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 and imperious and solid as the buildings they often front.


And so it is that the giant catalpa tree that has graced and presided over my front yard since the day we moved in here more than 22 years ago (and no doubt for many years before that), is beset with rot from an unknown source that will kill it long before I assumed it would. It would surely outlive me, I had always assumed, giving it nary a thought.

I had aided and abetted its longevity, after all, with regular (and pricey) trimmings, the arborists coming in with their swivel buckets and chain saws, strategically scaling back branches so nothing groaned overly much with the burdens of the tree’s relentless focus on extending itself out and up to the heavens.

None of that matters now as this spiritual giant I have admired almost daily over the decades continues its inexorable decline.

This is the first time a progeny had ever grown in the parent tree’s shadow. Consider that for just a second, if you will: in the parent tree’s first death throes, it had reproduced itself successfully for the very first time.

Those who pass cursorily by while walking the neighborhood do not see its travail, the tree recovering from its first inartful pruning three years ago (my previous accomplished pruner having retired) to produce a healthy enough looking crop this year. It has been a joy again to see and feel its characteristic leaves the size of elephant ears, with a felt-soft veneer. But to behold its base, where the bark has lost touch with the tree’s interior flesh, dried and ready for peeling like old dead skin from a sunburned shoulder, is to understand that no cavalry or tree oncologist will be riding in to rescue it for me, its resident family, now turned caregiver and vigilant Hospice volunteer.

It’s hard to imagine my yard and this house without its central pillar and lord of the manor. Just months ago, before I noted its bark decay and consulted a tree-learned friend who conveyed, in somber terms, its terminal status, I had brought an electrician in to train spotlights on it, handsome as it still remains through day and night.

Now I think of spotlights shining on…what, some sprig of a replacement I quickly bring in lest the barren ground darken my days?


This morning, in its waning summer glory


One gets older and a curious thing takes place: the grieving over losses cuts deeper and appears more intractable, even as the resolve to get on with life’s living and loving feels all the more urgent. The weight of loss grows heavier while the impetus for gaiety and communion gathers strength and endurance.

One learns to bathe more readily and joyfully in countless small moments that add up to the large story of a life.

My chiropractor of nearly 30 years died two weeks ago today, aged 56. Alec was the healthiest person I had ever known, a lean athletic machine—runner, rock climber, cyclist, avid everything, with a sunny and affirming disposition to match. He’d contracted, bizarrely, a serious lung cancer six years ago, losing a lung and becoming only half the gifted, hard-working runner he had been. But he was alive, and the surgeons thought they’d “got it,” but of course one nevertheless watches and waits and hopes on every next check-up’s all-clear report, and then his cancer returned and he was dead within months.

Alec Isabeau

It struck me as I found out, too late to have said good-bye to him after my travels in recent months, that he had had his hands on me over the decades probably more than anyone in my life save for a few select women. It’s a curious intimacy that develops between a patient lying in his underwear on the table while the practitioner leans over and wraps his arms around the person’s torso, searching with his finger for the magic juncture of joint on which he will then lean hard and deftly while eliciting the desired and satisfying crackle and pop.

“There we go!” he would exclaim, quietly, then instruct me to turn over for similar exertions on the other side. All the while the rot of the cancer just under the shining goodness of his smile and skin lurked, ready to claim his life.


Almost simultaneously with the terminal diagnosis of my tree, I noted a tiny sprout, obviously a volunteer, inhabiting a corner of a large container on my patio in which I annually plant deep purple-scarlet-green coleus that flourish through spring and summer, only to die forlornly in the first cold freezes of November. Watching the sprout grow heartily over weeks, I recognized it as a baby catalpa, mere inches tall at first but then growing to a foot or more and presenting the inaugural version of its parent’s large soft leaves.

This is the first time a progeny had ever grown in the parent tree’s shadow. Consider that for just a second, if you will: in the parent tree’s first death throes, it had reproduced itself successfully for the very first time.

“Interesting…” we might say in response, meaning a great deal more than that word conveys.

