Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Companion

A few days ago, a big-leaf maple that I have walked past, and beneath, for nearly 24 years fell in a wind storm.  A friend who follows the same paths as I do came across it the morning after the storm.  I received a photograph, and felt hollowed out, breathless.

I didn't have the heart to go see it right away, but yesterday, toward sunset, I paid it a visit.  There it was:  laid out upon the wide green meadow, its roots open to the air, its trunk shattered and splintered, bits and pieces of it scattered about.  Silence.  Stillness.  In all those years I had never known it to be so silent and so still.  Ah, friend, I foolishly took it for granted you would always be standing there.  The thought of this never occurred to me.

                            Trees

To be a giant and keep quiet about it,
To stay in one's own place;
To stand for the constant presence of process
And always to seem the same;
To be steady as a rock and always trembling,
Having the hard appearance of death
With the soft, fluent nature of growth,
One's Being deceptively armored,
One's Becoming deceptively vulnerable;
To be so tough, and take the light so well,
Freely providing forbidden knowledge
Of so many things about heaven and earth
For which we should otherwise have no word --
Poems or people are rarely so lovely,
And even when they have great qualities
They tend to tell you rather than exemplify
What they believe themselves to be about,
While from the moving silence of trees,
Whether in storm or calm, in leaf and naked,
Night or day, we draw conclusions of our own,
Sustaining and unnoticed as our breath,
And perilous also -- though there has never been
A critical tree -- about the nature of things.

Howard Nemerov, Mirrors and Windows (University of Chicago Press 1958).

Am I being "sentimental"?  Was it "just" a tree?  Well, the sadness of loss comes as it comes.

Farewell, companion.

John Aldridge (1905-1983), "Beslyn's Pond, Great Bardfield"

26 comments:

Denise Hay said...

I completely understand your feeling of loss Stephen. Trees are my friends. I regularly visit a 500 year old oak in Birnham wood (Macbeth). A majestic giant with such presence. Thank you for your wonderful blog. Denise Hay

John Trotman said...

Hello again Mr Pentz. Thank you for this (and for all your posts for us). Gosh, this strikes a chord. The falling or felling of one of the trees, especially the monumental ones, is always a blow which pains me deeply too. Sentimental? Well yes, but in the positive rather than the pejorative sense, surely. At risk of stating the obvious, I would say that your posts very often stake a strong claim for the worth of sentiment, sensitivity to beauty and an openness to uncynical feeling. Quite right too!
Only a short distance from where I write, the fences and warning tape have just gone up around a magnificent but perilously sited oak and we are told that it must come down for public safety. Your feelings for your companion tree have echoes here. Best wishes from the Isle of Wight.

Sam Vega said...

Your point about never having known the tree to be so quiet and still is, I think, quite significant about the way we perceive things. Not exactly "First known when lost", but perhaps first fully known; there is a very solemn stillness to dead things which we often overlook because our mind naturally prefers the phases of growth and flourishing to those of loss and decay. But I think it is therapeutic and a privilege sometimes to be reminded of the whole cycle. Andrew Young's poem "The Fallen Tree" captures something of this:

The shade once swept about your boughs

Quietly obsequious

To the time-keeping sun;

Now, fallen tree, you with that shade are one.

From chalky earth as white as surf

Beneath the uptorn turf

Roots hang in empty space

Like snakes about the pale Medusa's face.

And as I perch on a forked branch,

More used to squirrel's haunch,

I think how dead you are,

More dead than upright post or fence or chair.


Things we love and grow used to are, when they pass, "more dead" than just dead.

The drama may not yet be over, though. There is a big fallen tree near my house which still retains some root-contact with the soil, and puts forth a few green leaves every year. Somehow very sad, yet inspirational at the same time.

Thank you once more for the lovely poem and the paintings.

Maggie Turner said...

So glad that the lone tree's passing was "heard" and honoured by living entities.

“If a tree falls in the forest there are other trees listening.”
― Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World

John Ashton said...

