Nurtured By What Used to Be

Barely awake, I pull a coat on over my pajamas, leash Rufus and step out into the frosty morning. A red sky announces the sun is on its way and today’s weather should be fine. Rufus does his usual pause a few steps from the house, lifting a leg for a long pee on the hedge. The bushes are dripping from last night’s rain and I walk gingerly over a slippery mat of leaves. We are only half-way down the driveway before the stubborn dog turns back to go inside. He’s persnickety about getting his feet wet.

I see the orange of my bagged newspaper at the end of the driveway and drop the leash so he can wait by the door rather than me drag him the five extra steps. Paper in hand, I turn back towards the house when something catches my eye just above the hedge next to the oak tree. I have a sense that something is missing but where I stare is only empty space. Yes, the leaves are newly gone everywhere but that’s not it. Something should be there next to the slowly rotting tree trunk. In decay, it has slowly been separating from the oak. I can’t place what caught my eye, what I think is gone. Did something disappear during the night?

There used to be three trees where now there is a only an oak tree and the rotting trunk of the elm that died when Dutch Elm disease hit the Northeast hard a few years ago. Ever frugal, I chose the bargain tree removal, leaving the branchless body of the tree in place. The trunk is a great playground for the squirrels and a smorgasbord for the birds and recently, a rabbit has found haven in the hollows of the roots. For a few more years, the oak and Norway maple stood together with this dead but lively sentinel.

Then two years ago, the Norway maple fell under the weight of an early snow, crashing through the hedge and landing in the street. Within 24 hours, the city cut it up and dragged it away – a gift – costing me only my tax dollars. This was the dramatic end to decades of togetherness. Three different trees – elm, Norway maple and the oak fused together, trunks and roots entangled.

Now, only the oak continues on – surviving longer because oaks do.

This morning, I think I ‘saw’ the other trees there- some essence – like a phantom limb. Or a flashback of the past. A flicker of movement that made me look again. A shift in light maybe? Or simply a reminder that I am not alone, that what is there cannot always be seen. These moments remind me that I live with benevolent ghosts.

Recently I read this piece in the New York Times Magazine – how forests, trees, communicate and support each other, even in death – and it doesn’t matter whether it’s a birch tree or an elm, a maple, an oak. My scrappy oak is probably being supported by the fungus of the long gone trees. Perhaps beneath the earth, their roots embrace. And maybe what caught my eye was a glimpse of love.

I like to think that it’s always love that lurks beneath, love that remains.

9 thoughts on “Nurtured By What Used to Be”

  1. Beautiful thoughts! Have you read The Overstory by Richard Powers? You would definitely enjoy it! Happy Holidays to you xxx

  2. Funny how the trees are calling us, as the winter looms. Lately I find myself scanning stands of roadside woods, spare now without leaves, looking for the Mother trees, sometimes they separate and stand out momentarily, and then merge back into their communities.

  3. This is a beautiful piece and thoughtful reflection. I so appreciated your sense of your trees as beings with an unseen spirit beyond what we see. I imagine you’re right that those phantom trees are supporting the remaining oak! I am a full on tree hugger and before big storms, I hug and encourage the huge sugar maple that towers over our house to hang tough. So far, she has listened! XO

  4. Another plug for Power’s Overstory. It’s a wonderful book that gave me a new appreciation for the society of trees and how much we could benefit from a new narrative of cooperation and collaboration to replace the myth of survival of the fittest.

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