Then I had the thought that maybe, just maybe, I could nurture the sprig for a few months in the planter and get it into the ground its parent now occupies, the generations succeeding each other in a replica of the loss, grief and renewal we feel when beholding the children of a departed friend, doing their parent proud by showing dignity, humor and grace through an afternoon’s eulogy and memorial receiving line.

Then I realized I could perhaps go the little child one better by removing it from its constraining container and getting it into the ground to flourish as it can only in the generous welcoming earth.

Though I’m not yet ready to end its parent’s mortal days and then plant the child in its place, perhaps I can stretch the parent’s life out six or even 18 months, while the child gets a running start of sun, rain and other nutrients that will afford it stature and strength for the years ahead.

This strategy calls for not one transplant but two—the first yesterday under blessedly gray skies (better for both the tree and me), as I moved it from its pot in front to a nice spot open to the sun in the backyard.

The second will call for digging up what I hope will be a much more substantial tree at that time, then bringing its parent’s life to an end and moving the youngster into the parent’s slot, where the soil and spotlights and memories of its parent by the attending humans will be waiting, ready to give it a hand.


Top row: getting at the root ball. Bottom: Full tree, detail, freshly transplanted stalk


I’d transplanted only one tree in my life, when I moved to this house and brought over a prized small maple. It died within a few months, and I didn’t know enough to determine whether something in my technique, such as it was, had failed it, or it just didn’t get enough of what it needed in its new home.

But with the help of my tree-learned friend who was consulting with me over the phone yesterday, I thought this would surely go quickly and easily enough.

It did not, though I believe it had a good result.

What surprised me was the relatively huge and intricate tangle of roots that had to be carefully dislodged from the soil and pot where they were clinging with far more tenacity than I thought them capable of.

Such a small stalk, such a substantial bulwark of life already poured into its being.

My friend told me to save as much of the root system as possible, which meant no quick snips around a defined perimeter, no rushing off to get it into the ground.

Instead, I slowly removed what turned out to be all the dirt from the large pot it had been sharing with my coleus, tugging gently at a hundred strands of root to work the dirt off its entrails and get my fingers under the bottom of its spine, as it were.

Though the roots did not exhale with any satisfying crackle and pop,  I finally got far enough down and around their ball to dislodge the plant intact and be more or less in possession of the thick network of strands with which it had fortified itself against attempts to halt its life trajectory.

By the time I got it in the ground and tucked in under its obligatory three inches of compost followed by a long slow drink of water, a warm wave of relief and satisfaction had washed over me.

I had done something to (possibly) secure a future for this upstart of a tree, consoled myself with that thought in the face of what I am losing, and, no matter what actually winds up happening, I had been out under the sky, my hands in dirt, wielding tools in the service of a living thing and a dying thing, the circle of life endlessly looping and coming back to itself, never exactly to the place where it began.

Alec would have been pleased for that alone.


Such grandeur in a tree, and in a human life well lived. I see my tree now through 22 years, its seasons of budding and sprouting, fullness and shedding, barrenness and renewal.

And my chiro of even longer duration, whom I considered my primary health care provider, gone now, mourned deeply by all those whose lives he touched, both literally and in all the other ways he did. No transplant could save him, just as it will not save my catalpa, though like Alec did, it will enjoy a reprieve before its days are brought to an end.

It’s odd and not altogether explicable what we remember, what in the endlessly streaming video our lives present to us we latch onto about a certain person at a certain time and circumstance. I can see and hear and even smell Alec in a thousand different moments, his expressions most always either joyful or deeply attentive.

And as much as I saw him while out running or hiking or looking up at him from the office table, I recall a particular flash of a moment in which I was walking on a busy street up from my house and all of a sudden, like an upstart wind, here comes Alec busting around a corner on his road bike, trailed closely by his buddy Louie, just tearing it up, head down, legs pumping furiously.

