Lament for a Tree
It was a morning like any other, except for the chainsaws. They started early—before my two-year-old was even up—and continued on well past her afternoon nap.
While the coffee brewed, I peeked out the back window and saw them: hard hats in highlighter yellow dotting the tree line, and our tree in particular. Our urban backyard is a postage stamp: a geometric square of brick herringbone, four fenced walls, and a couple raised beds of ostrich ferns. Our postage stamp has no grass to mow, and no trees of our own, though we have long borrowed the shade of the sprawling boughs of our neighbor’s tree just over the fence.
From our tiny outdoor space, you can see into the windows of ten other rowhouses all backed up against ours. Such is the nature of the city. But amid the tangle of power lines and plastic siding, this tree has always been like something out of the Hundred Acre Wood: its trunk wide as an Ent’s, its leaves the precise shade of green that makes you unclench your jaw, its sheer age and presence some kind of existential consolation.
In all the chaos of life, here was something solid, something that provided shelter.
But now there was a truck with deep-tread wheels and city emblems parked at her base. I watched as the bucket crane lifted like some unholy chalice, the city worker raising his chainsaw as the whirring began anew.
At first I thought they were just taking care of the branches that were crowding the power lines, which needed to be taken care of. But it wasn’t until hours later, after working in my home office at the other end of the house, that I saw she was gone completely.
I felt it like a suckerpunch in some deep place usually reserved for the loss of loved ones. My daughter and I went out into the back alley to investigate, after the bucket crane packed up and rolled away, and found only the stump.
The green of her former glory was reduced to a ghost in the air: the smell of sap musk and fresh mulch, which was cast around the stump like scattered ashes.
I had been hoping to find some leaves—some clue—to what kind of tree she was, but the search came up dry. We’d known her for years, but somehow we’d never know her name.
How many summers, winters, sunrises had this tree seen? She had witnessed so much of our lives for so long: summer water “painting” on the back brick, popsicle parties, firepit evenings. My daughter was born six months into the pandemic, in that tenuous pre-vaccine era, and some of my most peaceful quarantine memories are stealing away during naptime to sit on our second-story back porch in the shade and green canopy.
Sitting under our tree felt like stepping into time outside of time, or what the Celts might call a thin place.1 Even better, the Wi-Fi was terrible out there, so I could escape even the algorithms and restless scrolling for a while.
Now, without her, any semblance of green out back was gone, leaving only the negative space of cloudless sky and cracked siding. What was once a haven of sun-dappled shade was now exposed to full-bore sun.
As the weeks walk forward through Lent, the days grow longer and brighter. The green has begun its gentle return: first through the tiny assertions of snowdrop buds, then the daffodils, the cherry blossoms. Suddenly Easter is here, and all this warmth and green is enough to make anyone feel alive again.
I believe in all things made new, that we are participants in this story that is ever-unfolding toward renewal. But spring—resurrection—does not come for us on cue even if the cherry blossoms and alleluias do. It does not come for us on demand or on our timeline. Sometimes it does not even come within our lifetime. For most of us, we live in the brutality of the meantime.
The meantime is a place where old trees and good dogs are put down, where women place yet another negative pregnancy test on the sink with the heavy heart of recent losses. It’s a place where parents have to face the first birthday, the first everything, after their nine-year-old didn’t come home from school, where we try yet another pain treatment after a string of tries that made no difference, where, on some surreal Saturday, we divide up the furniture with the one we thought would be our forever.
Like the trees, we will all be returned to the earth. Lent tells us this openly. And Easter—while a celebration, while resurrection is real—is not an undo button of the pain and loss we have endured. Like trees, and like the God who became human, our bodies bear the scars and tell the stories of all we’ve lived through.
It does no good to say the pain did not happen. It does no good to insist on the bright side with the remains of what was clearly in view. This is not good news. This is not honest hope, and if hope is not honest, it is no hope at all.
When my toddler daughter discovered the tree was gone, she cried. I cried with her, because two is so young for a heart to break. But I am teaching her—and teaching myself—that we can learn from the wisdom of the green kingdom: like the trees and their rings, we can keep time. Offer shelter where we can. Witness the world. And lament when we need to.
Mari Andrew writes in her wonderful poem Tree Rings,
“I want to carry pain like a tree does.
Let the rings of my experiences push me to grow wider and stronger.
I never want to forget each ring that holds everything I’ve witnessed, loved, and lost,
But I want to keep expanding.”2
All things will be made new, but the scars remain and deserve to be seen. Our tree rings tell the truth of all we’ve lived through, all we carry, whether we find ourselves in the thrill of new spring or the brutalities of the meantime. In all the chaos of life, here is something solid, something that can provide shelter.
Stephanie Duncan Smith is an executive editor at Baker Books, where she takes great joy in coaching and championing authors to bring the best out of their message. She’s worked in publishing for over 13 years, developing bestselling and award-winning writers, and personally pens SLANT LETTER, an email newsletter for writers looking to deepen their craft and tend to the soul of their work.
She received her masters in theology from Western Theology Seminary, where she was the two-time winner of the Frederick Buechner Excellence in Writing award. In all her work, she believes writing can be a profound practice of spiritual formation, and that the editorial process, at its best, is a pastoral process.
Stephanie lives with her husband, Zach, and their toddler daughter on the east coast. You can find her on Instagram at @stephduncansmith.