Memorial Day – to Kill a Tree
As I sit in Madonna’s limbs on this Memorial Day, I recall how many people have told me their tree stories about being in the limbs of a favorite tree as a child. Some read books in the tree, or climbed among its limbs letting their imaginations soar, climbing ever higher, higher. In Alabama where I grew up, our yard was full of trees. I particularly liked to climb high in the branches of a large oak tree and watch unseen as people came and went out of the house. I felt safe and powerful in its limbs.
But many of the stories I have heard about childhood trees ended with a tragedy, not a human one but a tree one. A child came home to find their father or a neighbor had cut down their tree and others nearby. There was no language to express the agony. The adults treated it as a practical thing, without a sense that the tree to the child was a living companion. There was no happy ending as in the troubling (to me) Giving Tree by Maurice Sendeck. The child was left with a nameless confusion and confounding grief.
One woman told me she came home to such a scene at age 12, to the corpses of her favorite trees her father had cut down. She froze up emotionally and didn’t emerge from that partial paralysis until her mid thirties. People can dismiss the connection we have with trees as sentimental, but many experience it as real as a blood and guts relationship and experience a true loss.
I lived in Southeast Alaska for an Alaskan Native Corporation, which mostly logged off its most precious lands and old growth timber to pay off debts and pay Caucasian workers and companies. The Native shareholders also received large cash dividends. But as I saw thousand upon thousand of acres ripped to shreds in clear-cuts to the horizon, I never once heard anyone involved in the company, Native or white, express the slightest appreciation for or concern about the trees.
We treat them as commodities as “crops” that grow back - although never as magnificent as they were and usually not again in our lifetimes.
I live in a housing development in Port Townsend where when a new house is built every single tree on the property is cut down. It takes hundreds of years to grow, micro inch by inch and it takes minutes to bring one down.
I am not immune to the need for wood from trees. I use them and have used them all my life. But I object to the objectification of them, the denying of their spirit, the unwillingness to even take a moment to respect them, thank them, pray for them even. They did not grow for hundreds and even thousands of years so they can be made into our baby’s diapers and Ikea desks. We do it blindly because it is convenient. We live in a voracious culture that is eating its way towards a wasteland. For the sake of convenience. We get passionate about Bernie Sanders and talk mostly about the “economy” but we walk by thousands of trees that we truly depend on, without giving them a second thought.
So here I am in the arms of Madonna. I do not care if others feel I am over sentimentalizing my connection to her. I have a right to love what I love. I have a right to respect this tree as a friend. I have a right to feel a presence when I am with her. I have a right to feel grief at all the trees we cut down daily to make products we mostly truly can live without. Someday, we will see that the trees we have cut down though, we actually can’t live without.
Today, as we mourn our nation’s dead for going to war, I honor the standing army who fall every day, unthanked, unappreciated and unknown.