As I glance quickly to behold the blur, there he is, joyful and blissed, half-smile on his face like the most satisfied, contented saint. He is in his element, moving through life, using his muscles and those lungs that would later turn on him, exultant for the freedom of movement that he never stopped praising as a glorious, achievable and well-deserved end in itself for all those willing to inhabit the gift their bodies present to them with each sunrise.

Highlighting the lovely poem of Joyce Kilmer, set to music with Paul Robeson doing the honors…

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Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.

Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.

Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact:

Tree photos by Andrew Hidas

Alec Isabeau courtesy of Larry Meredith

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

  • Mark  says:

    Beautifully written, Andrew. Alec was an amazing person.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Thank you, Mark. Couldn’t agree more. He was one of the very best people I have ever known.

  • Kevin Feldman  says:

    Wonderfully lyrical post my friend – age old observations rendered fresh and full of insight… can relate to your comments about Alec (and Mark’s) – a more alive person I don’t think I’ve ever met – and so damn encouraging, no matter what complaint or physical issue I had, I always left being with Alec not simply feeling better physcially, but inspired to engage in life more fully… the rippling effects of his life will be felt for a very long time…Thanks so much – made my Sunday! (also left me with even more appreciation of our old fig tree, that our arborist neighbor/friend, Matt Thompson, has helped us nurse along for the past 20 yrs – it is gnarly as can be but still thriving …like many of US!)

  • Andrew Hidas  says:

    Yes, Kevin, the void that an early death like this leaves is pretty much incalculable. He was one of those “people of the sun” who made everyone around him feel better and more alive, and he grafted all that onto an insatiable curiosity, love of learning, and a natural healing touch.

  • Karen  says:

    Your reverence for the aged (or middle-aged in the case of Alec) and your nurturing of the young are both quite evident in this tale of the catalpas. It is telling of the way you move through life. Thanks for being you Andrew.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Aw, thanks, Karen. I’m just paddling as best as I can here, trying not to tip over! :-)

  • Jay Helman  says:

    We are passing much time with a wonderful and spry 92 year old this summer who, for the first time in our experience, is beginning to talk and emote about her feelings of having reached this age. Beset with not feeling well recently, she remarked that “I think I am slowly dying, but don’t tell my daughter I said that.” As we drove away we agreed that she is, in fact, slowly dying. At 92, she is being realistic and reasonable. Her greatest fear is becoming a burden to her adult offspring. Though holding her confidentiality close, we shared with her son and daughter the concern expressed about becoming a burden. They, of course, were sensitive to that and have been/are supportive and attentive to their mom. Another 92 year-old shared with me last week that she and her 95 year old ex-husband (and father to her “kids”) will not be around much longer so they take comfort in the friendships and support exhibited by the many cousins in attendance at the family reunion. Not too long before his death, my father uttered a wonderful response to a doctor who had remarked that “John, you are 92, you know” as he assessed one in a series of setbacks that required more tests and diagnoses. My dad said, “Well, hell, I’ve never been 92 before, so I don’t know what it’s supposed to feel like.” The 90-somethings this summer have never been in this territory before, but they know enough to understand that the run is nearly complete. Having never been there, none of us 60-somethings can offer much in the way of insight for them. But we can be with them, listen to them, respect and feel gratitude for the experiential insight they provide us for living up to, and into, this advanced age of human experience.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Jay, it’s impressive how much more clear certain things become with age, provided no major organic cognitive decline. One of them is gladness/relief one can still cogitate on such matters, but the older one gets, a strange fear also enters the picture: What if I were to outlive all my friends, contemporaries, all the people who “knew me when?” A different kind of dark thought! Another is that if we’re still alive, we have now seen a lot of people age and die, and what you are describing becomes much more evident, a territory one has traversed before in witnessing decline. I’d like to think I’m realistic enough to recognize it in myself when the time comes, as your 92-year-old friend does, but the paradox is that one has to remain sharp & aware enough to notice, and that acuity can vary greatly in the aged.

      And man, can I relate to the fear of becoming a burden! My nightmare scenario, to which I have given plentiful thought. Hope to string those thoughts together sometime in this space.

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