Stephen,

I still vividly remember the aftermath of the hurricane here in 1987 and the devastating aftermath particularly to our trees. Where I lived at the time countless trees were down blocking roads and in our local park, one of the Royal Parks, about 40 trees were uprooted. It was such a sad sight. A place I had known since I was a child, where I’d spent much of my childhood playing, exploring and climbing,and now all of these trees lying on the ground

I recall standing beside an oak tree I was very familiar with, cycling past it almost every day on my journey to work, lying now at full length, roots visible, branches snapped and broken, and thinking of all the lives, as well as its own that had been ended in those moments.

So very sad, and to my thinking, nothing is “just”, be it a tree, a favoured footpath, a place, seemingly unremarkable passed by every day. The loss is felt. I certainly remember feeling it deeply on that day.

Laura D said...

A tender memorial of a special tree from you, and a powerful tribute to all trees from Howard Nemerov. Lovely post.

mary f.ahearn said...

I can share your sadness at the loss of your great companion. The harsh sound of chainsaws have disturbed the peace here recently. Our township has taken down some trees - cottonwoods and sumac - which have grown around a retention pool. Apparently for the pool, pond to be healthy, there should be no woody material growing in, or too close to it. Just this summer I had the great fortune to spot a green heron in the sumacs. That empty space now haunts me.
I recently found this quote from Thales of Miletus that you may find as valid as I did and can be thought of as a tribute to those lost trees we loved -
"The universe is alive, and has fire in it, and is full of gods."
Best wishes for this new year, and thanks, as always, for your blog,
Mary

Damian said...

My condolences. We had a bad ice storm in mid-November that brought down hundreds of trees nearby (probably even thousands once you head up into the mountains). Our biggest oak lost a majority of its branches, like a general being stripped of his medals, but I was most dismayed to see our red maple, probably six years old, split down the trunk and lose two-thirds of its mass. We'd planted that one as a sapling; it really hurt to see it maimed like that.

We had a derecho come through several years ago that snapped one of our pine trees clean in half. I mourn that one too.

Thomas Parker said...

My condolences - your loss is as genuine as any that we experience in this ever-receding world. It put me in mind of something that John Henry Newman wrote:

This present state of things, “the present distress” as St. Paul calls it, is ever close upon the next world, and resolves itself into it. As when a man is given over, he may die any moment, yet lingers; as an implement of war may any moment explode, and must at some time; as we listen for a clock to strike, and at length it surprises us; as a crumbling arch hangs, we know not how, and is not safe to pass under; so creeps on this feeble weary world, and one day, before we know where we are, it will end.

bruce floyd said...



Binsey Poplars
By Gerard Manley Hopkins
felled 1879

My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled;
Of a fresh and following folded rank
Not spared, not one
That dandled a sandalled
Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow & river & wind-wandering weed-winding bank.

O if we but knew what we do
When we delve or hew —
Hack and rack the growing green!
Since country is so tender
To touch, her being só slender,
That, like this sleek and seeing ball
But a prick will make no eye at all,
Where we, even where we mean
To mend her we end her,
When we hew or delve:
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
Strokes of havoc unselve
The sweet especial scene,
Rural scene, a rural scene,
Sweet especial rural scene.

Hopkins is not for everyone, but he shares with you the sorrow at seeing a tree vanish, its "airy cages quelled." Hopkins was ahead of his time when he says that we don't know what we do when "we hack and rack the growing green." Will we ever learn?

Just a note, Steve, I found this blog, shorter than usual but any longer it had been too long, one of your best. I really enjoyed it. I'm sure all your faithful readers agree with me. If they are like me, they want to thank you for teaching us how to see anew.

Bruce

Stephen Pentz said...

Denise: Thank you for those thoughts. That sounds like a venerable and lovely tree. You are fortunate to have it nearby. As ever, thank you for stopping by. It's good to hear from you again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Trotman: It's a pleasure to hear from you again.

Your mention of the oak near you, coupled with Ms. Hay's comment about the oak near her in Scotland, make me envious of the readers of this blog who live in the UK, which I think of (based upon three long ago visits) as the wondrous land of trees.

