I THINK that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
Poet Joyce Kilmer began his famous 1919 paean to “Trees” with these words. I always loved that poem and over the years have often reflected on the nature of all things arboreal.
Some would suggest that trees are mere things to be used as we humans see fit – to build our homes, to heat them in winter and to decorate the yards around them. Indeed, trees are cut down to be processed into paper to provide writing materials for poets like Kilmer.
But for some of us, trees represent more than mere utility. Aside from their beauty and their graciousness in providing homes for so many animals, trees are primal symbols of life itself, with roots that run deep into the earth and branches that fill the sky reaching toward the sun and swaying with the wind. Virtually all human cultures have a variant of the Tree of Life in its symbol system.
My own relationship to trees runs deep. My father and brother and I cleared the 11 acres of Florida wilderness where we eventually built our family home. In the process, I learned the various types of trees which blanket the Central Florida hills and swamplands. I grew to appreciate their beauty, the coolness of their shade and the protection against frost their branches provided in particularly cold winters. A sprawling live oak of probably 200 years dominated our front yard in what was then still the country outside of Bushnell. Its fern and lichen-covered branches were wide enough that we could walk up and down the branches standing erect as if it were a sidewalk.
BEFORE: Calm before the Storm
The Granddaddy of the Neighborhood
When Andy and I first visited the house that would become our home in downtown Orlando, I immediately fell in love with the place. The house was wonderful – open, inviting, lots of windows. But the yard was spectacular. A 120 year old tree graced the front yard and dominated our corner lot, the Granddaddy of a neighborhood of ancient trees. In the back yard two equally imposing trees formed a Y, growing apart from each other, the laurel oak arching over the neighbor’s yard, the tall live oak growing straight up, towering a good 120 feet above our house.
It was love at first sight.
Later we would discover that our lovely kitchen with its open range and brick flooring had not been so much a revision of the house as a reconstruction. There had been three large oak trees in the back yard at one time. One had toppled during a severe thunderstorm smashing the kitchen and requiring extensive repairs in the house.
Of course, that did not bother us. What were the chances it could happen again? Our trees looked healthy. Orlando was inland, removed from the coast. Hurricanes that reached our shores lose their punch before they get here. We were safe. Or so we thought.
The limbs of the large tree in our front yard had been cabled. Clearly the former owners had worried about its potential to come down. In the spring of 2004, we had a tree surgeon come look at the tree. We were reassured it was healthy and posed no threat.
The morning of Friday, August 13, 2004, a minimal hurricane named Charley jumped two categories to become a dangerous Category Four storm and shifted directions 90 degrees from its previous path toward the sparsely populated Florida Big Bend making a beeline for the southwest Florida coast, all in a span of about 45 minutes. Workers were sent home in Orlando at noon and by 3 PM Civil Defense was telling people to get off the highways to keep them clear for emergency workers. By 8 PM, a category two Charley began ripping through the Orlando metro area as it diagonally crossed the peninsula from southwest to northeast.
Because of its rapid forward speed of 25 mph, Charley spun off a number of microbursts which functioned like tornadoes with winds approaching category five. It was just such a microburst that would take out the Granddaddy in our front yard.
The tree had three major trunks. Two of them came down into our house. One pierced the roof in my office. The second fell all the way through our living room and into our neighbor’s house behind us. The next day the county would condemn our house and the one across the street from us. Every house on our street suffered damage from Charley and our neighborhood was declared the worst hit in town.
Front yard, New Coverleigh
It would be nearly four years before we could reoccupy our beautiful home. Two different contractors would take our money and leave without finishing the repairs and we would end up pulling the contract ourselves to finish the work needed to pass inspection and get us back into our home.
In the four years of exile, the water service continued at our house and I slowly regrew my front yard, digging up the stumps of smaller trees cut down to allow bobcats to remove the debris and fertilizing them. Shoots of the original trees sprang to life. New trees came to accompany them. Twelve years later, the front yard is a dense, green jungle once again.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the sweet earth's flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
It is the resilience of the jungle against the very worst Mother Nature and human workmen can throw at it that gives me some solace this morning as I once again hear the sounds of the saws and grinders in my yard.
