Monday, April 9, 2012

The Old Elm: A Requiem in Words

            A gracious elm on the berm of our east lawn is dying.  The village forester, Reese, arrived in the church office a few Friday’s ago and pronounced the elm fatally infected with a deadly fungus—what everyone knows as “Dutch elm disease.”   He wanted us to know that it  was coming down for the sake of other elms.

            I had questions for Reese: 

  • How old do you think it is?  “Oh, about ninety years,” he said.  I did the math.   The tree was planted in the first or second decade of the twentieth century; some twenty to thirty years after UCH was founded.
  • How did the tree get infected? “It probably got the disease through root grafts,” he reckoned.
  •  What are root grafts?  “The roots of a nearby, infected tree literally grafts its roots on the roots of the big elm, or vice versa,” he explained.  I imagined a hidden working, the twining of roots in the moist, dark, cool earth, and elm melding with elm.
  • When will you cut it down?  “In a week or two.”  A pang of emotion—was it grief?—touched me.  Any living thing of longevity deserves respect, I affirmed.
 Reese left.  I needed to visit the old elm, to identify it.  Had I ever really seen it before? 

 It was easy enough to identify.  It had a wedge, scored in the bark about chest high and a spray-painted X on the side that faced the street.  It was also taller than the other elms that made a modest corridor on Washington Street.  And no, I’d not really seen the old elm before—not as a distinct tree.  So I sat on the adjacent bench and tried to make up for years of omission.  (The first meditation mused on the irony of seeing and not seeing.  It was then I truly saw the old elm for the first time.)

The sun was warm and angling, the sky clear above the towering canopy of elm branches.  Have you ever looked up into a tall tree and been transported by imagination/intuition/insight?

From, I and Thou, by Martin Buber

I contemplate a tree.

I can accept it as a picture: a rigid pillar in a flood of light, or splashes of green traversed by the gentleness of the blue silver ground.

I can feel it as movement: the flowing veins around the sturdy, striving core, the sucking of the roots, the breathing of the leaves, the infinite comer with earth and air—and the growing itself in its darkness.

I can assign I to a species and observe it as an instance, with an eye to its construction and its way of life.

I can overcome its uniqueness and form so rigorously that I recognize it only as a an expression of the law—those laws according to which a constant opposition of forces is continually adjusted, or those laws according to which the elements mix and separate.

I can dissolve it into a number, into a pure relation between numbers, and eternalize it.

Throughout all of this the tree remains my object and has its place and its time span, its kind and condition.

But it can also happen, if will and grace are joined, that I contemplate the tree I am drawn into a relation, and the tree ceases to be an It.  The power of exclusiveness has seized me.

This does not require me to forego any of the modes of contemplation.  There is nothing that I must not see in order to see, and there is no knowledge that I must forget. Rather is everything, picture and movement, species and instance, law and number included and inseparable fused.

Whatever belongs to the tree is included: its form and its mechanics, its colors and its chemistry, its conversation with the elements and its conversation with the start—all this in it entirety

The tree is no impression, no play of my imagination, no aspect of a mood; it confronts me bodily and has to deal with me as I must deal with it—only differently.

One should not try to dilute the meaning of the relations: relation is reciprocity.

Does the tree then have consciousness, similar to our own?  I have no experience of that.  But thinking hat you have brought this off in your own case, must you again n divide the indivisible.  What I encounter is neither the soul of a tree nor a dryad, but the tree itself.

This old elm tree belongs to a plant family that is some forty million years ancient, dating from the Miocene period.  Originating in Central Asia, the elm became well established in Asia, Europe, and North America. 

It is an evolved vascular plant with long thin tubes running throughout the outer growth ring or cambrium that distribute water and nutrients from the roots throughout the whole tree to the leaves.  The cambrium is the outward ring that marks a year. Each spring a new layer expands the girth and the tree grows upward, too.

