In my back yard has stood for who knows how many decades a majestic elm tree. Each of its three trunks has been massive with the first growing straight up into the sky. The other two have fanned out to make a graceful and huge canopy, shading my house from the Western sun in summer, providing myriad birds a place to pause on their way to my feeders. Squirrels have nested and chased one another up its many branches and I have raked its tens of thousands of leaves into bags each fall. But at approximately 11:15 a.m. today, June 14th, 2014, while I was getting spring rolls for lunch, a strong straight line wind came through my back yard and tore the outermost trunk away from its mother trunk right at the angle at which it branched into its fan. My next door neighbor tells me she heard the loud crack and knew something major had occurred. I came upon the catastrophe only when I had parked my car in the garage, closed the big door and opened the small side door that admits me into my back yard. That back yard was completely occupied by the tree, leaving me barely room to get around it and into my kitchen, crying all the way because of the magnitude of my loss.
My initial impulse was to call my tree man who has nursed that elm by injecting it with a protective substance every third spring, successfully warding off the deadly Dutch elm beetles that have ravaged neighborhoods all over this country and all over my neighborhood. He said he couldn’t come himself because he was keeping watch over this three year old child but that he would make calls and see if he could find workmen who could come and help me. An hour and a half later, four incredibly kind and skillful men arrived with two huge trucks to begin sawing and hauling out to the street where the chipper waited my beloved tree trunk. At first I thought to retreat to my third floor and close the windows so I wouldn’t have to hear the chain saw, but that seemed too cowardly in the end, so instead I decided I needed to be with my badly wounded tree that had given me such solace and pleasure for all of my thirty-five years in this house. I wanted to be with her as she was dismembered and put to rest, to be a witness to her passing. So I stood in the drizzle that fell periodically and in the wet yard when it was not actively raining, taking in fully the weight of what I was losing, cutting small branches myself so as to touch the leaves and branches myself. The workmen seemed to understand my need to be involved, only asking me to step back when they worried that chips might fly and hit me from their saw. Only one man sawed and he used a very small chain saw, so the noise level was the least it possibly could be. And he only sawed a few places at a time, turning off the machine to drag what he had sawed into open ground.
Two and a half hours after they arrived, they last little piles had been raked up, the giant trunk had been sawn into manageable lengths, and they had driven their big yellow and red trucks away, accepting my sincere thanks that I gave to each of them. They had made a horrible event as decent as it could possibly be and I was deeply grateful. Now I wait until next week when my arborist who knows the tree well will come and talk about the second fanning trunk, about whether it is “safe” to leave standing, whether it may need to be braced to the stalwart straight up trunk. But my back yard does not look like my back yard; it seems naked and raw, like I feel inside. Grief is not always about the loss of someone human; my tree has been an intimate part of my life for almost forty years. Only one cousin and a few very old and close friends go back further, so my heart hurts. But standing with her as she experienced the loss of a major third of herself seemed a little like what I imagine it is like to wash a loved one’s dead body on the kitchen table. I did not abandon my tree to strangers, albeit kindly ones. I stayed present to the end of the process and will remember the gift of that trunk as I go about accepting the changed nature of my back yard.