Decay & rejuvenation

by DRM

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An old tree came down at the edge of the property in a windstorm. It sat below the cottage at the edge of the farm road. The base was massive and marred with water bumps, knocks and scars. Time had thinned out the top, making it appear foreshortened against the sky. The trunks and branches were worn raw and blackened.

A landscaper had told me that the tree needed to come down but I had ignored him. I was fond of the tree. It stood right outside my office and I could look out through the screen at the improbably thick trunk and into the thicket of leaves and dead branches. From up on the back patio at the house, you could see the tree straining to the sky, grey-black branches like fence posts on an windblown dune.

The sky was quiet and unsettled after the tree came down across the road. The atmosphere had the faint vibration of another storm at its edge, the light dim and unfocused. I climbed down the stone face to where the big tree had crashed, clawing at the pines and aspens on the other side as it had fallen.

The big tree had been dead for a long time. The trunk was bored hollow, and the bark weakened by tunneling insects. The leaves that sprouted haphazardly along its frame were like eyebrows and fingernails growing when a person dies.

The root base had rotted. The short tendrils that were meant to suck up the life of the earth and stabilize the big tree barely penetrated the ground. The old tree had literally been balancing in place, a forgery the vibrancy that had been stolen away by time.

A gust of wind had blown it over. I realized that I had created a fantasy where the tree had frozen in time, become a petrified fossil that would stand rooted there outside my window, a natural sculpture that would last forever.

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As I walked back up to the house I looked at its broad back against the clearing night sky. It’s a Dutch colonial that has stood on that site from more than 150 years. Once a big farm stretched for miles around; now, the house stands on the old ridge, looking out to a soft valley that’s been settled and developed and improved, surrounded by occasional artifacts of its history — a bell tower, a machine shed, a depression in the yard where the kitchen garden was tended, old stone walls, and the trees.

There was one less tree to bear witness, I thought.

When we bought the house it had been in shambles. Raw sewage seeped in a far corner of the dank basement. The floors were warped and sunken. Wires were chafed bare. Water stains marred the walls and ceilings. In a quiet moment, you could hear the wind whispering through the gaping holes of old windows and mid-plumbed doors.

The real estate agent tried to steer us away from the house but we persisted. It’s renovated now, its energy rejuvenated, its place on the old property reclaimed, its purpose reasserted.

In our dreams, we imagined staying in this house forever. We would watch our children grow, tend to the property, engage in the purpose and creativity of our lives, meld into each other until we too were like the trees, indelible in the landscape.

As life changes, though, I sense a flaw in our dreams. The house is in renewal, a reclaimed prime that can be maintained and preserved. It is an object, a place, not a life.

Our purpose shouldn’t be to preserve things. It should be to nurture and witness the richness of lives.

Where the old tree stood there’s the rotting heart of its base. There’s a mystery of chemistry and biology at work that I don’t understand, enzymes decaying into new life seeds. In time, something will sprout there.

I watch that spot now. I can remember the tree. I look forward to what new things will grow. I think about the future, our work, and cherish the prospect of Time passing.

Things that can rejuvenate, we have to pass on and share. The things that decay, we have to keep, because those are unique to our lives and our entry point into our common experience with the forces of Life.