The leaves use the water, along with carbon dioxide, chemically drawn from the air by chlorophyll, to dissolve minerals taken up by the roots.  At the end of this chemical reaction the leaves transpire excess moisture and oxygen into the air.  Our old elm has been producing life-sustaining oxygen throughout its lifetime.

from  “Tree and Jubilee,” by Rev. Greta W. Crosby

I have long had a sense of fellowship with trees.  Since I was a child, I have sought their company from time to time because I like the way I feel in their presence.  I enjoy their beauty, but it is more than that.  I used the word “presence” in a very strong sense.  I felt their presence as living things.  And in that presence, I often feel relaxed and centered, peaceful, restored to inner equilibrium.

For many of us, life is the meaning of the tree. But for me, perhaps the greatest thing about the tree is its silence.  Whatever the tree says to us, whatever it answers to our questing, the tree gives its message without words.  And the tree bears with us well.  It does not judge.  It does not react to our anxieties.  It does not run after us.  It just stands there with open arms.

Trees, generally, have significance for human beings unlike other living things.  We’re familiar with the ancient and enduring motif of the tree-of-life, whether in the mythic tale of the Garden of Eden or the yearly parlor ritual of the Christmas tree.   The Buddha gained enlightenment beneath the Bo Tree and it showered blossoms over him.  In every colony, the patriots of the American Revolution, following Massachusetts’ s lead, held rallies beneath a designated Liberty Tree, which the British would ceremoniously cut down if they occupied that place.
Robert Frost titled one collection of his poems The Witness Tree in reference to the nineteenth century surveyor’s custom of notching a particular tree as a boundary marker and extended the meaning in his characteristic way  in an opening poem (“Beech”):

from Witness Tree, “Beech,’ by Robert Frost

One tree, by being deeply wounded
Has been impressed as Witness Tree
And made commit to memory
My proof of being not unbounded.

            “Our” old elm bears witness.   When it is cut, each ring of the trunk will remember a year—the saw will traverse from now until then; and reaching center, it will return to now; sawdust will mingle decades.   Like events dissolving into time, the sawdust will meld with the earth.

            A person given to reading history can invest those years and decades with varied meanings, including the history of this church.  When a sapling, this Unitarian Church was on the brink of going out of existence, having voted to join then rescinded the vote to become part of Union Church of Hinsdale.  The 1920s saw the defiant/triumphant rise of religious humanism under Eugene Cosgrove, whose charismatic influence threatened to take this church out of the orbit of Unitarianism and as a precaution, the property was deeded (and perhaps the elm tree)  to the Western Unitarian Conference.   There were more lean years throughout the Depression and into the post world war era, when a 1950s scandal between a minister and a church member decimated the tiny congregation.  This was followed by a decade of expansion in the 1950s and 1960s under the leadership of Sunder Joshi, who wisely worked the humanist heritage and rode the baby boom.  Then there was a decade of on-again-off-again distress as the congregation endured controversy of the Vietnam War era and internal politics followed by the tragic death by cancer of the brief ministry of Ted Shokes.  In the 1970s, the congregation bounced back under new leadership, then faced more ministerial controversy, found a healing interim minister with Mason MacGinness in the new decade of 1980 and eventually called me in 1983.

            More particularly, the old elm bears witness to a piece of ecology with implications for now and for the future.  (It speaks across Kingdoms—from the realm of plants to the realm of animals, the domain where we humans reside.  Let us listen to the elm’s witness.)

  When the elm was a sapling, modern ecology was being discovered.  A significant living laboratory was the Dunes of southern Lake Michigan where a diversity of eco-systems meet in what one scholar has called the axis-mundi—the pivot of North America.

            The world of the turn of the century may seem innocent, idyllic from our relatively ravaged, jaded vantage.  Part of that vanished age are elm trees—favored in the Victorian era for their beguiling hour glass shape and the way, when planted in rows along streets, they created a vaulted canopy, not unlike the tracery of gothic churches.   Elms represented respectability and a touch of romance. (I believe I once read there are more Elm Streets than Main Streets in America.  Surely Elm Street is residence, while Main Street is commerce.)  When elms thrived, America was seemingly isolated from the rest of the world.  In many American villages and cities the elm predominated.  They created what we now call a monoculture.

