Susanna Spencer has a masters in theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is a writer and the theological editor for Blessed is She, and writes on her own blog Living With Lady Philosophy. She is a homeschooling mother of four and lives with her family in St. Paul, Minnesota.
‘They’ve cut it down!’ cried Sam. ‘They’ve cut down the Party Tree!’ He pointed to where the tree had stood under which Bilbo had made his Farewell Speech. It was lying lopped and dead in the field. As if this was the last straw Sam burst into tears. (J.R.R. Tolkien, Return of the King)
It began in the morning. I was instructing my daughter in adding multiples of ten to two digit numbers. The younger children were running in and out of our kitchen nook where we were working. The nook gives a full view of our backyard and the neighbors’ trees towering above their privacy fence. And then I saw the cherry picker going towards the 50-year-old maple tree in our next door neighbor’s backyard. They had trimmed it back severely last autumn. It was a beautiful old maple tree, providing cool shade and beautiful yellow leaves in the fall. The tree trimmer began to take all of the budding branches off one of the big branches. I could not stand the tension. I closed the blinds, and made another cup of coffee. There was no way that I could teach my daughter and watch the destruction of the tree.
It makes me sad when a beautiful, healthy tree is chopped down. Maybe they had a good reason; I don’t know, but it was still a beautiful tree. Someone planted it when our neighborhood was built and it grew to shade our yard and theirs. My children have spent the last three summers, since we moved here, biking and doing sidewalk chalk under that tree. My third daughter had adorable one year old baby pictures taken in the yellow autumn leaves from that tree. And it always dropped half of its leaves into our yard, which my husband and I would rake into a huge pile for the children. I may sound like an Ent, but that tree was my friend. I saw it everyday out my kitchen window. It has been apart of our daily life, and now it is gone.
What is it about trees that I love? In The Tree of Life directed by Terence Malick the main character, Jack, is just a toddler when his parents plant a tree in their yard. He watches his father dig the hole and place the tree in the ground, and helps to pat the dirt as his father waters the newly planted tree. His mother holding his new baby brother looks down at him and says, “You’ll be grown before that tree is tall.” And it is just what happens, the tree slowly grows, but the children grow faster.
I texted my husband the news of the felling of the tree, and he came home with “Binsey Poplars” by Gerard Manly Hopkins in his head and heart:
My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled;
Of a fresh and following folded rank
Not spared, not one
That dandled a sandalled
Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow & river & wind-wandering weed-winding bank.
O if we but knew what we do
When we delve or hew —
Hack and rack the growing green!
Where does our affection for these trees come from that take so long to grow tall? I doubt it was the years of rainforest protection activism that we had in elementary school, but I think that it stems from many a happy day spent in play under a tree as children. In climbing them, in loving them, and in planting them. We have experienced their beauty as a part of our daily lives. We have seen them grow; we have seen them felled.
But then as I sit here and write this, I am surrounded by many dead trees. I love the hardwood floors of my house. I purposely seek out wooden furniture. I much prefer the pages of a book made from a dead tree than the words on a screen. I love a good blaze in a fireplace or outside firepit.
The beauty of a tree is part of our human existence.
In By the Shores of Silver Lake by Laura Ingalls Wilder, the family has made it to their final homestead in the Dakota Territory. Pa has built the first half of their claim shanty for their land, and Ma comments on how she misses trees. The next morning Pa sets out on an errand, and comes home for the midday meal with several little cottonwood trees.
“Trees!” Ma exclaimed.
“Little trees!” Laura shouted. “Mary! Pa’s brought little trees!”
And they plant them one by one as a family. You can still see those trees today, big and tall, on the prairie.
We will also be planting little trees in our yard this spring, because we love trees. It will take many years for them to grow tall, but the beauty and companionship of a tree is worth the wait.
And the most important tree for humanity was the one on which our Savior died. That tree held the weight of all our sins in the weight of our Savior’s body. In my husband’s home parish, every Good Friday a relic of the True Cross is venerated. Because of Christ’s redemptive act, all trees point us to the True Cross.
The trees were the worst loss and damage, for at Sharkey’s bidding they had been cut down recklessly far and wide over the Shire; and Sam grieved over this more than anything else. For one thing, this hurt would take long to heal, and only his great-grandchildren, he thought, would see the Shire as it ought to be. (J.R.R. Tolkien, Return of the King)