• Courtney Ellis

To Lose a Very Good Tree

Up until this week, if you rounded the bend into my suburban California cul-de-sac, the first thing you’d notice was a towering, shaggy eucalyptus. It grew over a hundred feet in the air, its branches billowing above the neighborhood like the sails of a great ship.


A good tree is like a clear, starry night—it draws the gaze heavenward, makes a person take a deep breath and contemplate the scale of things.


For years, two dozen vultures roosted in it, fanning their wings in the morning to dry off the dew before launching themselves onto thermal winds that would carry them into neighboring canyons to search for signs of death.


A month ago the vultures lifted off early one day, one after the other, as they always did. But this time they did not return.


I came home with the kids, still dripping from swimming lessons, parked our car in the driveway, stepped out, and gasped. A man in a red shirt dangled from a high branch, a chainsaw swinging from a chain beneath him.


“They’re trimming the tree, Mommy!” our middle kid exclaimed, pointing out another redshirted man even higher up.


The tree needed trimming, having grown unimpeded for the half decade we’ve resided on this street, and I suspect many years before that, if the state of the property upon which it grew is any indication. Word in the neighborhood is that the house sits abandoned because the children of its deceased owner are squabbling, locked in legal battles as it falls to ruin. If you stand quietly on the sidewalk out front you can hear the enormous, pulsating swarm of bees that’s taken refuge in its eaves.

“I am fine getting old,” I tell people, “I just didn’t expect it to start so soon.”

The tree hung precariously over several neighbors’ roofs, swaying dangerously in high winds, dropping leaves and branches in winter and anytime the vultures started squabbling. I was grateful to see it getting attention. Without regular care, eucalyptus trees, like most of us, can grow gnarly and disease-prone.


The kids and I watched the tree trimmers for a few moments, captivated by height and risk and chainsaws, and then we went inside.

 

I turned forty this year, an age that sounds completely impossible, since in my mind I’m somewhere between a college senior and twenty-six. Yet there it is, a milestone I’m reminded of each morning as I creak out of bed and stumble toward coffee. For decades I took my body for granted, a solid, albeit unglamorous sedan with an engine that turned over on the first try, always. Then I hit thirty-seven and thirty-eight, and suddenly all the lights on the dashboard began blinking at once—check engine, low oil, this belt is about to snap.


“I am fine getting old,” I tell people, “I just didn’t expect it to start so soon.”

 

The next day, after the tree trimmers’ visit, I walked sleepily out front, sipping my coffee, and nearly dropped my mug.


The tree was gone.

I told myself it was only a tree. There was no reason to feel so sad.

Not trimmed or shaped, but razed from the earth. In its place, nothing but an aching expanse of sky. No signs it had ever existed, save for a smear of sawdust across the blacktop. I stared at the gray for a moment, the steam from my coffee dissipating into the dawn fog, and then turned to go back inside, toward the rush of morning.


I told myself it was only a tree. There was no reason to feel so sad.

 

Frederick Buechner died this August. Author, reverend, and patron saint of winsome Presbyterians and gentle mystics, his voice inspired many of us to learn how to sit humbly before God and befriend mystery rather than trying to wring answers out of the universe.


It was he who wrote the truest invitation to life I’ve ever come across: Welcome to the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen.


And then the kicker. The phrase that can sound trite and minimizing unless you know it is spoken from either a sage or a savior:


Do not be afraid.

 

I ache with injustice when I look out our living room windows today. Where I used to watch the vultures. Where now there is nothing but sky. I run through a litany of shoulds and should-nots:


Someone should have trimmed that tree years ago.


That house should not be sitting empty.


The deceased owner’s kids should figure out how to reconcile.


For years the tree was a symbol of untamed beauty; its absence is a sign of a culture at war with its own good. We live in a time of impatience and impermanence, division and despair. Wendell Berry told us to plant sequoias, and Mary Oliver reminded us that our lives are wild and precious, but it is nearly always easier to sever and destroy than it is to steward and cultivate. Taking good care of anything or anyone is inevitably a great deal of labor and pain.


It is easier, then, not to love.


If we do not love, we reason, there will be no reason to feel so sad.

 

There are nights I wake up shaking in a cold sweat. I lost my voice back in May, and though it returned for a few summer weeks in July, it left again in August, leaving me with nothing but a thin, reedy whisper. I parented via white board and interpretive dance, unable to be heard over the purr of a car’s engine, a running faucet, or the wind in the trees.


The latest specialist discovered that one of my vocal cords is paralyzed, though he doesn’t yet know why. I’ve been prescribed exercises, vocal therapy, lozenges, patience. Maybe the laryngitis is linked to the other lights that are blinking on the dashboard of my forty-year-old body; maybe not. Maybe it’s something really serious; maybe it isn’t. So much of life is uncertain, but as I wait and wait and wait to speak again with fullness, the weeks of unknowing begin to feel personal. Cruel.

Taking good care of anything or anyone is inevitably a great deal of labor and pain.

I demand answers from God and am given a ragged new hole in the sky. Weeks of laryngitis. Vultures that don’t return.


Beautiful things and terrible things. Wild and precious. Plant sequoias.


When Job rails at God after suffering and trauma is heaped upon him, God points him toward the created world as proof of love.


“Where were you?” God asks.


And Job and I are silent.


In my weeks of quietude I’ve felt brave and beaten, stoic and sullen, angry and accepting, sometimes from one half-second to the next. After the kids are tucked in for the night, I sit in our living room and gaze at the hole in the sky. I can glimpse the mountains now, their mournful rise peeking a few inches above the roof of the abandoned house.


In The End of Suffering, Scott Cairns ponders the death of his two dogs, noting that in the grand scheme of the universe, people would be right to question whether he should spend so much sadness on pets, even ones as beloved as these.


But maybe, he muses, it is our suffering that makes us most human and therefore, most able to receive from God. He writes, “The blessed pilgrim is able–even through his or her tears–to taste and see that the Lord is good, that even our pain is remedial, that even our suffering is grace.”


Maybe it is because there are indeed reasons to be so sad that we are slowed down enough to experience this goodness—one that would easily be missed if we kept running at top speed. It isn’t a mathematical equation that comes out with a sum of glory and ease. It is, instead, a holy mystery that sits heavy in the heart.


I don’t have any answers, not really, but I continue to bear witness to the beautiful and the terrible, and to cast my fears heavenward through that hole in the sky.




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