            And then, in 1930, a shipment of European elm logs imported for veneer to Cleveland introduced to America an alien organism, a fungus; or perhaps the fungus arrived via the wood of shipping pallets —a fungus first isolated in the Netherlands in 1917, thus known as the Dutch Elm Disease.   A second major infestation from Europe took place in Sorel, Quebec, in 1945.  Probably the fungus is native to the Himalayas and came to Europe from the Dutch East Indies in the late 1800s.  The disease devastated the elms of Europe and then America, killing tens of millions elm and laying bare the urban landscape.

            It was first spread here via the habits of elm bark beetles that breed in weakened and diseased trees.  The fungus thrives in the highly developed vascular system of the elm and in short time clogs the vascular tubes and deprives the branches of its needed water.  A tree showing the first sign of infestation—withered leaves and dead branches—will die within a year or three.

            The elm tree bears witness to the accelerating reality of Globalism and the dangers of invasive life forms on vulnerable ecosystems—starlings, kudzu, zebra mussels, and the like.  The old elm also bears witness to the perils of monocultures that include many of our food crops.

            So, the old elm tells us something important about Nature, as we humans interact with it, while respecting its implicit boundaries—at least as expressed in the Robert Frost poem:  a “proof of not being unbounded.”

Farewell and Thanksgiving

from The Wilderness of John Muir, by Edwin Way Teale

The rugged old Norsemen spoke of death as Heimgang—home-going.  So the snowflowers go home when they melt and flow to the sea; and the rock-ferns, after unrolling their fronds to the light and beautifying the rocks, roll them up lose again in the autumn and blend with the soil.  Myriads of rejoicing living creatures—daily, hourly, perhaps every moment—sink into death’s arms, dust to dust, spirit to sprit—waited on, watched over, noticed only by their Maker, each arriving at its own heaven –dealt destiny.  All the merry dwellers of the trees and streams, and he myriad swarms of the air, called into life by the sunbeam of a summer morning, go home through death, wings folded perhaps in the last red rays of sunset of the day they were firs tried.  Trees towering in the sky, braving storms of centuries, flowers turning faces to the light for a single day or hour, having enjoyed their share of life’s feast—all alike pass on and away under the law of death and love.  Yet all are our [sisters] and brothers and hey enjoy life as we do, share Heavens blessings with us die and are buried in hallowed ground, come with us out of eternity and return into eternity.  Our lives are rounded with a sleep.

And now we bid this silent yet eloquent companion, our good-by:

In the final analysis, there is no doubt: we are all in this together.  And so we say not just “good-by, old elm,” but we add “blessings on you, even as we wish those same blessings on ourselves.”

We give thanks for this old elm tree:  for the oxygen that it breathed to our lungs that we might have life, too, for its beguiling grace and beauty, for its shade in summer.
We honor its ancient lineage spanning not years or millennia but epochs, reminding us of the deeps of Nature and the sure process of evolution.

We venerate its years, in large part, because its years paralleled our years.  We can read its rings and recall our common time—seasons and events that comprise the stuff of Life.  We shall miss the continuity of memory the old elm has offered—its links with the past.

We contemplate its witness as it stood alongside our church for nearly six score years.  And we take solemn counsel from its melancholy testimony to the effects of humankind on Nature.

We regret that our kind has negatively impacted on a marvelously wrought natural world, and promise from now on to seek knowledge and apply remedies to restore.

Truly we, human beings and trees, are part and parcel with a vast, encompassing reality: an interdependent web of being.  Though we infrequently mark the comings and goings of Life’s multitudes, we do so now.  We are all in this together. 

And so the old elm compels us to affirm the Unity of Being, in living and in dying.

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