The signs have been there for a few years now- chipping bark, withering branches, small holes you could play connect the dots on. Some sort of insect had made my tree its home base, and for a while now, their army has eaten it away- my tree, my one and only tree.
I have .73 of an acre, but only one tree. For the naturalist/mystic that I am, it’s saying something to say that I’m losing my tree. Honey Bun has been wanting to get rid that tree for years- but he’s a rationalist/worrywart. I’m a tree-lover, shell-collector, sunset-admirer. To lose my tree is to lose something substantial.
I imagine this space without it. The orange glow of the streetlamps seem all the more intrusive. The blinking light on the corner, now yellow, now red, all the more irksome. Three ramshackle houses on three separate corners, tired and worn, now ever more a blight from my window. And I tell Honey Bun we need to move, I’ll no longer have my tree.
He rolls his eyes at my drama and calls a smattering of tree-killers, insurance providers, and the list of manly, adventurous friends he has who may be looking for their next Everest in the cutting down of my tree. I can just see their congratulatory barbeque in my backyard, celebrating their conquest once it’s gone.
My tree and I, we’ve not much time.
Even now I feel the tears burning. The open, crumbling mouth of that hole taunts me, laughs, as if my one ally has now switched allegiances.
You think I’m crazy, I know you do. It’s only a tree, you say, Trees don’t have feelings and they certainly don’t choose sides, and anyway, there are far more complicated, heart-ripping, back-breaking burdens to bear than the death of a tree.
Yet here I am, mourning a sugar maple.
It’s that tree that provides an ounce of shade on an otherwise sun-beaten home. It’s the bud of spring, the rustle of leaves, the pile of rusty autumn decay that might as well be bottled up into a perfume to wear for as much as I love it.
It’s the one stately thing that’s lived long and hard on a lot that’s been bulldozed and built upon with concrete and the antiseptic wood of a lumber store.
I can’t plant another, for many reasons. No tree will grow to its height, its maturity in the small amount of time we have left here. Not to mention, on all .73 of an acre, there’s not one space in the whole lot that’s not been claimed by some mile of pipe, tank, or well that cannot be tampered with by the meddling roots of an aging tree.
To take away my tree is to take away time, and beauty.
There’s a passage in Mark that speaks of a tree, a dead tree, cursed, by Jesus himself. The words that spoke it into being at the beginning of time, now cursing it, withering it, putting the last nail in its coffin…
for a fig tree that bears no figs is no fig tree at all- it’s a farce.
But sometimes a tree means more than a tree. In the next few verses, Jesus leaves that cursed tree for another. He goes to Jerusalem, to the temple, where he finds it “a den of robbers” instead of a “house of prayer for all nations.” He tears the temple apart, overturning tables, scattering the merchandise. Not in words this time, but in action, he curses this once fruitful temple.
Long before that day, it was written in Jeremiah 17:5, 7-8,
This is what the Lord says:
“Cursed is the one who trusts in man,
who draws strength from mere flesh
and whose heart turns away from the Lord…
But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord,
whose confidence is in him.
They will be like a tree planted by the water
that sends out its roots by the stream.
It does not fear when heat comes;
its leaves are always green.
It has no worries in a year of drought
and never fails to bear fruit.”
Yes, sometimes a tree is more than a tree.
Am I like that Pharisaical tree, all green and leafy, exhibiting a measure of life, but offering no fruit to the passerby? I wonder.
In any case, I’d rather be the tree by the stream. I’d rather be alive.
My tree, which depends on the sun, the rain, good soil, and the absence of life-devouring pestilence, doesn’t in and of itself have what it takes to live. It’s entirely dependent, whether it likes it or not. And as it’s dependent, it gives life, fruit: that robin’s nest high up in its branches, the sweet sap stored in its trunk.
In a dying tree those branches fall, the sap dries up, its bark slips off as easily as the peel of a banana, and its pockmarked trunk crumbles to dust. It’s no longer fruitful. Eventually all the beauty is stripped away. And if something is not done about that tree, not only will it not be life-giving, it may even be life-taking.
It must come down.
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10).
It was Jesus talking. To the Pharisees. They never got it, and Jesus went on to curse their exorbitantly-priced yet cheap religion at the temple later on.
He came for life. Full life.
And my perfect, story-telling God brought it, in death. His death. Death for life.
Sometimes, it’s in the dying that we truly live. When we die to religiosity and live in His freedom; when we die to worry and live in peace; when we cut down the mighty forests we’ve planted in the soil of our own abilities, weak strengths, and limited wisdom- it’s only then that we’re able to plant, grow, flourish in that full life He paid such a price for.
Whether I cling to the last branch of a dying tree or not, one thing is certain: dying trees eventually come down. There’s grace in that. He’ll never let us hang on to a crumbling stick forever. He allows those trees to wizen under our fingers so that when our tree has finally fallen, we have hands free to grasp onto the only Tree worth clinging to: the Cross.