Saturday, March 1, 2014

A Tree Still Grows in Brooklyn
















I read recently about a friend’s sorrow for a lost tree and remembered when I was a girl how attached I was to a tree growing near the property line between my house and the neighbors in Brooklyn. I was very ill at the time. The doctors did not know what was wrong with me. I could not remember a lot of my past, nor did much stay in my short-term memory, and, worst of all I had lost my ability to read. Words did not make sense on the page.  I had always been a sickly child, an asthmatic, and books had for most of my life been my only constant friends. The loss of my ability to read was devastating.  I felt like the world had shut me out. I stayed in my room most days unable to go to school. I stared out of my window at a tree. A young wild cherry that seemed to have sprung up overnight.  I watched it with pleasure, feeling strongly connected with it as if my spirit and its were bound. Then one day after another fruitless doctor’s visit I came home and saw that a big bough of it had been cut off.

I asked my mother about it. She said she would ask the neighbor. He said it was leaning over onto his property that he would cut it back as much as he saw fit. When she came back, I argued that it was our tree. He had no right to cut it so viciously. He left open wounds all over it. My mother said she would speak to him again, but nothing changed. He would put up his ladder and lean over and cut limb after limb of the tree. He said he knew best. The tree was trouble and since we were all females in the house, we didn’t know how much trouble a tree like that could be if it was left to grow.  He said he would not cut much more, but he did. I felt so helpless. Everyday there was less of the tree. He left ugly white wounds all over it.  I feared it would die of shock or bleed out. I peered out of the window at him unable to do anything. He kept cutting and shaking his head at it. He said legally he could do what he wanted. My mother shrugged. She could do nothing. “I told him,” she said, but he didn’t listen.

In despair I went to my grandmother. I told her the neighbor was going to kill the tree. I knew he was. I had this sinking feeling that if the tree died, so would I. We were so much alike, both on the edge of everything. Like it, I was so sick, and I was not getting better. There was no help, only symptoms. I wandered into my grandmother’s bedroom with the shutter door and wide queen sized bed. She had the biggest bed of all us. She lay in the middle of it on the white sheets.

“What can I do?” I asked my grandmother, tossing myself disconsolately in a side chair.

She said my story reminded her of a poem she had learned in school as a girl. She sat up a bit and spoke dramatically: “Woodman spare this tree! Touch not its leafy boughs! For in its youth it sheltered me, And I'll protect it now.”

I did not know that is was a poem by George Pope Morris or that she had mis-remembered it a bit. All I knew was that it was perfect. I wanted to say that to the neighbor, shout it at him, paint it on a rock and hit him with it.

“Why don’t you just hang it on the tree?” my grandmother asked.

That would also work. So, I wrote it out in my best handwriting on a bit of cardboard. I painted it with a big tree and child sitting under it. Then I used a string to hang the placard on the branches kind of facing him. I was really shy and would never have done any of the things I had thought about like yelling or throwing. I was barely brave enough to hang my sign on the tree.  I climbed up hurriedly and placed it, then ran back into my house.

Again that day, he took out his ladder to start trimming the tree. I ran and hid in my grandmother’s room not wanting to watch him killing it.

Later my mother came home. She had a strange smile on her face. The neighbor had come to her and said, “Okay. I won’t cut anymore.” He took the sign I made with him. I guess he kept it. I learned that soft words and poetry work better than yelling and getting angry. He spoke to me after that. He learned that I was sick. He was less imperious and more gentle. He told me stories. I grew to like him. My tree grew too. It got big. It gave fruit. Birds came and ate, and I got better. 

















Have you had an encounter with a special tree? I'd love to hear about it.

Woodman, Spare That Tree
by George Pope Morris (1802-1864)

WOODMAN, spare that tree!
Touch not a single bough!
In youth it sheltered me,
And I'll protect it now.
'Twas my forefather's hand
That placed it near his cot;
There, woodman, let it stand,
Thy axe shall harm it not!

That old familiar tree,
Whose glory and renown
Are spread o'er land and sea,
And wouldst thou hew it down?
Woodman, forbear thy stroke!
Cut not its earth-bound ties;
O, spare that aged oak,
Now towering to the skies!

When but an idle boy
I sought its grateful shade;
In all their gushing joy
Here too my sisters played.
My mother kissed me here;
My father pressed my hand --
Forgive this foolish tear,
But let that old oak stand!

My heart-strings round thee cling,
Close as thy bark, old friend!
Here shall the wild-bird sing,
And still thy branches bend.
Old tree! the storm still brave!
And, woodman, leave the spot;
While I've a hand to save,
Thy axe shall hurt it not.