tree totem 004The tree guy showed up at 9 AM exactly, as he’d promised.  A big man with a basso profundo voice, he got right down to business, and he didn’t mince words.  My beloved old maple in the back yard, the one that has shaded the perennial garden that I built from scratch around a half-dozen scraggly rose bushes (now thriving, and joined by others) has reached the end of the line.  I’ve felt it coming.  Its upper branches have been dying off for several years, and it’s pitted with deep scars.  Mold has formed around the base of its trunk.  While not as venerable as the trees taken out on the neighboring church grounds, it has been an imposing presence in the back of the garden long before we arrived, some twenty years ago.  I’d have wished it to remain long after we have gone.  That is not to be.

Furthermore, the tree guy informed us, the gorgeous Japanese maple in a side border is likewise in poor health, but with an application of fertilizer, may give us its blazing canopy for ten or more summers.  MAY.  I think of the implications of those ten more summers that lie ahead, or not.

A powerful and disconcerting momento mori.

They arrive on an eerily dark Thursday morning, six men in helmets and orange vests.  tree totem 009For a time they move from truck to back garden, milling, pointing, conferring.  Before too long there are cables up.  One of the men crosses my anxious line of sight carrying a huge saw.  I shudder.  Then I close the windows, though I know I’ll hear the saw.  What I don’t expect is the explosive sound of the impact as the branches fall.  The cats have scattered in fright.  Now, the droning roar of the woodchipper as it grinds my maple into fragments and dust.  I feel sick to my stomach.

tree totem 016Early on in our tenure here, in a century-and-a-half old cottage on what was once a quiet lane, we were advised by a tree expert to “get rid” of the maple.  The thought was unbearable, in part because it masked somewhat the hulking old gym building which belongs to the church/school complex abutting our home.  A gardener I admired told me at the time that some people create totems from what’s left of a felled tree, and though this comforted me, I had no intention whatsoever of taking out the maple.  And so it stood, as it had for years before we came, and for the last twenty, as ivy grew thick upon the walls of the gym.  Of course, the ivy wasn’t under our control; once the church caretakers ripped it down.  It grew again.  Then Hurricane Sandy wreaked her havoc on it.  It’s growing again.  I’m grateful for that.  But I’ve learned I have little say in the fate of trees and ivy.

Totem definition:

tree totem 018 a natural object or animal believed by a particular society to have a spiritual significance and adopted by it as an emblem.

The maple’s trunk is beautiful, despite those deep scars in places.  Its bark is lined with intricate whorls.  Tough vines embrace it.  Soon after moving into the cottage, tree totem 020I’d found a stone head in a junk shop.  I think of it as the god of wind.  I hung it on the tree for decoration and protection.  Many winds and many driving rains and heavy snows and ice storms came and went, and the maple stood tall.  Its face of stone looked impassively upon the garden.  Goodbye, dear maple.  I think I’ll have a totem.


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6 Responses to TOTEM

  1. David Byler says:

    Ah dear Stephanie, I once had such a tree. It grew in the furthest reaches of the Farm, at the back corner of the wooded back forty almost one mile from my Father and Mother’s house. It was a live oak which had been a splendid juvenile tree when Lincoln freed the slaves. We know that because there is a song which remains from that day, a song composed under my tree the day the slaves rejoiced and abandoned work on the railroad they were building between Alvin and Brownsville. The tree was old and hollow when I first met her almost sixty years ago. In the womb of her hollow she housed by turns possums and ‘coons, a sugar bear, a beautiful sleek black cat creature (shhh an illegal immigrant from Mexico I am told) and me in the occasional sudden summer downpour. In the arms of her branches was a hawk’s nest, owls, and songbirds of all sorts along with lizards and bugs and ferns of various kinds. No snake nor mouse nor rat dared approach her so when lunch and nap time over took me in that part of the farm on a hot summer’s day, that tree shaded me and sang me into a blissful sleep. As I aged, she aged faster and bits and pieces of her began to fall. Then one day an oil pipeline company came with the right of eminent domain. What to do? I remembered the little rhyme the kids from the settlement nearby – the descendants of the slaves who heard about their freedom under my tree. Eenie meenie miney moe ………. make them pay, a thousand dollars every day. Well it didn’t go exactly like that … but close enough, and they paid, the oil company did, oh they paid and paid and though I have outlived my tree she is still in my memories and in some of my artwork here and there … Your dear maple reminded me of her this morning and I shed a tear about both our trees ……

  2. Dagny Kight says:

    I have such a tree as well! This is the home I grew up in from age 6 until I left after college. There is a photo of me on my first day of first grade, holding my book bag and a lunch box, standing about as tall as this tree was in 1966. After reading your post, I was greatly relieved to be able to go to Google maps and see that it is still there.,-81.059723,3a,75y,74.14h,78.82t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1sK2fN0p0fcIh8ZN43uTXhZA!2e0

  3. Stephanie Silber says:

    Dagny, I love the story of your tree. It is a great comfort to know that this is universal, and I wasn’t fussing over something trivial!

  4. Stephanie Silber says:

    David, that wasn’t a comment — it was a gorgeous essay, as sweeping as your childhood tree. Trees are full of songs and stories, and I don’t think you have to be an animist (like me) to believe that, and to know it intuitively. Thanks so much for passing along the narrative.

  5. Kristine says:

    Steph – What a thoughtful meditation on letting go, acceptance, and the pleasure of discovery…

  6. Stephanie Silber says:

    Thanks, Kris. It’s a journey, often fraught, yet often joyful. A lot more light in the back garden now. It will take some getting used to, but the growing things will thrive on it.

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