Please Excuse Me. I'm Mourning a Tree.


It wasn't just a tree. It was a big, beautiful, healthy sugar maple that made me smile and wonder for the past seven years. It grew right outside of my kitchen window. I watched as the sun filtered through the golden fall leaves, turning the air in my house to honey. When the polar vortex blew in an ice storm that downed multiple trees in the neighborhood, I stood amazed as this tree bent under the weight of ice on every branch and bowed until the branches were on the ground. When the ice melted, it snapped back to attention without one broken limb, a symbol for all of us held hostage by unforgiving winters.

When the builder stopped over with her new plans for the lot next door, she casually said, "The house is going here, right in the middle of that tree over there." I stopped her. Not my tree! My favorite tree (that technically didn't belong to me). So, I told her about this tree. I told her how this tree was the only strong one left. At probably 100 years old, it was disease-resistant. (The other maples in our area all have maple tar spot disease and carpenter ants are taking a toll on many others.) We've lost several in the past few years whose trunks had been hollowed out. This one was perfect. I begged her not to take it down. I sent photos of the tree in the fall. She said that she would talk to her architect. I knew it was a lost cause. But I tried.

When her text came in on Sunday afternoon, it said what I had expected it would say, "I did talk to my architect in length [sic] regarding the tree. Unfortunately, it's a little too late. We would need to redesign the whole house and go through the permit process again. The tree will be cut tomorrow morning. I am so sorry to deliver the news. I promise that we will put some trees in the yard once the house is built."

My heart sank. I knew that it was coming, but seeing the words in print cut me like a knife. When we got home that evening, my oldest daughter asked me what was bothering me. I told her about the tree. Her eyes welled up and she said, "What if it happens at school and I don't get to say goodbye?"

Well, there was only one thing to do. Out we went to tell the tree goodbye. Yes, we stood in the yard in our pajamas, with our arms wrapped as far as they would reach around the trunk and our faces pressed up against the bark (literal tree-huggers), and we started to cry. She said how much she would miss playing in its shade. I apologized for what was going to happen to it the next day and asked forgiveness for not standing in front of the truck.

The bigger thought going through my mind was: I failed God's creation. I had tried, but I had ultimately failed. Quiet tears turned to sobbing. My daughter's small voice said, "Mama, are you going to be okay?"

We came back inside and she asked me what would happen to the tree. I told her that most of it would be turned into firewood or wood chips to add to a playground somewhere. I tried to add a positive spin: wasn't that great that the tree would get to always hear children laughing and playing, after hearing so many other children through the last century, like her and all her friends on the block? It didn't help.

When she left for school the next day, she and her older brother waved goodbye to the tree. The tree service arrived minutes after they rounded the corner. At first, my younger daughter and preschooler son were pretty interested in all the activity. I watched with them, silently crying on my front porch, hugging a neighbor who stopped by (also in tears). Every time a limb hit the ground, it felt like a knife to my gut.

My daughter, who had been curled up in her chair with a blanket watching quietly, suddenly started to cry. Really cry. This was whole-body wailing that came from the most honest, wounded place of the soul. It was like the tree realized that it wasn't just getting a trim and all of that sadness and grief came directly through my six-year-old. Children are more connected to the earth than most adults, of course, and I'm certain I heard the soul of the earth wailing that day.

All I could do was hug her and tell her that I felt it too.

And so I'm going through the stages of grief over a tree.

I'm warning you: I'm moving more quickly toward anger than acceptance.

I'm angry at the system that values the almighty dollar over protecting the beauty we have. I'm angry that, in the name of progress, we scrap anything that doesn't fit with what we want. I'm angry that it's apparently totally acceptable to bulldoze God's creation. (The builder seemed amazed that anyone would cry over a tree, and told my neighbor as much.) Mostly, I'm angry that instead of looking at this in the fall, I'll be staring directly at the stucco wall of the suburban French chateau going in next door:

The builder said to me, "This will improve the whole look of the block." It's a good thing she caught me off guard. How does removing this glorious honey-toned beauty and replacing it with stucco improve the look of the block? I clearly have a very different idea of value.

When my husband and I were looking at areas in which to live, "mature trees" topped our list. Our town does value trees. They line every street on the parkway; our village keeps an arborist on staff for heaven's sake. So, when a builder wants to remove a village parkway tree in order to get their trucks on the property, he/she must replace the tree with one of an equivalent size (which is sometimes impossible) or pay the difference (many thousands of dollars). That only applies to trees that border the street. It doesn't have anything to do with the trees growing elsewhere on the property. However, before a builder can start construction on a new house, they must visit the neighbors to go over the "tree plan" with the property owners next door. The appearance is that the neighbors have a say in what happens in the process. But private property is private property and the new owners have no obligation to their neighbors. For the most part, all's fair in love and home construction. (In all fairness to this particular builder, she did save a large redbud tree, which she had also planned to remove, after I argued for that one too. "I don't know trees!" she said to me. "Clearly," I responded in my mind.)

So, now I'm staring at a gaping hole. Soon, I'll be staring at a chain-link construction fence. And I know that with every shovelful of dirt that comes out of the earth to create a new fancy basement, I'll imagine the roots of my old friend being ripped from their home, an underground network that no one sees, stronger than what grows above the ground. Even though I know that the only constant in life is change, it's awfully hard to accept that sometimes. So if you see me around town and I seem a bit low in spirit, please excuse me. I'm mourning a tree.

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Allison Harvey