It Was Only a Tree

by Melannie Svoboda SND on September 21, 2015

It was only a tree, I tell myself. And it was a sick one at that. It had to go. It had to be taken down. It’s only logical. Then why do I feel as if I’m in mourning? Why do I feel as if an old friend has been taken from me?

The tree I’m talking about was an old mock magnolia tree. At least I think that’s what it was. I’m not even sure. It stood next to our house by the side porch and garage, like a silent sentinel. Every time you entered the house, you had to pass next to and under it. The tree was tall, as tall as our house. It was old. I’m no tree expert, but I estimate it was about 40 years old. I tried counting the rings in the stump before they ground it up.

Our mock magnolia tree looked looked something like this when it was in full bloom--only ours was much bigger.

Our mock magnolia tree looked something like this when it was in full bloom–only our tree was much bigger.

The tree was useful. It provided valuable shade for the south side of our house. That helped to keep the house cool in summer. The day they took it down, the temperature on our porch in the afternoon rose to an unprecedented 104! The tree was messy. It dropped its greenish, fuzzy seed pods all over our sidewalk and porch steps. We’d have to sweep them up every day. A few times we even resorted to using a shovel. Still we would end up tracking some of those messy seed pods into the kitchen.

But the tree was incredibly beautiful. For a week or two each spring it would break out into a festival of white blossoms. The blossoms were huge, but delicate. On an overcast day, the flowering tree seemed to glow. Those blossoms more than made up for the mess the tree made with those seed pods. All those blossoms fell off too making another mess we had to deal with. Darn! I imagine something similar happens when you get a new puppy. The puppy tinkles on your carpet or chews your shoe to shreds and you’re ready to take the darn dog back to where you got it. But then it looks at you with those contrite eyes or jumps up and down excitedly when you enter the room, and all is forgiven. All. Every time we beheld those white blossoms, we forgave the tree it sins and said, “You may stay.”

Sister Sandy standing beneath the tree in winter.

Sister Sandy standing beneath the tree in winter.

But several years ago, the tree began to get sick. We had a tree professional come out and look at it. He chopped off a few limbs, sprayed it several times with who-knows-what, and gave it a few more years to live. But this past year the tree got worse. It began oozing “sticky stuff” that got all over the steps, the handrail, the myrtle, and even us. Hordes of flies began to swarm around, on, and inside the tree. The tree pro came out again and said: The tree should go. Clearly it was dying. In fact it was already half dead. He tied a bright orange ribbon around the trunk of the tree and promised to send a crew out to remove it in a few days.

That’s when I began to mourn in earnest. I sensed the other two sisters I live with, Sisters Sandy and John Paul, were

The tree in winter.

The tree in winter after a gentle snowfall.

mourning too. Sister Sandy, knowing my particular fondness for the tree, offered to take my picture next to it. In the glare of the early morning sun, wearing my grubbies, I let her do so. Then we waited. Every time we came home from somewhere, we were relieved when we saw that the tree was still there. I naively began to think, “Maybe they’ll forget to come and take it down and we’ll have it for just one more year.” But they didn’t forget. They came. And they took it down.

I wasn’t home when they did it. I’m glad I wasn’t. Just hearing the loud buzzing of those chainsaws would have been too hard on me. That day, fortuitously, I had an early morning appointment. I left at 7:45 am and returned at 9:30 am. As soon as I neared the house, I saw it. The tree was gone. Totally gone!

Me with my old friend.

Me with my old friend.

There wasn’t even a sign that it had been there except for its low stump and a few wood chips strewn in the myrtle. The whole side of the house looked different. Naked. The mourning doves, who were accustomed to perching in the tree and had probably raised their young in it, were flitting around the porch confusedly. They knew something was not right.

Yes, we talk about planting another tree where our mock magnolia stood. But trees cost money. And they take a long time to get big enough to provide shade. And the house is old. And the three residents of the house are getting up there in years too. I personally can’t think about getting a new tree. Not yet. For now, I just want to sit for a while, cherishing the memory of the other tree.

