Category Personal Reflections

Good-bye to a Tree

“Every part of nature teaches that the passing away of one life is the making room for another. The oak dies down to the ground, leaving within its rind a rich virgin mould, which will impart a vigorous life to an infant forest. The pine leaves a sandy and sterile soil, the harder woods a strong and fruitful mould. So this constant abrasion and decay makes the soil of my future growth. As I live now so shall I reap.”
—From the Journal of Henry David Thoreau, October 24, 1837

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March, 2014

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A year or two ago, I came across a passage, its source now slipped through the holes in my memory, in which the writer was talking about his grandfather who had received a terminal medical diagnosis and was forced to leave his home. The grandfather had been on the land his whole life, I think in Italy, with all that such long, deep immersion implies...

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My Desperate, Careening Near-Fall, In Eight Steps

I   The Bump
The front of my shoe into the root-raised sidewalk, in the early morning dark, immediate forced lurch and lean, gravity at play, my body a sudden projectile.

II  The Stutter
Left foot down hard, short and choppy, seeking a base, body and brain electric, woke, as they were not the barest moment ago.

III The Thrash
Alarm, surely going down, hard, fast and sprawling, on concrete, drive it, drive it!, right quad fully engaged, firing with everything it has, a millisecond’s wobble, oh no! push push, hang in, oh Lord, a severe rise in the sidewalk just ahead, damn these unkempt, insidious trees!

IV  The Veer
Faster still, a running back at 20 degrees, struggling for yardage and a smidge of stability, momentum forcing my body suddenly right, leaving the sidewalk, toward the sideyard morass, if rocks or roots await there, my ankle is toast.

V   The Stumble
Crashing the weeds, shrubs, indistinct ...

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Outliving Ernest Becker and “The Denial of Death”

In his 1973 Pulitzer Prize-winning work “The Denial of Death,” cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker wove together major threads of psychology, philosophy, anthropology and religion in positing that the central motivating force of human life is the fear of death, which compels us to live in its denial. We do so by not thinking or talking about it much, by drinking and drugging too much, sleepwalking through life as if it were giving us all the time in the world, embracing eternal life doctrines of religion, and by pursuing any number of immortality-seeking “hero” projects in our jobs, sports, the military, hobbies, and private obsessions. (Climbing Everest, making beautiful pots, writing a book, getting rich, becoming a philanthropist with buildings named after us…)

Becker also placed great importance on our embrace of culture—our affiliations with family, community, nation, race, tribe an...

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Big Honkin’ Transitions: Shel Silverstein’s “Where the Sidewalk Ends”

“If I could just freeze this moment!” It’s such a human sentiment, to feel overwhelming joy, peace or contentment and want it never to pass. To hold tight to the bliss. Alas, there is no capturing lightning in a bottle, no holding back the ocean’s tides. Change is the coin of this realm, the only constant. A line from a Shel Silverstein poem, which you can read en toto below, is worth chewing on here:

“There is a place where the sidewalk ends and before the street begins.”

That’s a profound image, that interim between one zone, one solid unchanging thing, and the next. It’s a place of transition, migration, crossing over. When you’re no longer tethered to one place but not settled in the next, either.

That in-between place can have tremendous impact. You have to be careful there: the footing can be dicey, and it’s easy to sprain your ankle and worse.

Attention must be paid.

So now it’s t...

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Transplanting the Catalpa (and Other Notes on Life, Love and Death)

The great illusion is stasis. That what and who we have today will be the same tomorrow. This is ridiculous, of course, when we permit ourselves to think about it for two seconds, but it hangs on with utter tenacity in our psyches, allowing us to face the short-term tasks of our day with relative equanimity while the specter of every last thing’s impermanence is shunted to the background.

Whatever it is—our people, our pets, our homes, our jobs, our health, our wealth—there they are, ready and available and alive in perpetuity. Until they’re not.

That illusion of permanence goes double, it seems to me, for our trees.

Sturdy, rooted, unmovable, voracious, trees upend our sidewalks, shade our homes, drop their leaves then grow them back—season upon season, decade after decade, through heat, cold, and various degrees of neglect from the humans who make use of them.

And there they stand, towering an...

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