“You mean the tree on the corner?” I asked, exchanging a mutual sad nod. That morning a huge old camphor laurel tree had been cut down. A week before, Alex had talked to a workman there who told him the tree was destined for the chop, and we had sentimentally taken some photos of the tree yesterday, not knowing exactly when it would be gone. Then, this morning I’d noticed the loud sounds of a mulcher, and driving past the corner later I was struck by the strange gap in my usual landscape – a huge space had replaced what was a beautiful spreading tree with ivy growing up trunk and branches. (Last autumn, Alex had been so delighted by the reds, oranges and yellows of the ivy that he’d taken a whole series of photos of the tree in the late afternoon light.)
It was a poignant surprise to realize that our neighbour, too, was feeling the loss of the old mother-of-a-tree. I wondered how many others in the neighborhood were similarly dismayed, without warning or a chance to say “goodbye” to this landmark.
The next morning I found the beautiful autumn photos and as promised, emailed them to Mac with the words “Comfort in remembered beauty”. I also rang the council to ask why permission had been granted to cut the tree down. After a search of her records, the explanation was: “dieback in canopy" and "extensive decay in trunk and branches". I just needed to know why. It was somehow a comfort to know why.
By now, having been a climate change activist, I am beyond shedding too many tears over the loss of a single tree. Still, I was sad for the birds and the other creatures who would be far more dismayed – or am I projecting? Anyway, the absent tree sank down into the depths of my psyche while I went on with my life. It sank down and found resonant places, memories, feelings…
In the wee hours of the next morning a phrase bubbled up from the depths, and I wrote these words on a piece of paper I keep at my bedside for such sleep inspirations: “heartfelt afterspaces”.
I recalled that when I was younger and less aware of the whole human-ecology catastrophe, I felt the loss of “my” trees in such a physical way that it was as if my own limbs had been severed.
While living on the central coast in my thirties, my next-door neighbour decided to cut down some cheese trees on our boundary. The noise of the chain-saws traumatised me through paper-thin fibro walls, so I tried to soothe myself by going to the other side of the house, and sat meditating. I felt the tree, and spontaneously invited it to come over and live for a while in my body if it wanted to. It took me up on my generous invitation and we meditated together until after the chain saw had stopped. The tree-spirit seemed to be curious and found similarities in our physiologies: my lungs were like leaves, my gut villi were like roots…
I will never forget the sudden and very amusing surprise the tree-spirit seemed to gasp when, having finished my meditation, I got up and walked to the kitchen. Tree-thought translated: oh my goodness, you can MOVE! Wow! That’s cool!
This tree-fusion experience also helped me to find tree metaphors for the flow of “chi” during my t’ai chi practice, based on the upward and downward movements of nutrients within trees. That tree lived on in me for many years, I think.
Then, in my forties, I befriended an elegant young angophora that grew up outside my second-floor flat’s balcony. I used to sit and meditate there and the tree was a lovely part of my life, bringing me lots of bird visitors, and waving its delicate long leaves in the harbourside breeze.
One awful morning, without any warning, there were workmen climbing the tree and sawing off one of its branches. They obviously intended to cut the whole tree down. Apparently this decision had been made by the “body corporate” and mere tenants were not considered relevant or even worth telling. I ran downstairs to confront the workmen. I can’t remember exactly what I said-screamed but they stopped the job and went away for a while. Meanwhile I took away their ladder and put it at the back of the property next to the washing line. I was SO upset! They had already cut the branch that came to my balcony and there was only a slender trunk left, which looked quite odd. I stood by the doomed tree and wept for a while and then went back to my flat.
Not long afterwards came a knock at my door. This description comes from the lyrics of a song called One Tree, which I wrote later about what had happened:
Two policemen stood in my stairwell
And asked me to explain myself.
Why was I so worked up?
Couldn’t be just a tree – it must be something else.
They had a piece of paper from the council
That said it was OK to cut down the tree.
Because it says so on a f***ing piece of paper
Do you think that matters to me?
Now I stare out my window,
At bricks and concrete and stone.
I don’t want to live here anymore –
This is no longer my home.
And I read in the paper
‘bout the freeway going through
And I hear that the Penan forests
Are still being clear-felled.
And I wonder how THAT must feel.
All I lost is One Tree – and that’s enough pain for me.
Heartfelt afterspaces. Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote about his felled Binsey Poplars: “Aftercomers cannot guess the beauty been”. As I grow older I see so many afterspaces in my world.
The week of the felling of my corner camphor laurel happened to be one year after my mother’s final week of life on planet Earth. The afterspaces of a person are somewhat different from that of a tree which spent its entire life in one place, leaving a very strong afterspace: a negative afterimage of itself etched in the mind’s eye.
But my mother’s afterspaces are scattered around my present and past world like autumn leaves, blowing in the winds of my daily rounds, reminiscences, dreams, night-waking thoughts; her music, still too painful to watch on videos, finds ways to undo me whenever a heart-opening song comes on TV or radio.
Like the tree, whose loss is softened by remembered beauty, I am immersing myself in gratitude for having been indulged by 62 years of mothering. I rest back in my mother’s afterspaces and she is still there.