Your comment about the role of sentiment is perfect. As you know, I have noted here on more than one occasion that I do not believe that "sentiment" or "sentimentality" are feelings to be avoided. Your point is apt: I agree that we should view them "in the positive rather than the pejorative sense." It's very kind of you to say that the posts here "very often stake a strong claim for the worth of sentiment . . . and an openness to uncynical feeling." Thank you. I do hope that this is the case. As you know, I find no value in modern irony, which only serves to distance us from the World.

Thank you very much for your kind words about the blog and for sharing your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Sam Vega: Thank you very much for all of those thought-provoking observations, for sharing the poem by Andrew Young, and for your kind words about the post.

The poem by Young is lovely, and reminds me of another of his poems, "The Old Tree," which contains these lines: "A stump of soft touchwood/Dead to all hopes and fears." As well as these: "Riddled by worms' small shot,/Empty of all desire,/It smolders in its rot,/A pillar of damp fire." In the 1960 edition of his Collected Poems, "The Old Tree" is faced by a lovely full-page wood engraving of an old tree by the wonderful engraver Joan Hassall, who (as you probably know) provided a number of engravings for that edition of Young's poems.

Your mentioning "first known when lost" is a nice coincidence: the phrase in fact crossed my mind as I was writing the post. But I thought: "No, I did know that tree." But your point nicely and accurately corrects what, thanks to you, I now realize was a hasty and incorrect conclusion on my part. You are exactly right: "first fully known" when lost.

Your points about the "very solemn stillness" of things that have died and it being "therapeutic and a privilege sometimes to be reminded of the whole cycle" are lovely and reassuring. I am reminded of the small dead mole that I came across, and wrote about here, last year.

Your final point that "the drama may not yet be over, though" resonates with me as well. A few years ago, beside a path I walk, one of the trunks of a tall, fork-trunked cherry tree fell during the winter. I felt a similar sadness and shock. But, the following spring, white blossoms and fresh leaves appeared on the boughs of the fallen trunk. A lovely surprise. I wonder how long this will continue.

As always, thank you very much for visiting, and for sharing your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Ms. Turner: That is a touching and lovely thought. Thank you very much for sharing it. I do know that the tree's passing is mourned around here, and that it has been visited by many.

Thank you as well for the quote from Mr. Wohlleben's book, which sounds intriguing.

Thank you for stopping by again.

Stephen Pentz said...

John: Thank you very much for sharing those thoughts: even now, those losses must remain painful for you. Over the years, I have read accounts of the trees lost in the 1987 hurricane, and its always brings sadness. As you suggest, losses such as these remind us of the wonderful role that trees play in our lives. As you say: "The loss is felt."

I wholly agree with you: "nothing is 'just'". The empty space that I now will see nearly every day will be a reminder of what has been lost -- as well as a reminder never to take anything for granted.

As always, thank you very much for visiting.

Stephen Pentz said...

Laura D: Thank you very much for your kind words about the post. Nemerov's poem is lovely, isn't it? It is a poem that has been with me for years, so I am not surprised that it came to mind at a time like this.

Thank you for visiting again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mary: Thank you very much for sharing those thoughts. "That empty space now haunts me" is a lovely way of describing the loss. And thank you so much for the quotation from Thales of Miletus, which is new to me: it is wonderful, and I will not forget it.

As ever, it is a pleasure to hear from you. I wish you all the best in the new year as well. Please return soon.

Stephen Pentz said...

Damian: I can imagine that losing a tree, or having one severely damaged, at your home must be especially difficult, particularly one that you have seen grow up in front of you. This experience has been a good reminder for me: although I like to think that I am aware of the evanescence of life and of the World around us, I am no doubt deluding myself. We always need these wake-up calls, painful as they may be.

Thank you very much for your thoughts, and for visiting again.

Wurmbrand said...

One of the sources of J. R. R. Tolkien's story "Leaf by Niggle" was, he tells us in the introductory note to Tree and Leaf, "a great-limbed poplar tree that I could see even lying in bed. It was suddenly lopped and mutilated by its owner, I do not know why. It is cut down now, a less barbarous punishment for any crimes it may have been accused of, such as being large and alive. I do not think it had any friends, or any mourners, except myself and a pair of owls."

