Monday, February 8, 2010

Snow Fallen Tree

Something has to be said about the seventy foot pine tree that fell across my yard at the height of the Blizzard of Ten. It was standing when snow began to drift from the sky around noon on Friday. Its thin needles and curving branches caught the steady snow and held it despite the rising wind.

But sometime after midnight, things changed. The wind skirled around my home sounding like angry bagpipes. I woke and ventured down the stairs without turning on a light. It was snow-bright, the inside of the house lit with the odd light of the fallen snow. I looked out each of the windows and stared at the swift, white snowflakes slanting on the wind. This is an old habit; when I was young, the room I shared with my sister sat at the front of our old house and when it snowed, I would leave my bed and kneel at the window to watch the snow pour into the yellow pool of the streetlight below my window. I did this again on Friday night, remembering, in a whirl, all the storms that so stirred me with wonder and with gratefulness that I was kept warm.

The small town of my childhood measured a mere two square miles. In the town’s center stood the single fire station which blew a blast of a horn that we could hear anywhere when something caught fire. Once while visiting friends who lived on the fire station street, I played on the sidewalk beneath the rock wall that bordered the yard. The fire horn blasted! An instant later, a volunteer fireman dashed across the lawn and jumped over us landing in the street, halfway to the station. We watched and waited for the firetruck to screech away to the rescue.
The pine tree in attendance at one of our happiest hours
The fire horn had other uses. If it snowed, the horn was our signal. I remember standing on the porch early in the morning, a blizzard swirling around me. I waited to hear the three short blasts, which if sounded at precisely seven in the morning, told everyone to stay home from school. Through the windy snow I heard them, one, two, three blasts! This signaled a day of outdoor wonder and adventure building snow caves, sledding, shoveling snow off the frozen ponds so we could skate. One year we built a snow cave so high it could fit three of us. Inside we fashioned ice shelves for our lunch things and picnicked there to eat in the vague blue light.
Serving as the center for the "candy bar" at the wedding
During a storm without warning in this small town, in that old house, lightning hit the chimney; bricks crashed in the window and smashed holes in the roof. It seems to me that mishap was the last straw -- a sign for my parents, twho had grown tired of patching up an old house with scarce and hard-earned money. Though the chimney was repaired, we moved shortly after.

This week, though, in the middle of the night as I peered out at the blizzard, I worried that my neighbor’s cedar tree, between her porch and ours, would fall. Its feathery leaves seemed to hold the snow until the branches looked like hammocks full; snow weighed the boughs as the tree groaned and swayed. Lightning flashed and flashed again, making the white snow dull. The wind’s noise muffled the thunder’s blast.
I went to the back of the house to watch. A few wise and prophetic family members had warned us about the pine tree. My husband was frustrated with it because hundreds of messy pinecones fell from it. To be just, I have to say that many of these were actually thrown from the tree by the dozens of hungry, flower-eating, apple-thieving gray squirrels that terrorize our yard. They eat the pine cones like apples (they eat the apples, too.) and throw the cores onto the patio. If we swept up for a party, not an hour later, they littered the patio anew with the nibbled trash. But this wasn’t the tree’s fault.

My children have worried aloud that the tree would fall and urged us to fell it. They objected to the way it swayed in the wind and it’s daunting height with its tuft of branches like a bushy haircut making it top heavy. We nearly cut it down when we were landscaping the back yard for the recent weddings, but I loved it and wanted to keep it.
the table Andrew built for the wedding

I loved it because it was tall and always green. It shaded the back yard and looked great from the front of the house towering above the roof line. In its branches birds gathered to rest and sing. Once I saw a hummingbird perched there for a moment; another time I saw two hummingbirds hovering together at its branches in swift, amazing sympathy. The tree was a host, a solid presence. One late summer night when my children returned from visiting a hospitalized friend, they called me out to see the tree. Alive with the green-yellow lights of a thousand fireflies, the tree was a lantern, lifting our hearts, filling our imaginations. Never again did we see it so illuminated.
In the flashing sound of the blizzard’s lightning, I did not remember the reasons it had been fingered to fall, but I felt stirred as if something bigger than me was happening. I wandered back into the center of my home toward the stairs. I heard it fall. There was a swish, a rustle and then a muffled thump.

Seeing it toppled down, broken at its base, brought a tear to my eye. When I saw how big it really was  stretched across the yard, its brushy top caught in the neighbor’s fence, I felt as small as I had when the fireman leapt over me. When I saw how carefully it had fallen, missing our house, our neighbor’s house, inches from our well pump, something stood quiet in my shuddering heart. I was kept safe again. Awake and alone, in my jammies and sweater and woolen socks, no harm had come to me. The house I loved stood unscratched, and best of all, my husband slept safely upstairs, his sleep undisturbed.
This morning Karl and I trudged through the deep snow to look at the tree. The sharp scent of sun-warmed pine met our cold noses as we touched the splintered trunk, the beautiful, patterned bark. Now that the tree was broken, I could see the decay within. It looks like the base of the trunk was rotten, maybe bug-eaten. I had missed the warning signs only because I loved it.
If you look closely, you can see the steam rising from the snow on the trunk.
We walked beside the length of the trunk watching the snow that lay along the top side steam in the sunlight. We climbed through the snow into the branches where birds perched watching us; they scattered at our approach. We discovered our bird feeders, a little bent but not broken. We hung them again, one on a branch of the fallen tree. For the rest of the day, we watched more birds than we’d ever seen flock to the tree.
in the middle of the branches

I’m the sort of person who likes to find truth in things like enormous, old, beloved trees falling.  When something like this happens, even the insurance companies call it officially an "act of God."

The feelings of wonder and safety were touching to me and looking back, I recall the warnings sounded in the distance muffled by love for the tree and a sense of trust I didn't realize was there.  This is because I am also the sort of person who is not quite sure of what lots of people comfortably refer to as “the sovereignty of God” (a concept I don’t think I fully grasp), and consequently I am always worried that I am too late, or in the wrong spot, or somehow making a mistake I don’t know I’m making, (Is anyone else out there like that?) or missing something I shouldn’t miss.
I think this tree might have to do with that lingering question of mine. Like a far off note I'm straining to hear, I have a feeling that cultivating that sense of trust would ease some of the worry that nags me. Though the tree fell in the fury of a storm brighter and louder than the tallest, strongest tree, it did not fall haphazardly, but fell as if a line had been drawn between the houses and the pump, just to the side of the birdfeeder.
And best of all, standing or fallen, the birds found shelter in its wide and fragrant branches.

I almost forgot to say—deep in the thickest part of the tree’s branches— we saw a big squirrel’s nest. It seems that the squirrels were a casualty of the blizzard. Not one has been seen since the tree fell. I think this might be the happiest news for my garden from the Blizzard of Ten.


  1. Its sad the tree went down but I am very glad nothing else was damaged

  2. A lovely eulogy for a long-time friend. You write, "I am always worried that I am too late, or in the wrong spot, or somehow making a mistake I don't know I'm making, (Is anyone else out there like that?)or missing something I shouldn't miss." Always. Every day. You're not alone.

  3. I know you're just trying to make me nervous about the huge pine tree at the corner of our yard that's tilted toward our neighbors' cars and shed, that's rapidly getting plastered with heavy snow in preparation for the blizzard warnings that have been posted for the entire day.

  4. And no more sardines for you.