Everything that is living must one day die. This is part of the law of nature — inevitable, inescapable. I know this to be true, even when I wish it were otherwise. Death and decay are necessary for renewal and revitalization. It is part of the cycle that is life.
Farming at the human scale can be a real teacher about death and dying — the more difficult side of the responsibilities of stewardship. When you are a tender of the earth and its plants and animals, making the tough calls around death are necessary. It does not mean that they are easy. Some of my hardest moments on the farm have been in relationship to dealing with death, and yet they have also taught me greatly about the preciousness of life and the role of the merciful end of suffering. The longer and deeper the relationship, the harder it is to face off with its demise.
The loss of our childhood swing tree several years ago in a terrifying summer storm broke my heart. It’s canopy was huge, and it was one of originally five ancient sugar maples that stood between the farmhouse and the strong north winds coming off the pasture and hayfield. In autumn, this collection of five ancient sugar maples turned a most vibrant palate of harvest oranges, golds and reds.
These were giving trees — shade in the heat of summer, maple sap in springtime, homes for birds and squirrels. When the swing tree came down, it took us three years to chop it up and split it into firewood to warm us through the winter months. Even in death, the tree was a giver, after so many years standing protective over the farm.
Grandpa tells a story of coming up to the farm only a few years after they had bought it (1968) to find that a terrible storm had blown through and taken the tops out of all five of the sugar maples. At the time, Grandma had bemoaned that they would have to come down, but Grandpa advocated to let them be and see how they fared. One of them did not pull through, and it stood as a woodpecker obelisk throughout my childhood until it rotted away and we took it down. The rest managed to regrow new tops and carry on.
But this carrying on was not without scars. The torn top in the maple closest to the farmhouse invited water and animals and began rotting out the core of the tree. In its twisted trunk grew a gaping hole, which opened into the cavernous interior of the tree’s hollowed trunk.
Despite all this, the canopy grew and flourished for another 50 years becoming majestic and impressively tall. But as time progressed, the results of its wounds became more pronounced. The tree began to lean, almost imperceptibly at first. Level with the hole in its side, it began to crunch like a stress fracture, drawing that heavy crown of branches and leaves further off-center toward the house.
This spring, the lean was terrifyingly pronounced, making it vulnerable to storm damage. And it was obvious that the only way it would come down was on the farmhouse. It was time to make that difficult and heartbreaking decision to take this old friend down before she fell.
The day before The Tree Guys arrived with their boom and saws, I wrapped my arms around the old maple, telling her in my mind what was going to happen and why and how sorry I was to see her go. Immediately, I felt the tree responding to my message. It was visceral, distinct and firm, and I know I was not making it up because my first reaction was surprise. The message from the tree was that she was in pain, that she was growing old and couldn’t hold up her burden much longer. She understood and accepted what had to happen.
It does not surprise me that trees could experience pain. It did surprise me that the tree wished to speak to me about it, like an old friend who is dying and wants you to know that they are at peace with the inevitable. It changed how I faced that next day (though it didn’t change that I cried at the sound of the saws), standing in the forever altered space of the barnyard without this majestic presence.
It took several days to fully take down the tree, in part because the crew was called away because someone else had a massive tree fall on their house, its limbs smashing into kitchen and living room. All this reinforced the validity of our decision. And the tree told her own story about the truth of her decay — the rot going from top to bottom, all the way down to the soil line. “She was in a bad way,” the arborist agreed.
And so, while I still struggle with the sadness of losing the third of these five giving trees, I also accept that this is part of the task of stewardship — to make those difficult calls when waiting is more cruel, dangerous or unresponsible.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. She can be reached at 715-462-3453 or www.northstarhomestead.com.