In my upstairs bedroom is an alcove with a window. In the alcove sits a drafting desk — a place for me to retreat today, in peace, to write.
It is quiet up here. No hum of the dishwasher signaling its service to me. No buzz of the dryer calling for my attention. No background noise of husband on the phone.
And best of all, on this day following the election for president, I hear no prattle of television commentators.
I crack the window and am greeted by a welcome sound: leaves rustling in the branches of a maple tree. I think of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
“For ye shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace: the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”
I need to believe this promise today. I sit still, writing, but my words go forth. There is joy. There is leading. There is peace. And not far away, the hills are singing, even today. And the rustling of the leaves, just outside my window, sounds a bit like clapping. I sit on eye level with the branches, as in a tree house, and in the peace I hear the voice of creation praising its Creator, even today.
I have always thought of trees as companions, as individuals I have known and loved. From Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree, to The Giving Tree, to the tree outside my window, it is easy for me to see a tree as almost human. A sweet book from my childhood, as illustrated above, explained, “A tree can be a different kind of friend. It doesn’t talk to you, but you know it likes you.” I like that in a tree. People friends, with their chatter, can be wearying. Today especially, I prefer the company of a tree.
One of my earliest tree memories is of a shimmering Cottonwood near my home, its leaves sounding of laughter as they danced wildly together, quivering with joy.
When seeking solitude, I would lie in the woods under Loblolly Pines, on the blankets of pine straw that cover the ground. The scent of the pines was bracing yet soothing, sharp freshness contrasting with thick warm air. The breeze whispered through the swaying branches, reassuring, peaceful, and nurturing. It was the scent and sound of home.
Other trees of my youth offered hours of play amongst their magical branches: hiding from the world under the dense Magnolia next door to my cousins’ house, velvety cones with bright red seeds, glossy green leaves, the air redolent with the strangely sweet perfume of massive white flowers; swinging on knotted fronds of the Weeping Willow in our front yard; and wondering at the tiny rice shaped leaves, peapod seeds and nose-tickling pom-pom pink flowers of the Mimosa tree at church.
In college at Auburn I lived in the old quad, the traditional grassy lawn bordered by dormitories and anchored by massive Oaks in each of the four corners. Walking home one day, as I approached the dorm from a distance, something just didn’t feel right. As I rounded the corner I saw it — a huge stump flat sawn, and an immense trunk lying prone, shorn of its branches. I sat on the stump, shaken and tearful.
As my tears subsided I became angry and indignant. Although this was 1981, well before the tree-hugging days of the militant environmentalist movement, if there was not a good reason for destroying this tree, and if more were at-risk, someone was going to have to deal with me. I determined that if they intended to take another tree from the quad that they would just have to haul off this Republican sorority girl, add-a-bead necklace and all, along with the tree. It turns out there was a good reason, as the strength of the tree had been compromised by age and disease and it threatened a nearby dorm. Auburn people love their trees, then and now, as the recent attack on our beloved Toomer’s Corner oaks reveals. My militant activism could wait a few years.
I fell madly in love with the fiery red Maples of New England during our first autumn there. How flashy their colors — more like massive flowers than trees — impossibly bright as if they gave off some inner light. But it was an infatuation, not lasting love.
Those glowing leaves quickly faded and fell, signaling the arrival of the oppressive darkness and cold of the New England winter — winters that weighed so heavily upon me that I could hardly welcome the pageantry of the fall without a sense of impending doom. The barren trees echoed my feelings, black and still, hunkered down and enduring, silhouetted against the pale northern sky.
After three winters, we moved from New England to Texas. There, though not love at first sight, the Live Oaks won a lasting place in my heart. The ancient branches spread — reaching as far outward as upward — and grew down almost to the ground before heading back up and out, a slow motion rollercoaster of boughs. The oaks are constant, sporting leaves year round, briefly purging old and immediately replacing with new each spring, providing continual shelter from the Texas sun that beats down with unrelenting strength many months each year.
Even now, I love looking up into the canopy of a glorious tree. It is for me a spiritual experience, akin to that of visiting a cathedral, eye and heart drawn heavenward, a sense of great comfort coming from feeling so small in the presence of power and majesty and strength. It takes my breath away. I am thankful to have lived a life that causes me to see strength as benevolent and power as protective.
Nashville is full of awe-inspiring trees, but the maple in my front yard, my companion today outside the window as I write, is not one of them. Early on, the tree appears to have been topped, the normal upward course of branches interrupted. Though stunted in its natural development, it steadily goes about the cyclical business of being a tree, season after season.
The annual fall explosion of yellow and orange is now making its way from tree to ground beneath. Soon comes the tenacious struggle of a few faded leaves, hanging on stubbornly. As the mother of four sons I cannot help but see the leaves as competing with each other to see who will be the last to fall. By Thanksgiving the competition will be over and a season of rest, a short southern winter, will follow.
The nakedness of winter reveals the tree’s jumbled and misshapen core, but now, years after the cutting, the stumps of amputated limbs sport thick new boughs emerging from them. Though awkward of angle, the branches appear to be healthy, doing their best to give the tree a natural form, as least from the outside. It seems to be fine right now, but will the early damage be lasting?
While I don’t revere this tree, I do feel tenderly towards it, flaws and all. In some ways, I like it because of its flaws. It makes me think of all the people I know, dealing with mistreatment and hardship in their pasts, striving to be about the business of life, to grow beyond the pain.
In people, we call it character. It usually doesn’t develop unless there are challenges.
My tree has character. My tree has hope.
I like that in a tree.
And I think that it is just the right kind of tree to clap with special vigor as the people of God go forth . . . even today . . . especially today.
I think I hear it now.
A tree hath HOPE: if it be cut, it groweth green again, and the boughs thereof sprout.
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