After all, it was more than just a tree. It was an old friend.

 

Friends don’t have to be people. Here’s a song about friendship that seems an appropriate one for this reflection. It’s called “Friends Are Quiet Angels.”

 

 

Have you ever had a friendship with a non-human being—like a tree, a plant, a pet, a house, a particular place? What was that friendship like for you?

When you mourned the loss of someone or something, what was that experience like for you? Do you think mourning can be a good thing?

 

{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

Kathleen September 21, 2015 at 5:19 am

Sr. Melannie,

So sorry to hear about your tree.

Our dog Ernie is definitely a member of our family. He is our friend and companion even when he poops in the house.

Kathleen

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Marla September 21, 2015 at 9:35 am

Melannie, this brought tears to my eyes as three years ago a beautiful,tall,stately, Ash tree in front of my home needed to be cut down due to the Ash boer disease, in fact all the Ash trees in the development were cut down and little scrawny trees planted. I wept when I came home and it was gone, as I had nurtured that tree for 14 years, It was home to songbirds and squirrels and beauty. It’s leaves provided a canopy over my patio.
Luckily the thick branches that were cut down were cut into smaller pieces. I rescued one and then quite unexpectedly, into my life came a woodcarver. I aske if he could do something with the log. He cut it open, hinged the two sides and inside carved a beautiful full tree and the words, “We rest in the shade of trees planted by others.”
So my beautiful tree lives on and now dwells in my living room.

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Mary Therese September 21, 2015 at 10:07 am

Sr. Melanie, Thanks for your reflection on your beloved tree. It sounds just like any other dear friend, with its good sides and its bad sides! We just lost a huge silver maple next door to us, and so many birds and squirrels seemed “displaced” afterwards (including millions of carpenter ants!) I always mourn for the creatures who made such a place their home.

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Kendall September 21, 2015 at 10:08 am

Thank you for sharing Sister (all the things you share)….

All things temporal must pass yes…. but we as humans will mourn their passing as maybe we should…. not just to appreciate the ultimate gift that life and its seasons are….
Perhaps it is the good Lord’s gentle way of reminding us…. we are only pilgrims here… so life’s journey is really a blessed pilgrimage!

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Mary Schneider September 21, 2015 at 10:09 am

Sr. Melannie: I too love trees, as well as bushes, flowers, etc., and can understand your feelings of loss. God reminds us we, like trees, are only here temporarily. I think heaven will be full of all kinds of trees.k

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Claudette September 21, 2015 at 10:40 am

I am sorry for your loss. We have lost the last two of our trees in our backyard due to disease. They were probably around 35 years old. I can relate to your feelings of sadness. I have a special tree in our front yard that accompanies me in my prayer time. I pray it will outlive me!

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JoAnn Welch September 21, 2015 at 11:12 am

I cannot relate to a tree, however, our family has vacationed in the Outer Banks on and off, but mostly on since 1953. My Mom died right when our trip was scheduled in 2002 and we decided to go on the trip…mourning her with everyone together in the place that she introduced us to. It was a loss when my Dad, who experienced a stroke a number of years ago, could not go…a loss for him and for us. We continue the tradition with whomever can come. When my time comes not to be able to enjoy the vacation, it will be truly a loss. It is now into the 4th generation and the interest in the trip by those from California, Oregon, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Ohio is still alive!!! Here’s to many more years of togetherness each summer!!! Blessings to you and the search for perhaps a new tree friend!!!

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Patty September 21, 2015 at 11:22 am

Dear Sister – May your memories of God’s gift to you, and your fellow sisters, sustain you.

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mary james September 21, 2015 at 11:28 am

Thanks Melannie! I have mourned so many human and non human friends. This reflection on the tree is truly beautiful and reminds
me of the mortalilty of all creation until we live in the kingdom come.
I am reminded of what I heard at a retreat one time about death and dying. We mourn EVERYthing we lose–even the weight we want to lose!!!

