THE TEACHINGS OF A TREE
At the house I have been renting for the past five years, there is a large ash tree in the yard. It offers generous shade through the increasingly warm days of our heated up planet. It’s a romping ground for squirrels, and for most of the year I have a deep appreciation for it. But in these months it drops all its leaves, a process that takes more than 10 weeks to complete. Which means that every day I rake up piles of leaves, fill up the green trash cans and then move on to lawn and leaf bags which I then put in the back of my car and haul to city dumpsters. The alternative would be to misplace my pets beneath voluminous piles of leaves and that just isn’t acceptable. In case you’re wondering — yes, I have a gardener. But that’s just one day, and the leaves accumulate an hour after he leaves.
I didn’t think I would still be in this house for the current round of leaf dropping. I assumed I would have bought a house many months ago — I was confident of it, as if being able to buy a house magically makes the right one appear. I even said to friends, “Yay! I won’t have to rake up leaves this year. I’ll be in my own house.” But it hasn’t worked out like that, so I grudgingly set out with my rake every afternoon.
I think because, at the moment, there are things weighing on me in my life, occasionally bringing tears up from deeper places I can’t ignore, I have looked at this task with some resentment, which I didn’t really feel in years past. I even said to the gardener the other day, “I hate this tree.” That’s not true, and I corrected myself as soon as I said it. This tree has lived for decades, presiding over different occupants of the house, surviving storms and droughts and whatever the seasons might bring. Small children have swung from its branches in pink plastic swings, which were there when I moved in. And truthfully, I don’t hate any tree.
The other day, as I scooped piles of leaves into trash bags, I thought, Being grumpy about this isn’t helping anything, and it isn’t fun to feel like this. I stopped what I was doing and looked around — at thin paintbrush clouds across the blue sky, at the graceful dance of orange leaves as they swirled toward the ground, at the tree that’s probably older than me and goes through its yearly ritual with a dependability that’s hard to find anywhere outside of nature — and I decided to look at the whole thing differently. As a sort of metaphor. There is something exquisite about shedding what is dead and no longer useful so that new life can sprout. In a few months, brilliant green leaves will appear on the branches of this tree. I decided to look at my daily task of cleaning up what has fallen away as an emblem of what I need to do within myself — shed and release what’s dead and over with, whatever is holding me to the past and keeping the future at arm’s length, so I can make room for new growth. Suddenly, my daily task was not an obligation, it was a spiritual exercise. I look forward to it now; I treat it as a kind of active meditation.
I’m a strong believer in the idea that we can always look at any situation from a different angle. But it’s not always easy to put that idea into practice in one’s own life. There is an inherent wisdom in nature — a balance, a movement of cycles that’s miraculous if you’re quiet enough to really observe it. Sadly, the powers that be in our country right now have chosen destruction over reverence. They’ll never learn what trees and rivers and ocean tides can teach. If we’re lucky, the willing students who cherish nature will prevail. If not, we all lose.