I did not hear the sudden massive crack as much as I felt its vibrations through my feet up my spine. The sky had darkened in the steamy afternoon, the wind spun up in a heartbeat and shrieked through our towering old maple. In a second, one of those graceful, towering limbs crashed down on our neighbor’s fence and into their yard.

I raced up the wood stairs to the upper landing to see what may have been damaged next door. My heart was tripping in my throat, they have grandchildren and dogs and I did not know whether the limb had landed on their house. The thought that someone could be hurt made me sick. From what I could tell out the window, it looked like the fence bore the brunt of the damage and the limb rested on the grass having missed the deck and addition.

Flurries of phone calls were the first order of business, then came examining options for resolution. What to do with our wise old friend who was now injured and perhaps trying to tell us something? She was the last of the Norway Maples in our neighborhood, over seventy years old. She was the reason we bought the house and her generous branches provided hours of shade and protection, not to mention the delight of two little boys who safely climbed her. She never let them fall.

“The Norways grow brittle as they age.” the arborist shared as we stood sheltered from the rain under the tree’s umbrella of glossy leaves. Lethal was the word that came to my mind. Her far reaching branches would be lethal if they continued to shred and split. I could sense the concern of the tree, she knew.

“They can’t bear all that weight out on the end of their branches, it is too much strain.” A second opinion from another arborist. I wrapped my arms around her as far as they would go when he left. I got it, I knew what felt like.

We made arrangements for her to be taken down. I spent as much time as I could those last few days, soaking in her shade and listening to her whisper through her leaves. How much she and I shared these last twenty five years, and how our lives mirrored each other this year. A tree’s energy will run back down to the roots as fall approaches, returning to their roots to rest for the winter. I heard my own call to sabbatical, to transfer my energy from the ends to my center, a call to prune back. I gazed at her branches reaching some seventy feet to the sky, and felt their weight. I too have felt like the weight of the world was at my edges and I would crack from my center if not relieved of the heaviness.

I placed my hand inside her injury and felt the splinters of wood so capable of tearing flesh and creating damage. I could see the blue of the sky through her shredded limb, the light dappling in different patterns. I felt like she was sharing a last lesson with me, my saturated brain could not grasp it though, so I took dozens of photographs to capture what she was trying to tell me in hopes that I could figure out later.

Sawdust fell like tiny tears as the sound of the chainsaw and wood chipper filled the morning air, it took hours to remove what had taken nature seventy years to grow. Walking through the inches of woods chips around the stump, breathing air thick with dust, all I could see were the harsh lines of the house no longer softened by curving arcs of branches laden with cooling leaves. It all looked so stark. I couldn’t sleep that night, I missed her tree whispers and the call of the birds tucking in for night. The absence of her voice was deafening.

Staring out the kitchen window at the stump, it hit me. The tree, Justin’s death, the destruction of our family tree, I could see the visual of how child death wrecks the landscape of our lives. I know his name is still on that neat tidy line branching from Doug and I, with his birth and death date. Sterile and flat. But living the reality is to have that great strong tree cut to the quick. And all of a sudden there is no protection, no safety, only deafening silence and an ache that for a presence that is unrelenting.  All that is left is the stump and its ghosts.

We avoided the backyard for a week, our eyes not used to the bright light and open space. But the broad expanse of blue sky now revealed overhead was hard to ignore, it was beautiful. We started to tear up established beds and walkways, letting go what once was and re-creating new gardens with elements of the past. The work of rebuilding gardens echos the rebuilding of lives after loss. Right now the yard is a mess, piles of dirt and gravel, and shade plants that are gasping in the hot sun. But I have a vision, I can see the yard next spring with the hardscape anchored in and the sweet new growth of green curling around arbors and filling in the barren spaces.

Studying the pictures I took of the tree’s wound, I see the play of light on her exposed inner life, and I see the patch of blue September sky. I see what happens when too much weight rests on even the strongest branch, it breaks and can do great damage as it falls, lashing out as it rushes down. I see how her shattered limb has allowed the light to shine through to places that have never seen light, her interior lit and glowing. And the tease of blue sky, the promise of release to a captive soul.

And so ends the seventh year without Justin. A year layered with exquisite joy and profound sorrow, sometimes in the same breath. This year has felt different, I am not sure if I am the tree, brittle with too much weight at the end of my branches, getting ready to break, or if I am the limb shattered and and peering in at my interior. I identify with the tree sending its energy back to its roots for winter’s reflection. Stillness, I desire stillness.

I look at the exposed roots of the stump and I see strength, I see us, myself, Doug, and Ryan. Rough, exposed, but whipcord strong if we stay close to the earth, if we stay focused and grounded. I see the same strength in Ryan’s bride. I pull my garden gloves on and greet the maple stump, she provides a welcoming place for a cup of coffee and garden plans, the eighth year begins.




8 thoughts on “Cutting Down the Family Tree

    • Thank you so much Ellen for the gift of your time to read and comment, thank you for your kind words.

    • Thank you Melinda for your continued companionship on this journey, thank you for your kind words.

  1. Four days ago, I had cut down, a beautiful maple that my mom had dug up at my house in CT and transplanted here in MD. It had developed into a gorgeous shade tree, beautiful in shape. 4 years ago, during a winter ice storm, the main branch had broken off, torn down by the weight of the ice on every tiny branch. The tree never fully recovered and went into decline. This year, all the leaves were brown, curled and falling in July. It broke my heart to take it down but it broke my heart to see it decline. I am currently choosing the tree I shall plant in its place. But it is really hard to see the vacant space it had occupied for so long…
    Lovely piece.

    • Hello Deirdre, so hard to lose a tree that your mom had transplanted – that is no easy task to move a tree and coax it to grow. Trees are such keeper of memories. You did the right thing, it was suffering. And isn’t that empty space odd? We still do double-takes when we look out at the stump. With all the sun we have now, I am looking at more roses. All my climbers need to be moved and I want to plant some David Austin English roses that I have my eye on. Thank you for your kind words, I hope you have a beautiful Autumn, I am looking forward to cooler weather!

  2. How sad- I remember that gorgeous tree and attempting to climb it on a visit. How i love your writing though.

    • Thank you Laura! We miss her quite a lot, but the birds have returned to the feeders even without the tree, so we are hopeful that we can do new things with the yard. Wishing you a beautiful fall!

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