Well, it happened again. My wife and I ventured out for a few days, celebrating her most recent trip around the sun with a visit to the Caribbean. When we returned home around 9 p.m., three trees welcomed us back by blocking passage through the driveway. When we originally bought the house in 1999, the H/VAC guy who installed central heat and air said to me, “If you’re going to live out here, I hope you have a good chainsaw because you’re going to need it.” Turns out, the man was a prophet.
Much of the world worries about warmer temperatures resulting from climate change. Here in rural Indiana, the meteorological changes that concern me have to do with wind. I love gentle breezes. I am unbothered by occasional gusts, even if I have to chase an umbrella every now and then. But in recent years we have witnessed increased wind velocity sustained for hours and even days. This morning, for example, I awakened to a sound of moving air that turned out not to be the furnace. Constant 20-25 mph winds with gusts up to 50-60 mph take some getting used to.
The house where I live is surrounded by trees. That is part of its appeal, creating a serene, park-like setting. On the one hand, those tall neighbors provide some break against the direct force of the wind; on the other hand, they sometimes give up the fight and fall to the ground. That is particularly true of the many ash trees that have succumbed to the green emerald borer. They die and over time their trunks weaken. It is sad to see those trees bite the dust, a bit like saying farewell to old friends. It is the cycle of life in the woods, and there is no problem when they fall out among the others. But when they come down across the drive way, it means work is required to restore order and clear a path forward. Until that is done, life has no choice but to still itself, facing the reality that some challenges defy your best laid plans. It is especially tough to be reminded of that at the end of a long travel day when all we really want is to feel our pillows under our heads.
I can’t decide which is worse: heading out in the morning to make an appointment only to find your way blocked, or to return home after a long drive or in the dark of night and have fallen timber put a stop to your travels. It happened twice recently. A Christmas trip to Charleston and the aforementioned birthday cruise to the Caribbean both ended about .2 of a mile short of the goal. In the darkness we unloaded our luggage from the shuttle driver’s car, crossed the fallen logs, and hoofed it the rest of the way home. The next morning began with chainsaw activity rather than a leisurely period enjoying home-roasted coffee.
Over the years of owning this property, I’ve become pretty adept with a chainsaw. In fact, I’ve realized that I enjoy the work, though I’d like more say in the timing of the activity. I recognize a feeling of accomplishment when what started as a mess interrupting my life results in a neatly stacked pile of firewood, ready to bring comfort on a cold winter evening.
An added bonus is that, among other things, it provides opportunity for reflection along the way. On this most recent occasion, I began to recognize the recurring refrain, “How the mighty have fallen.” playing in my mind. Soon, I realized the words weren’t referring only to trees. King David uttered a phrase like this in II Samuel 1 when he learned that Saul and Jonathan died in battle. Loss of that magnitude can evoke such sentiment.
A memorial service was held earlier this month for my mother’s brother. He was the oldest of his siblings and my mom held him in highest admiration. For most of my life he lived out of state so my interactions with him were few. A quiet man, every statement seemed measured. He impressed me as stoic with a sharp, dry wit, and a person of significant strength and wisdom. He may have been the first person to hit me with a football pass while I was in motion, which seemed like a monumental step forward from merely tossing the ball back and forth in a stationary position. I last saw him during the Christmas holidays during 2018 when visiting his son in Florida. While there, he presented me with a small, framed photo of my mother and her twin sister from their childhood. It is interesting how even though our engagements were few and far between, each has its own signature moment.
Being far removed from his location, I may not notice the forest has changed down in Florida, but I’m sure my relatives will be reminded daily. I’ve had some experience with that. My father died way too young 32 years ago. I have missed the shade of his tree ever since, having to learn to figure out things about which I’d have previously sought his advice. It has been years since I had a grandparent to visit. And I’ve lost several aunts and uncles along the way. Some were major forces in my life, like the uncle who was with us at the first professional hockey and basketball games I ever attended. Or the aunt who would always wow the family with her honky tonk piano skills when she visited from California. Or the grandfather who let me tag along as he went about his farming tasks, usually winding up drinking a Pepsi at the country store with his friends. To those I could add members of my wife’s family. Her trees became my trees, inherited with marriage. I see the difference they made for her and I feel their absence, too.
Not all the mighty fallen ones are family. With some sadness I’ve read of classmates from high school in the past year whose time on earth came to an end. We never know which trees will go first in the woods. An aged beech tree with a decayed trunk I could slide my hand through and seemed prime to fall when we bought our house outlasted many younger, healthier looking ones, including a huge oak whose only mistake seems to have been rooting itself too close to the bank of a small stream.
Others of those fallen where acquaintances and community leaders who left gaping holes in the areas of responsibility where they were making a difference in the world. Lose too many in one generation and the forest must recalibrate, perhaps even suffering for a while. It reminds me of a faith community where death and/or divorce robbed the congregation of too many mighty oaks and ashes too early from one generation. It created a challenging void for the younger saplings who remained behind.
I know full well that death is a part of life. The fallen trees decay and enrich the soil, making space for a next generation of seedlings to survive. But I must tell you, I miss those fallen trees. Their aged beauty. The presence they lend to the neighborhood. Their majesty. Even their creaks as they moan in the wind. No matter how long they were here, it often seems it was not long enough. So, take some time to remember the fallen trees from your own life. Honor them by acknowledging the place they held in your life and even now in your memory. Try to make time for the ones still around. We never know when the winds will take the next one down.