Back in March, as you may recall, I told you about my history with sycamore trees, including the enormous sycamore across the street from downtown Gambier. That night, I didn't tell you about Gambier's other extraordinary trees: the Upside-Down Tree (which is, I believe, some kind of beech), the Marriage Tree (which, alas, was split in two during a storm several summers ago; its south half remains, listing and incomplete, loss incarnate), and the giant oak tree (which, as far as I know, never had a name). This afternoon, rounding the corner of the library after a field trip over the county line to eat pie (and to get a quick gander at the outside of a "Toppless Bar"), I realized something was terribly wrong. A crew of men in hardhats gathered in an area demarcated with yellow tape and nylon rope. Limbs already littered the ground. A crane stood by, temporarily disused. And towering above it all, what was left of one of our oldest trees--a tree whose age I've heard as both 250 and 350 years old.
The tree has been leaning eastward and looking vaguely threatened and threatening for no small time. But I was stunned to see a landmark like this one coming down without any announcement to my community. I have sat in breeze and shade under this tree on quiet afternoons and evenings, practicing thinking quietly and doing nothing; I have been photographed under this tree with family members; I have stopped and listened for birds in its highest branches; I have greeted it in passing to and from classes across campus from my office. This tree has been part of my life for more than a decade. Had I known it was coming down this afternoon, I would have sat under it one more time, or embraced it, or given it a kiss goodbye--anything to recognize the strong beauty it has been in my landscape during both of my Gambier lifetimes.
As it was, I made it to the tree's deathbed in time to get some pictures of its last moments, and to hear the cruelly diminutive sound it made when the man with the chainsaw finally completed his cut. I had been about to open my computer and start alerting people to the tree's impending downfall when I realized that it would be impending for only a few more seconds. And then the tree was on the ground, while those angels callously continued their cold frolics, as though nothing had happened.
By this point, I was sitting on the ground, watching and shooting and wanting to shout. Others from the community had gathered around, but there was no collective response, no ceremony. Instead, we all sat and stood silently. I suspect everyone was more than a little bit shocked. This tree was older--by far--than the college.
In recognition of the tree's demise, my young poet friend sent along the poem that came to his mind:
The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.
Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too.
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.
Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.
-- Philip Larkin
And I remembered the first poem I ever had to memorize:
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
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.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
-- Joyce Kilmer
Even these poems together didn't seem a fitting tribute to the tree, though--especially since I'm not especially taken with the Kilmer poem, if ever I were, though I do like stanzas 1, 2, and 5 quite a lot--and so at about 8:30 p.m., I headed toward south campus, camera in hand, hoping to say a better goodbye. As I approached, however, I found that a summer group that has taken over much of the campus had spilled onto the tree; several ten-year-old boys were standing on and around the stump of what had been majesty, and they were striking it with the longest pieces of itself they had been able to find. I contemplated what would be best to do and decided just to wade into the tree's pieces and ignore the small boys. They stayed out of the way of my picture-taking; when one of them wondered aloud how many rings the tree had, I told him it was probably around 300. Mostly, I wanted to accost the adults who were vaguely watching these children and to tell them to teach the children some respect for this kind of loss. And yet I didn't.
I did do three things, however. I got pictures of the stump, and I believe (though I am no tree scientist) that these pictures suggest that the tree really was ailing, which somehow makes me feel a bit better about its having been felled.
And I said goodbye.