Leaf Grief

In praise of dead trees.

2020 was a bad year for the trees in my life.

I know: it was a horrible year for everyone, filled with death and chronic illness and devastating poverty and, for those of us fortunate enough to escape all of the above, the fear and isolation that come from living through a deadly plague.

But right now, I want to talk about our trees.

The year began happily enough, with a proposal from our tree service to treat the beautiful white birch we had been trying to save, and to plant two new dogwoods in place of the fruit trees we’d had to take down a couple of years earlier. 

Those fruit trees were my first foray into tree work, after 17 years in our house. Turns out tree work is like going to the doctor once you’re past a certain age: first they find one problem, then another and another, so there’s no such thing as being all set. Back in 2018, I called about the cherry and the pear, only to learn that one-third of the white birch was also near death. So we amputated the poor thing and focused on trying to save the rest of it.

I also wanted to plant something new to replace the fruit trees. It took a couple of years, but last April, workers came and planted the dogwoods. 

I named them Rita and Ray, in memory of my parents. At first I wasn’t sure which was Rita and which was Ray. But then one started growing quickly. So that was clearly Dad, whom other residents in their senior facility identified as “the one who walks fast.” Then Rita plumped out and basked in the sun, while Ray wilted in the heat, and I knew I had named them correctly.

My plan was to deposit my parents’ ashes at the roots of their memorial trees, inviting my siblings and my daughters for a small ceremony and family gathering. Covid-19 put that plan on indefinite hold. Instead, I spent the spring and summer working in the yard — mostly cutting back and digging out years worth of overgrowth, but also nurturing the new dogwoods.

Meanwhile, the white birch put out exactly zero leaves. Like my mother, it had been sicker than anyone realized. Now, to my deep sorrow, it was dead. I called the arborist, and on a beautiful June day, the crew came and took it down.

And then the drought hit, and poor Ray the dogwood looked miserable no matter how much water I gave him. 

And then the big old Norway maple, which we were planning to prune, made other plans. One evening in July, I looked out the kitchen window before dinner and saw that a large section of the maple had fallen. Like my father, it toppled without warning. There was no storm, no wind, no crash as it fell. Just — hey, there’s a tree lying across the yard. I took a picture and sent it to the arborist, saying: “Looks like pruning is not gonna be enough. Please get us a quote for taking it down.” 

A week later, Tropical Storm Isaias did part of the job for us. We watched out the back window in fear as the section of the Norway maple that grew directly over our neighbors’ garage swayed violently in the storm. That section remained intact. But a huge part of the trunk fell in our yard, more or less at right angles to the part that had fallen the week before.

And then, two days after Isaias, it was my father’s yahrzeit — the anniversary of his death on the Hebrew calendar. In a normal year I go to synagogue services on that date to say mourner’s kaddish, the memorial prayer. It being anything but a normal year, there was no synagogue service. So we recruited eight friends to join us for a masked, socially distanced service in the backyard, where I could say kaddish for the trees as well as for my father. 

The tree grief took me by surprise. 

White birches are stunningly beautiful, whether contrasting against a pure blue sky or offering a bright spot on a gloomy day. I appreciated ours most in the winter: while the other trees stood dull and drab without their leaves, the white birch shone bright. In spring and summer, it was a favorite spot for cardinals. Still, I did not expect to mourn its death.

Even less so the Norway maple, which I didn’t appreciate until its demise. By far the biggest tree in our yard, providing most of our shade, it was not the loveliest. But it had so much character. It grew right into the chain-link fence separating our yard from our neighbors’. A big, gnarly hole in the trunk looked like a face. A rope hung around the lowest branch — by last year, probably 15 feet off the ground — left over from my daughter’s attempt to climb the tree nearly two decades ago.

It felt like a grandfather tree, unexciting and unbeautiful but filled with memories. And, like a kid with aging grandparents, I never really thought about how it would feel to lose it.

The end of a life stage. That’s how it felt. The backyard where our kids grew up, where our family played badminton and pulled weeds and hosted Friday evening prayer services — that yard is suddenly, irrevocably altered. Whatever I plant in place of our lost trees will be different. And at age 59, I know that I may not be here to see the new plantings reach maturity.

And so I wept: for the white birch and the Norway maple; for my daughters’ childhood, now so long ago; for my mother and my father and the gatherings canceled by Covid; for the years of my life that feel lost to pain and fatigue and fear of never getting better; for my own aging, my sense of mortality, my growing awareness that, as Mark Doty says in his poem “Fog Argument”: “Of course I know it ends.”

And then it was fall, and amid the glory of red-gold-orange Edgewood Park, I began to appreciate the beauty of leafless trees. Dead trees, stark and elegant, brilliantly reflected in the water on bright days and even more powerfully present on gray days.

It’s been a year of adaptation, a year of seeing things differently. 

In the heat of the summer, chopping down and digging out overgrowth near the stump of the white birch, I came across a couple of sturdier saplings. Clearly I had cut them down as weeds in past years. But they were thumb-thick at the root. Before banishing them permanently, I asked the arborist what they were.

They’re cherry trees, he said: hard to tell what kind when they’re so small. 

Well. Cherry trees would be a wonderful addition, all the more welcome since they sprouted on their own. I decided to get out of their way and see what they can become.

Also in the heat of the summer, as I nursed our new dogwoods through the drought, the arborist kept assuring me that poor droopy Ray would be fine — it’s just transplant shock, he said. 

Now it’s March, Ray has a full set of buds, and I’m optimistic about what spring will bring. Because while of course I know it ends, I also know it begins.

What is the Mary Oliver Challenge? Glad you asked! You can read about it here.

2 thoughts on “Leaf Grief

  1. Carole – I’m not a blog reader. But I read your blogs. You are a wonderful writer. I love the way you weave together your internal life with the natural world. You are a worthy successor to Mary Oliver. My best – Linda

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