Friday, February 22, 2013

The Tree of Life

I've spoken before about the small town I used to live in where I discovered my love of gardening, and where I learned alot about myself and about life while digging in my back yard. However, there was quite another adventure going on in front of my home as well.

 The house I lived in, which was built back in the late 1800's, sat on the banks of a small, lazy little river. Every morning I would rise to a view of herons and beavers, ducks and geese, and even an occasional otter who was especially entertaining in the winter when he took to sliding down the embankment on the ice. Across the river on the opposite bank was a stand of trees bordering on a field which the town used for assorted festivities. One tree in particular caught the eye of my oldest granddaughter who spent a great deal of  time with me when she was very little.. She named the tree Grandmother Willow after the character in the Disney movie of the story of Pocahontas which she was obsessed with at the time. The tree was not a willow, of course, but what would be the point of telling her that? In the spring and summer we would pack a picnic lunch and go visit Grandmother Willow on the river bank.  My granddaughter would pick flowers for her, or bring her presents of cookies, leftover veggies or any other treasure she deemed appropriate. We communed with the local wildlife: bunnies, woodchucks, birds of all varieties, and squirrels of every color and size.  Most of all, we learned some very valuable lessons from this formidable old lady.

We learned that trees do not worry about whether they are the biggest or the most important. They aren't jealous if another tree produces fruit while all they can manage are acorns. They don't gloat if   one has brighter colors in the autumn than another, nor do they laugh at each other when their leaves fall to the ground and leave them bare and exposed. What they do is demonstrate the cycles of life, from birth to death and back to birth again, with a clarity and a purpose that defies humans. There they stand, year after year, sometimes for hundreds of years at a time. They provide homes for birds, animals and insects and food for all of them. They give us shade in the summer, wood for our stoves in the winter, and cleaner air to breathe just because they are there. They don't ask to be rewarded, thanked, or gloated over. They go to sleep in the winter, dreaming their dreams of spring secure in the knowledge that when they wake up, their branches will be adorned with little green buds that will leaf into a magnificent canopy of leaves to shelter us all. They witness wars, natural disasters, and the evolution of every species on the planet. Most of all, they are a constant in our lives, something we can turn to whenever we need reassurance that the world we love is still here.

A few years ago we returned to our home town for a festival. My granddaughter, who is now 19, was anxious to show her boyfriend Grandmother Willow. When we got to the place on the river bank where we used to picnic, her face fell. All that remained of her beloved tree was a broken, dried-out stump. Old age and Mother Nature had eventually caught up to her and she went down during the previous winter. My granddaughter was devastated. What could her real Grandma do? I gently brought her attention to the sprouts and new growth that were coming out of the old girl's stump and around her roots. "Those are her children and grandchildren," I told her. "They will carry the story of this place, just like you will carry it to your children and grandchildren. She goes on in them and in you."

Trees have a lot to teach us. Spend some time with one. And if someone calls you a tree-hugger, take it as a compliment.

And so it is.