That came to mind when I saw this posting.

Tolkien's reminiscence reminded me of the delight I felt when I heard an owl hooting in our yard. In fact, I was able to record it on my iPad -- a memento.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Parker: Thank you for your kind words, as well as for the passage from Newman, which I had not seen before. "The present state of things . . . is ever close upon the next world, and resolves itself into it." This is a beautiful way of putting it. As I noted in my response just above to Damian's comment, one's awareness of the transience of all things (including ourselves) is aided by occasional reminders from unexpected quarters. Your phrase is a fine one: "this ever-receding world." A suggestion by Marcus Aurelius comes to mind: "Undertake each action as one aware he may next moment depart out of life." (Meditations, Book II, Section 11 (translated by Francis Hutcheson and James Moor, 1742). But this sort of wisdom has been stated and restated at all times and in all places, hasn't it? The trick is to take it to heart.

Thank you very much for visiting again, and for sharing your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Bruce: Thank you for sharing "Binsey Poplars," which perfectly complements, and expands upon, what I and the commenters have said. I've always found it hard to read the poem because I find it so sad. We cannot feel as strongly as Hopkins felt, because he was there, but his anguish enters us. I find the last three lines especially affecting. And this: "After-comers cannot guess the beauty been."

Thank you very much for your kind words about the post -- that is quite nice of you to say. But, as far as "teaching" anyone to "see anew," although I deeply appreciate your kindness in saying that, I'm afraid I must demur: I am not in a position to teach anybody anything. We are all in this together, as evidenced by this wonderful string of comments by all of you, and we learn from each other. Let's say we are all students and we are all teachers when it comes to seeing things anew in this World.

As always, thank you very much for your presence here.

Stephen Pentz said...

Wurmbrand: Thank you for those lovely thoughts. Being, alas, ignorant of Tolkien's work, I hadn't heard of "Leaf by Niggle" (or Tree and Leaf). I have now done some quick research, and I am going to make my entry into his work via them. (Which gives me an opportunity to thank you again for the recommendation of Sudden Heaven: The Collected Poems of Ruth Pitter, which I continue to enjoy.)

Your owl anecdote is wonderful. And you still have its hoot with you!

Thank you very much for visiting again. It's always good to hear from you.

Anonymous said...

A coincidence -- Maggie Turner mentioned "The Hidden Life of Trees" by Peter Wohlleben. A young close friend of mine in Berlin sent me a copy (in English) for Christmas. It sounds fascinating -- I look forward to reading it.
This post made me think of my current reading: I read one entry from Thoreau's journal almost every day. This isn't the first time I've thought that you might enjoy reading some of Thoreau. His journal entry for December 30, 1851 is an outstanding example; an account of the felling (even worse, human agency, not Nature's as your loss was) of a great white pine.
I'll quote just one sentence: "A plant which it has taken two centuries to perfect rising by slow stages into the heavens -- has this afternoon ceased to exist." The entire entry is as painful reading as "Binsey Poplars".

I look forward to whatever we will hear & see from you in this new year. Susan

Stephen Pentz said...

Susan: That book does seem to strike the fancy of many of us, doesn't it? In nosing around Amazon, I noticed that an "Illustrated Edition" with "selections" in an English translation was published this past August. I suspect the book, in one form or another, is in my future.

Thank you for sharing the passage from Thoreau, although -- as you say -- it does make for painful reading (even that single sentence). And thank you for the suggestion that I would enjoy reading him: I'm ashamed to say that, apart from passages here and there, my ignorance of his works is profound. I need to correct that.

It's very nice to hear from you in the new year. I look forward to continuing our conversation. I wish you all the best in the coming year.

dfleischer said...

I'm sorry for your loss.

Donna

Stephen Pentz said...

Donna: Thank you. I appreciate your thought.

It's nice to hear from you again. As always, thank you very much for stopping by.