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Kathy OFS September 21, 2015 at 11:45 am

I totally felt sad when I read this story about your tree. I was brought back to my childhood and our mighty oak she was a beauty. We ran around the tree playing hide and seek . There was just enough room between oak and garage. We played with the leaves which were pretty. It cracked our garage it was huge and took more than two men in family to go around it hand to hand. It gave us shade in summer. Birds chirped in spring with beautiful thrills . Winter snow covered branches and it was silent till the leaves welcomed spring. Sadly we moved and later found out the new owners of house took it down. My brothers said tree could have been 100 yrs old. And should have been donated to our town park. But was not meant to be. Thank you God for blessing our family with the might oak to adorn backyard with it’s majestic beauty.

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Maggie Dunn September 21, 2015 at 11:51 am

As you most likely know California is in a drought. I hadn’t realized till I read your Monday gift that I too am also in mourning as I watch plants die.
I sit on my couch in the morning, pray and watch the out of doors come into my living room. It is changing and it is certainly not as lovely as it was. Water in a desert( which we are) makes all things thrive. Now I must find the beauty again in the desert. It is there. 🙂 And you will find the beauty in the loss of your tree.
You have such a gift for sharing.
Thank you.

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Marjorie September 21, 2015 at 11:51 am

It wasn’t just a tree. It was a connection to Creator God, a comforting presence. Honor its loss and keep it in memory but plant something new.

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Rita September 21, 2015 at 11:58 am

Sister, your use of the word “sentinel” sparked my sharing this prayer honoring an ash tree last fall. Laudato Si’

The sentinel of love *

She was a mere child in 1979 when we entered and shared in her life.
Later, her strong arms protected our children’s faces
From harsh summer sun
And held these protected children firmly to offer a heavenly view.
She stood strong against the remnants of Hurricane Ike
Sheltering even God’s most “insignificant” ones.
Each autumn all generations played in her leafy shadows.

That last summer a hawk taught her two fledglings how to hunt from arms now weak and bare.
A beetle from a foreign land had found her generous ways.
On a rainy day we said a teary loud goodbye.
Her giving continues in warmth on a cold winter night
And comforting thoughts of her example of love fully lived.
*all rights reserved
October 2014
Rita

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Annie September 21, 2015 at 12:34 pm

Dear Melannie,
My deepest sympathy to you on the loss of your tree friend. I truly understand the loss. My most traumatic loss of a tree was the day they came to cut down the last sycamore in the courtyard. I stayed outside and watched in mourning. It was difficult to do. After that, I understood a little more of what Mary must’ve felt at the foot of the cross. The tree still had its beautiful leaves and they took it limb by limb and put the branches into the chopper. When it was naked, they cut it down. Its name was Forgiven. It was important to me that someone would know its name, even at the end of its life, so I asked it. Trees are never “only a tree,” and they have names we can learn if we ask and listen to them. But they don’t seem to give their names to “casual acquaintances.” They’re a little shy sometimes.

On the brighter side, C.S. Lewis in “The Last Battle” has all the trees walking into heaven at the end. I pray and hope that all my tree friends will be in heaven someday. I don’t think heaven will be treeless, and why not have those in heaven who have been our friends, sheltered us and animals, have given us oxygen to breathe, and helped undo our damage to the earth?

