An old gum tree served for over twenty years as an expansive umbrella at my home, its branches enveloping festive occasions as well as hours of restful sitting. Feet hopped gingerly on and off its countless gumballs. Having been a planter of trees all my life, I was sorely saddened when this dear one (any one, actually, is dear) came to the end of its days. What to do, other than leave home and not watch as it came down, bit by bit? It stood in the midst of a garden, quite near a bushy acuba started for me as a seedling by my aunt, ruling out grinding the stump. This video captures the sweet gum’s new life, carved out by a master carpenter who is a good friend. I supplied him with adjectives as hints—“light, airy, moving, sinewy, simple,” and he smiled, nodded, and: woodandshop.com/meet-an-artisan-tree-carver-in-virginia.
What delight for so many! Children come by and rub on the wood, eyeballing the peepholes from different angles, instinctively caressing the wood. In its new guise, the tree teaches respect for its inner beauty, history, and intricacies. Naturalists offer impromptu lessons. It’s a communal gathering spot, introducing no-longer strangers. People return to admire the daily subtle changes. “She’s getting older just like us!” a friend enthused.
“Once there was a tree,” Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree begins. Indeed! Don the carpenter and I talked about our childhoods, parents, art, nature — free-flowing conversation stimulated by our giving tree. I’m reminded of the ways that child philosophers quickly note the similarities between humans and trees: “Branches are like veins, blood flows like sap, when leaves blow they look like they’re breathing” (Little Big Minds). During the two-day carving process, I thought often of this favorite quote from Kenya’s Nobel Peace Prize winning champion of trees, Wangari Maathai: “Indeed, in my more fanciful moments I conceive of the tree as an upside down person, with her head in the soil and feet and legs in the air. The tree uses its roots to eat and its leaves to breathe….” (Check out Maathai’s flourishing Green Belt Movement here)
“Trees are us,” I wrote with conviction in The Philosopher’s Table. “You’ll see,” I promised. This relationship feels ancient. Enough said.