The Watching Tree

under the greenwood tree

-September 17, 2017-

I went out on the front stoop one Thursday afternoon to find they had cut down the big tree on the other side of the fence.

At first, I couldn’t figure out what was different about my yard and stared absently at the sprawling shadow of the volleyball net across the creeping Charlie, until the colossal gap between the neighbor’s pine and the elm across the street glared at me, like it was offended I failed to notice its haircut immediately.

They cut down the tree! Something painful seized my heart and wouldn’t desist in twisting. It’s just gone!

Riveted to the stump sticking out alongside a slab of concrete sidewalk, I started crying—big, fat tears of dismay and regret, because, although I had never considered myself a tree-hugger before, the fact remained that I would have liked to say goodbye to the old tree before the city felled her.

What was worse, I’d had the opportunity because it was I who answered the door the day before, when a scruffy, toothless city worker knocked to ask if mine was the car parked across the street.

“It’s not,” I’d told him, while six other men in orange vests watched from their tree-gobbling machine. “Did you check the neighbor’s?”

He nodded. “We’re just going to post it and come back tomorrow. Make sure your cars are moved by 7 am.”

I promised, and texted the girls to inform them also, but not once did it occur that the fated tree was not across the street, but the one just outside our fence—the tall, watching tree, with three prominent boughs like a troop of soldiers that were known to frolic with the branches of the tree across the lawn, or wave at me through my attic window, or sigh over me in the stillness of sleepless nights when I lay on my back in the grass.

That tree had become a friend during a long season where God did not speak to me directly, but whispered in every rustle of its leaves, gave away his position with every sway of its branches.

And some unfeeling men had come through with a job to do, lopping off its branches and grinding its roots with a hungry chainsaw. They might as well have cut off my right arm, because—who needs that limb? Or dug out my heart valves, because, at the rate Minneapolis was hacking down trees along Penn Avenue, there wasn’t going to be enough oxygen-production to make city life worth living anyway.

Vaguely I wondered if, had I known which tree was posted, I would’ve planted myself beneath it in true tree-hugging fashion and refused to budge when the city arrived in the morning…

Probably not.

Deep down, I knew it had to go. It was diseased, I noticed a few prior—the leaves had turned brown and speckly. It had that sad, scraggly look of something that has been dying for a long time, and just wants to be put out of its misery.

Maybe the city workers were not so unfeeling after all…maybe they spared the tree in our front yard from catching the disease, upping oxygen-production in the long run.

I knew I didn’t need the tree anymore. God was speaking again, and I had to remind myself that the season of secret wonder wasn’t lost just because the tree was gone.

Even now the axe is laid to the root…any tree that doesn’t bear fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Perhaps the felling of the tree was just a continuation of the way God had always walked with me: providing tangible, naturally-rooted things (no pun intended) to represent supernatural realities.

It represented the limbs in my heart that he had cut off during the eternal, fiery summer, so that what was already producing fruit would doubly flourish.

Perhaps he just wanted to show me, if I could care that much about a tree, what was available in the caring of his people?


Breaking Limbs and Birdsong

Photo Credit: Melissa Corvec

Last January, God showed me as a tree:

A towering shade tree, green leaves unfurled, branches hanging low.

I had picked the soil I thought I would flourish in, but he supplanted me to an open pasture and put down immovable roots beside a stream.

Here, birds are beginning to flock to my branches for refuge.

Chickadee. She lowers her core temperature to thrive in cold environments, congregating with those of her kind.

She stores her seeds and berries in a cache and calls, chickadee-dee-dee, to the other birds to feed them.

She is not shy to approach a human and eat out of his hands.

Chickadee, he called me. You eat your portion out of my hands and show the other birds where to get bread.

God showed me to a friend as a tree, but this time, “there is a limb growing out of you sideways.”

The limb is a necessary branch to the structure of the tree. It stems from my beliefs about God’s goodness. Rather, it stems from my unbelief about God’s goodness, because it’s growing out sideways.

It’s growing out sideways in the life I think I want to live–my own methods, my own definitions of what is good. I have to send all my nutrients to keep the limb alive, because the Gardener is not going to cultivate a dying branch.

The rest of my tree is suffering because of it. My leaves are wilting and thinning, my branches no longer strong enough to support the nesting birds.

“He wants to prune back, or break off, the limb,” she says, and I’m imagining him grafting the limb into the structure of the tree where it will receive the nutrients of the earth instead of my own effort.

I feel the breaking-off like the snapping of a bone. I feel the grafting of the limb like the resetting of a bone, followed by the slow, slung process of reforming.

If the tree is the integrity of my heart–that secret place where I join the honesty of myself with God–then I have come home where I was walking out on a limb.

excerpt from a yellow Legal pad
February 15, 2017

Unless a grain falls to the ground and dies, it cannot bear fruit, and your death among the snows of winter buried a seed that has grown into a mighty tree. 

He supplanted you in your crystallized desire, broke you off like a dry branch and grafted you back in, to a tree planted by streams of water, for his namesake, for your joy.

Dance, oh feet, upon the muddy pasture! The ground is plowed and ready for planting. Participate in the sowing, so you may reap a harvest.

This morning I woke to the beckoning of a chickadee in the tree outside my house.

It reminded me of the word God whispered to me, the same January morning he showed me my tree: mercy like birdsong.