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Jean Canatsey September 21, 2015 at 1:54 pm

Two years ago, the Senator, Seminole County Florida’s 3500 year old Cypress Tree, was carelessly burned by a druggie lighting up at it’s base. Many times we had taken our children and our grandchildren to visit the Senator and his 2000 year old companion, Lady Liberty, in Big Tree Park. I felt as though a dear friend had been murdered. At first there was a feeling of disbelief, then anger, and finally I shed tears of mourning for a tree that had suffered such a senseless and untimely death. Amazingly, death rose from the ashes of that magnificent tree. Local artists were given wood from the tree to create pieces of art. This summer the Seminole County History Museum has displayed that art-everything from carvings, a guitar and even ceramic pieces finished with a glaze mixed from the ashes. Nothing was wasted. Truly it is life from death. I am still sad but viewing the art has changed my grief to joy for the generations to come. The Senator will live as long as there are people to look at the art and remember.
We still take our grandchildren to view the remnants of the Senator and tell them of it’s history. We also can look to the future since a number of years ago someone had the foresight to clone this ancient tree. The Senator’s progeny is now growing tall in the “shadow of his wings.”
The art will be on exhibit until the end of Sept. At that time some of the pieces will be auctioned off and others will be part of a traveling exhibit which will give more than we “locals” the opportunity share in the beauty of our friend.

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Mary Anne September 21, 2015 at 1:54 pm

Thank you Sr. Melanie for another wonderful reflection on God’s creation. When my Aunt was born, in order to commemorate this joyous event my Grandfather planted a red maple tree in the front yard of their farm house. Through the years the family would gather under the tree after a long day of working the fields and we’d relax and tell stories, play jump rope, listen to the ball game on the transistor radio – times we will never forget. The farm has since been sold and now when I drive by I still see that beautiful maple tree (71 yrs old now) providing shade and beauty for the new family.
I love trees, especially during the winter months when their leaves have fallen and you can see the bare bones of their structure. Many have knots and bumps, scars from broken branches but they stand strong until the spring when the blossoms and new foliage transform their appearance to renewed creations. A reminder that God can do the same for us with his love and forgiveness.

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Regina September 21, 2015 at 2:04 pm

Melannie, how well I remember that tree at St. Mary’s. It was so beautiful in the Spring and, yes, so messy. But it was so homey and welcoming. I am sad with you for its loss. Your story reminded me of a huge tree in the woods at our provincial center. I would often walk out to it and hug it in my younger years. I wonder if it is still there

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Diane September 21, 2015 at 4:48 pm

I recalled a poem I learned in grade school called “trees” by Joyce Kilmer.
The ending is : “poems are made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree”. It’s also a song. Perhaps you’ll see your tree again in heaven!

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Dolores Leffler September 21, 2015 at 6:23 pm

Coincidently I had two trees cut down last Wednesday due to illness. I have lived in my home for 45 years, the trees were here before our family moved in. So…the large maple (130 inches in circumference) will be missed. Thank you for your Monday inspirations.

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Cathy September 21, 2015 at 8:27 pm

I lost a tree too. After planting it myself and watching it grow in our backyard for 10 years it got a disease. I called for help but was told there was no hope. It survived the hot dry summer but with the first storm in the fall it split in half. It made me sad to see it lying there. I wish I could have saved it. We eventually planted a new baby tree but I will always remember the joy that the first tree gave me for the first ten years we lived in our home. I thought I was strange to grieve for a tree, but your post today made me not feel so strange. Thank you, sister!

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Dorothy September 21, 2015 at 9:18 pm

Sister Melannie,
Your respect to the tree reminds me of a song I sang in Glee Club.
I think that I shall never see. A poem as lovely as a tree.
A tree that looks at God all day & lifts her leafy arms to pray etc.
There are more words to it, but I always liked the meaning of the song about a tree that God made.
Thanks for the memories of a tree Sr Melannie.

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Susan September 21, 2015 at 9:26 pm

Hi Sister Melanie. I love trees too. We have huge old oaks and maples in our neighborhood and every time one is taken down I mourn the loss of it. I hope you and the other residents in your house decide to plant a tree in it’s place this fall. It may not grow very large during your life time but it will be there for the next generation. We need more trees in this world of ours.