Rot at the core of the laurel oak dooms the neighboring live oak
While I was in New Mexico at the Living School last month, one of the two remaining trees in our back yard suddenly toppled over into the neighbor’s yard, barely missing their house and, upon hitting the ground, bursting open to reveal an enormous honey comb in its rotten hollow heart and releasing a host of angry bees. While Florida law does not make homeowners liable for anything that occurs on neighboring property as a result of one’s own trees, our neighbors had been instrumental in helping us recover from Charley and we felt a moral duty to take care of the tree and its apiary occupants.
First, the bee keeper came out and smoked the bees into unconsciousness and vacuumed them out of the tree, wrapping it in a tarp to prevent them from returning. A few days later the tree surgeon came to cut up the tree and to survey the damage.
That’s when we got the bad news: With the roots of the giant live oak exposed from the first tree’s collapse, the live oak would now die. It had suddenly gone from the treasure of the yard to a liability to both our house and the neighbor’s. Worse yet, the big laurel oak by our driveway that we had trimmed six years ago was now rotten and needed to come down as well. Altogether, this would be a $6,400 project.
It did not help that hurricane season began this week. As of June 1, the season’s first official day, there had already been three named storms. This is the earliest arriving storm season on record and a sobering portent for the coming season.
Even so, we agonized over the decision. Removing a tree from your landscape not only changes the complexion of your yard, it changes the microclimate surrounding your home. Our roof will now be exposed to a lot more heat in the summer and tender plants will be much more exposed to cold during the occasional cold snap in the winter. But those are only the immediate effects.
Trees are living communities. They house the many birds that sing to me each morning as I take my walk through my jungle domain. The local ospreys use them for their dining room, eating the fish they have snatched from nearby Lake Underhill and dropping the head and bones into the yard. Owls hoot from their lower branches and wink at the onlooker by evening. My guess is that the raccoons whose mating habits each spring are so loud as to be unavoidable - rendering their human neighbors involuntary voyeurs - will have to find a new boudoir. The possums and squirrels who nest there will also have to find a new home.
Like Kilmer, I feel a spiritual bond to these living beings, some of whose lives long predate my own. The very heart of our beloved jungle is being cut out as I write these words. The hum of saws and grinders is punctuated by periodic thudding of tree trunks crashing to the ground. These are terrible sounds and this is a painful grief to bear, indeed.
Today will be a very long day.
AFTER: All that is left of a once mighty live oak
And yet, as my gentle spirited husband quietly observed, “We can’t go through another Charley.” Having your home destroyed and enduring the almost unbearable process of rebuilding it is among the worst traumas human beings can ever know. And so, the trees simply had to go.
Only God can make a tree
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
I console myself with the knowledge that I can grow new trees where these ancient oaks once stood. Once our fence is repaired so that our dogs cannot make their escape to run the neighborhood, I will begin that healing process just as I did after Hurricane Charley in 2004. It was through the regrowing of my jungle that I worked out my grief during those long four years. Most surely the sorrow I feel this day can be transformed into a creative path as well.
Life begins anew amidst the sawdust and the stumps of the fallen giants.
Front yard, New Coverleigh
Today, within the hum of chain saws, the drone of bobcats and the periodic thuds of falling tree trunks, I give thanks to a generous G-d for these trees who have graced our lives all these years. I will greatly miss them. My life is all the better for having shared their company. With deepest reverence, I offer this prayer:
Out of chaos you bring order.
Out of nothingness you bring life.
In the middle of all life stands the Tree.
It provides the air that nurtures all of Creation.
Homes for many creatures bearing your image
And shelter for weary human animals in the shade of its branches.
Bless the trees of this world, Holy One
Be present with us as we serve as their caregivers and protectors.
May they be graced with long limbs and long lives.
And may their precious gift of air remind us
That you are always as close to us as our next breath.
(Prayer adapted from Rev. Chuck Currie, “A Prayer for Trees” 2008.)
Harry Scott Coverston
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. – Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Ages, Commentary on Micah 6:8