of days to comment wistfully on the tree’s sad remains, almost as if they were paying the traditional shivah visit in a Jewish house of mourning. Looking over at our surviving willow, I was mildly shocked by its lonely lopsidedness: a twin bereft of its sibling and swaying forlornly on our lawn.
I gradually got over the “tree-as-family member” thing; yet something about this routine, if regrettable, act of property maintenance continued to bother me. A few weeks after we cut the willow down, I came across the 1937 painting, Willlow Tree, by the abstract painter, Arthur Dove. Upon first glance, I assumed that he had drawn a cross section of a stump that can either be viewed sideways or from above. However, looking more closely, I realized that the supposed “stump” resembled a fetus curled up in the womb, hardly the shape or life form I would expect to find inside the stump of an old willow. The personal significance of Dove’s work became painfully apparent to me. Our deceased tree possessed a kind of fetal memory. Its trunk, branches, leaves and rings encoded a long, rich history of birth, growth, decline and death that patterns all life and living things. Necessary and routine as it may have been, by cutting down our willow, we had also erased one small piece of that memory.
Now that the willow’s stump and roots have been ground and the top soil has been replenished, I have planted a Japanese maple sapling and small shrubs in its place. Their mix of light maroon and dark green will capture the sunlight and fill our lawn with color. They will grow through the seasons, and the willow’s rough brown branches and light green leaves will slowly fade from memory. On late afternoons I will sit on the steps of my house, pausing to consider that, after all, it was a very old tree.
Dan Ornstein is rabbi of Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, New York.
© 2010 By Rabbi Dan Ornstein