In honor of Earth Day, I’d like to tell you about an ash tree of my childhood. This reflection is based on my book When the Rain Speaks: Celebrating God’s Presence in Nature.
The ash tree (a white ash) grew on the east side of our big yellow farm house by the side porch. It was taller than our two-story house–probably about forty feet tall–with a “wing span” of about forty feet as well. The tree was a buffer against the cold east wind in the winter and a provider of cool shade in the hot summer. But the tree was much more than that for me and my siblings.
The tree was our playground. We often climbed up into its sturdy branches where we pretended the afternoon away. Sometimes we imagined the tree was a huge military cargo plane trying to make a landing with only one of its four engines still sputtering. We marveled how my two brothers managed to bring the plane down safely every time. Or the tree became our tree house in which we lounged, giggled, and shared secrets. The tree measured our growth too. One by one we all got tall enough to swing up onto its lower branches without a boost. It was the high platform from which the bravest of us would jump and flap our arms in our earnest but futile attempts to fly.
The tree was our personal set of monkey bars, providing us with numerous branches to crawl up and dangle from. It was a lookout tower from which we could see clear over to the next farm. And the ash tree became our hiding place when Mom was cooking up more chores for us to do.
And all the while the tree just stood there. Solid. Rooted. Immovable. It never sought shelter from the storms. It never said a word either, but day after day it welcomed us beneath its shade or up into its branches–no questions asked. The tree was forgiving. Most of the time we took its presence for granted. More than once we nailed signs into its limbs, but it never retaliated. The tree was the silent sentinel of our childhood.
The tree was still standing when a nearby airport expanded and took our farm, burned down our farm house, and cleared the land for a golf course. Our old ash tree was felled, a victim of “progress” as so many other trees have been throughout history. The writer Sister Macrina Wiederkehr wrote that at one time in her life her spiritual director was a tree. That makes perfect sense to me, for I have always felt our ash tree, like many other trees, exuded a wisdom unsurpassed by most other living things. As the psychologist Carl Jung once said to a colleague, “Sometimes a tree tells you more than you can read in books.”
To this day I am amazed how a single tree could have had such an impact on my growing up. When I recall this tree, these words and images come effortlessly to mind: friend, playmate, confidant, shelter, sage, nanny, grandfather–and even God.
Are there any special trees in your life? Notice the trees today as you walk or drive along.
Have you ever had a tree planted in memory of someone or as a gift for someone? Check out these places:
* Trees in Celebration/Trees in Memory at arborday.com
* Jewish National Fund: Tree Planting Center: www.jnf.org
* Nature Conservancy: One dollar. One Tree. One planet: www.plantabillion.org
* Food for the Poor: www.FoodForThePoor.org/special gifts (In honor of my niece Melannie being awarded her PhD, I’m having two fruit-bearing trees planted that will provide a poor family with nutritious food and additional income.)