The Death of a Tree: Eulogy for Friend
By Maria Popova
For as long as I’ve lived in Brooklyn, I’ve had an abiding self-consolation ritual. In troubled times, I would head to Prospect Park on my bike and ride along the loop until I felt better. And I always did, largely thanks to an old lopsided tree that stood atop the formidable uphill crowning the final segment of the loop.
This greeter after the lung-splitting climb, its own crown the shape of a lung, became my beloved friend through life’s trials and triumphs. For years, the tree saw me through every heartbreak, every bout of ill health, every kind of psychic tumult. I was comforted by its constancy — the quiet certitude with which its barren branches clawed at life as they reached into the leaden winter sky, assured of spring’s eventual arrival; and when spring did come, the unselfconscious jubilation of its new leaves, just born yet animated by the wisdom of the tree’s many decades.
Even when the grimmest day of my adult life arrived, I knew what to do — I mounted my bike, put on Patti Smith talking about William Blake and death at the New York Public Library, and headed for the park. I circled the loop for hours on end, resting by the tree after each closing climb to savor its silent solace.
I turned to the tree again and again over the years, and took many portraits of its various seasonal guises. Recently, in the midst of a particularly trying stretch of life, I once again sought this steadfast friend. I pedaled to the park hungry for its comfort, restless to reach the end of the loop. But when I climbed that final hill, my pounding heart sank with heavy stillness.
Where my tree once stood, there was now a shallow stump, its rings of life bleeding into the open air with the incomprehensible finality of a beheading.
I felt gutted, bereft. I thought about the growing body of research on what trees feel, about their centrality in our storytelling, about Hermann Hesse’s ode to their ancient wisdom, then couldn’t think, couldn’t feel.
I’ve been unable to return to the park in the weeks since. But I’ve returned to one of my few other sources of constancy and comfort — The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837–1861 (public library), that incomparable trove of wisdom on deeply human concerns like the greatest gift of growing old, the myth of productivity, the sacredness of public libraries, the creative benefits of keeping a diary, and the only worthwhile definition of success.
In an entry from October 23, 1855 — four years before Darwin forever changed our understanding of the interconnectedness of the natural world — Thoreau writes beautifully about our kinship with trees:
Now is the time for chestnuts. A stone cast against the trees shakes them down in showers upon one’s head and shoulders. But I cannot excuse myself for using the stone. It is not innocent, it is not just, so to maltreat the tree that feeds us. I am not disturbed by considering that if I thus shorten its life I shall not enjoy its fruit so long, but am prompted to a more innocent course by motives purely of humanity. I sympathize with the tree, yet I heaved a big stone against the trunks like a robber, — not too good to commit murder. I trust that I shall never do it again. These gifts should be accepted, not merely with gentleness, but with a certain humble gratitude. The tree whose fruit we would obtain should not be too rudely shaken even. It is not a time of distress, when a little haste and violence even might be pardoned. It is worse than boorish, it is criminal, to inflict an unnecessary injury on the tree that feeds or shadows us. Old trees are our parents, and our parents’ parents, perchance. If you would learn the secrets of Nature, you must practice more humanity than others. The thought that I was robbing myself by injuring the tree did not occur to me, but I was affected as if I had cast a rock at a sentient being, — with a duller sense than my own, it is true, but yet a distant relation. Behold a man cutting down a tree to come at the fruit! What is the moral of such an act?
This is the question Marianne Moore asked, and so gloriously answered, when she saved a tree with a poem in this selfsame park. I think now of James Baldwin and his lamentation that “something awful is happening to a civilization, when it ceases to produce poets.”
Published October 14, 2016