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Kathleen September 22, 2015 at 12:44 am

What wonderful thoughts and meditations on trees! I live in downtown Seattle and have several beautiful old trees across the street that I look at and admire daily. They cover up some of the unsightly, harsh, buildings we would otherwise look at. Since our apartment is on the eight floor I look right into their abundance of leaves. They will be coming down, I’m sure, when a new building across from us goes up. I have been mourning their loss ever since I heard the property had been sold. New ones will be planted, because of city regulations, but they will never be as big or elegant as the ones there now, in my lifetime. I would hope they could live again in carvings or other art as some have mentioned, but I doubt it. I have some beautiful pictures of them I hope to frame with the Joyce Kilmer poem incorporated into it. I’ve been very moved by your story and the reflections of others.

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Rita Wesseling September 22, 2015 at 7:43 am

Sr. Melanie plant another tree. Planting a tree is a gift for the future.

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michelle September 22, 2015 at 11:56 am

Dearest Sister Melannie:

Your reflection was so timely for me. It is so wonderful to know there are many others with the same connections to trees as me. I live in Texas and our drought brought about the death of millions of trees. My husband and I bought our little 7 acres because of the trees, 100-year-old oaks, massive, towering, shading, protecting. That was 10 years ago. We have lost six of them, all succumbing to a beetle which preys on sick oaks. Two other trees in our surrounding yard, one a huge east Texas pine and the other unnamed have also been lost. Each time, my heart breaks as if I have lost a family member. I urge you to plant a new tree. I too am getting a bit older, hmmm, and the delight in planting a new tree and watching it grow is surprising! While I mourn my friends at their passing, these new friends are like new babies, tender, sweet, watching them grow and change day by day. In one spot, I have planted a poplar which grows quickly It gave me great hope as I watched it get taller and taller. Blessings to you and your housemates. I pray you find a suitable new friend to plant soon.

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Shirley Sahlfeld September 22, 2015 at 5:14 pm

The song is beautiful and so fitting for the occasion. Thank you for all that you do.

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Linda MacDonald September 22, 2015 at 6:56 pm

Perhaps we love trees because of the Garden of Eden!

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Natalie September 24, 2015 at 9:31 pm

After my husband left our family, we had to move into a really decrepit house that had experienced severe water damage. This was evidenced by the knotty pine baseboards in the basement which showed several inches rotted off. I was feeling so forlorn and cast aside, that I had had to give up our nice home and move to such a place. The landlady had mown down this “weed” that she told me had been the stump I saw when we moved in. As I mowed it repeatedly that first year, the “weed” kept coming back. Soon thereafter, I felt that God wanted the “weed” to grow, so I let it. I was amazed when it grew very tall, so I left it alone. The following spring it bloomed into the most beautiful magnolia bush/tree!! I felt it was a gift from God that He saw us and wanted us to trust Him for the beauty of His provision. Landlady mowed it down again 3 yrs ago and I was grief-stricken for days. I let it grow back and it bloomed again. We moved out a month ago and when I drove by there last week, she’d cut it and ground up the stump. Reminds me that God brings beauty from ashes, but some folks just don’t want to acknowledge it. So thankful for His sign of love to my girls and I. Thank you.

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Alice September 25, 2015 at 9:50 am

Mellanie, thank you for remindng me that we belong to a magnificent Tree of Life. During this time of Pope Francis visit, we are renewed in heart to care for all creation, to care for this beautiful, suffering, sacred tree of creation. Blessings!

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Melannie Svoboda SND September 25, 2015 at 9:57 am

Dear Readers, Thank you so much for your wonderful and inspiring responses to this blog “It Was Only a Tree.” I was touched by your many stories of special trees in your lives… And your urging that we plant another tree. Your comments underscored the sacred connection we humans have to everything on our beloved planet. As Alice said above, Pope Francis’ visit is certainly calling all of us to care for God’s creation… Thanks again! Your many responses enrich my blog. Gratefully, Melannie

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Tom September 26, 2015 at 7:24 pm

Wow, what a response to your reflection on the magnolia. It helped me reflect on the seasons of life, the opportunities and relationships which each provides and the awareness that all seasons, and life itself, eventually pass away.

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