At the tender age of twenty months, Gwyn is a tree-hugger. Our walks to the park include periodic stops to wrap the maples, ginkgos, and lindens in her stubby arms. “Hi, tree,” she says. I was proud–I’m raising a child in dynamic relationship with the natural world–until, on a recent check-up at the Mayo Clinic, she ran into the main lobby and hugged a marble pillar. The other cancer patients smiled in a “what’s-wrong-with-her” kind of way. A good parent would probably teach discrimination in her anthropomorphizing of the world.
The mighty elms in our city elicit in me an aching tenderness, as though they are fragile elderly–I love them, I want to protect them. So when the cathedral of a tree across our street got belted with orange spray-paint, I joined Gwyn in hugging it. Even together we couldn’t encompass its trunk. Its limbs were the size of full-grown trees; its canopy sheltered the bottom third of our block. A good eight properties got pelted with elm seeds in the spring. Now the green leaves were curling and a top branch or two was naked. Hello, Dutch elm disease. We held on tight to thick folds of bark as though our care might bring a cure.
But the city marked it with a “G” (for “goner”?), and in mid-August a cherry picker and chipper/shredder made a noisy early morning appearance. Gwyn adores trucks, so I lifted her to my hip and we went out to watch. She touched the enormous tires reverently: “Hi, truck.” Hard-hatted workers swarmed the street. Esther, our eighty-two-year-old neighbor, joined us at the foot of her stairs; she’d lived fifty-six years with this elm. She interrupted one of the city workers by touching his elbow: “We don’t want you to take that tree down.”
“Believe me, lady,” he said, shaking his head, “we don’t want to take it down either.” Then the small Mexican man in the cherry picker revved up his saw. Gwyn watched, wide-eyed, but it wasn’t until the first branch swung down, expertly tethered, that she began to wail. I held her close. Esther rested her hand on my arm. The limbs arced down heavily, gracefully, a performance of physics and brute strength and skill, the belaying manager levering their landing and the crew rushing in with chains. We tried to speculate about what might grow once the shade is gone, but the ruckus of the chipper/shredder chewing its first enormous meal drowned out our voices. The noise brought out Sheryl and her kids, and the seven of us stood still, awed by the cherry picker’s airy and expert dance. Perhaps this was a memorial or perhaps we needed each other the same way Gwyn needs to touch and talk to the world. If at the end of a playground visit we simply leave, she throws a tantrum, but if we say goodbye to the swings, goodbye to the slide, goodbye to the see-saw; if we wave and tell the playground we’ll be back, she leaves calmly although not without a touch of melancholy.
Suddenly I’m crying. The mighty elm comes down limb by limb, and of course I think of my partner, who has had a rare and aggressive cancer cut from her neck. Despite her present good health we wake every morning to the possibility of disease: Hello, cancer. This being human involves a zillion relationships, each one fragile and in need of tending. The only way my heart can be big enough to maintain them all is if it’s broken. I wipe my face although I know there’s no shame in crying for a tree. Surely the city arborist in the hard hat knows this grief–he’s the tree’s hospice worker; he lives daily with death. And my neighbors know. Standing here is our adult version of hugging trees. We’re connected to each other and every object by invisible belaying ropes, and the loss of a tree, like a person, calls us to remember this.
When Emily was sick our neighbors shoveled our driveway and brought us dinner and babysat Gwyn. Hello, neighbor. How much of our capacity to survive that terrible time sprung from this daily practice of welcoming loss and love and rebirth? We visited Esther in the psych ward after a bad reaction to medication; we attended the neighbor kids’ dance recital. Hugging may not matter to the tree; it won’t cure it of disease; it won’t solve global warming. But it matters to us, huddling at the foot of Esther’s stairs. Relationships like this endure beyond the tree’s fall or a move or a child’s death, partly because those of us remaining remember, but mostly because they point beyond themselves to the interconnectedness of all things. We live in community, and the more we touch and name this the stronger community becomes.
The tree is down in less than an hour. The street is too bright. The men rake up the remaining branches, feed them to the funnel with its remarkable teeth, and drive off. I scoop Gwyn onto my hip; we wave to the neighbors, briefly place our palms on the pale, flat stump, and cross the street. There is nothing we can’t turn to and touch. This is the net that will catch my daughter when she falls. Bye-bye, tree.