Slow death and the felling of trees
A long and wiry man perches high above my head, chainsaw in hand. I know little about him, except that his name is Lee and he and his bride are homesteading half a mile down the road from my coastal home.
I know much more about the towering white spruce that Lee has come to wrangle. We made our acquaintance 35 years ago, when I first laid claim to the land that blankets its sprawling, shallow roots. Preceding my arrival by at least half a century, anchored on bedrock and holding fast against the prevailing northwest, this tree has held prominent place in life lived at this site.
This spruce has proudly shouldered the bald eagle, nourished the red squirrel and her brood, and shaded the tiny pond where a solitary green frog makes its quiet home. It has hosted the acrobatic genius of generations of raccoon, antagonists in the endless folly of my quest for a varmint-proof birdfeeder. And it has roosted entire flocks of American goldfinch, the tiny voracious creatures all but vanishing into its dark dense branches, their presence betrayed not by shimmering plumage, but by an exuberant spring chatter impossible to restrain. At such times I have beheld a tree quivering in strange and bright vibrato.
At other times I have beheld a tree convulsed in darker fury. With each advance of the season of wind and dread, the angles of this spruce have sharpened, the gap between bough and shingle narrowing to dangerous scale. Peering out from my bed at night, I have offered up my whispered urgings to endure the lashings of hurricane swell. I have held my breath against sharp and sudden horror, rued the day a small home was built mere footsteps from the leeward bark of a massive spruce.
I’m a fainthearted settler, slow to intervene in the perennial tussle with wildness around me. Countless summers passed before I could consent to mowing, and then only when an ever-patient grounds-keeper offered to circle round island patches of hawkweed and oxeye in bloom. Much longer still, did it take to firm the resolve that sent Lee and his saw up my tree.
Decision made, decision executed. When Lee returns to the ground, my great white spruce is reduced to one third of its mature height.
It is a crude intervention, the practice of topping. Crude and widely censured by reputable arborists. But given only two choices, fell swoop or sawed top, I chose the latter.
For an ancient tree in decline, it is a lethal ministration.
Death, however, will come slowly. In its prolonging, critics would accuse that I have robbed the tree of the dignity of its due, forcing it to hobble on in deformity toward a bitter end. Conventional wisdom would argue that once a tree’s presence is more menacing than majestic, it should be cleanly felled. By one account, my choice was cruel; by the other, foolish.
Have I permitted some sentimental fantasy to cloud my judgment as steward of this land? Does this tree now suffer a mortification far worse than sudden death because I was too much the coward to say farewell?
I cannot know for certain. But having borne the weight of these questions as the remaining boughs of this weary giant bore the snows of another winter, I hold to the conviction that to be dying is to live still. And for the living, tree and squirrel and settler alike, there are losses to be endured, sufferings to be negotiated.
The incumbencies of survival, it seems, aren’t always pretty. They take us to places inconceivable when we are at the height of our powers, expose us to violent acts by virtual strangers, weaken the will and humble the heart. As the surgeries accrue for my own body in decline, with each probe and cut and disappointment of aging flesh, I am closer to understanding the logic of fell-swoop surrender.
I understand, but cannot embrace. Surely in the great pageant of survival there is more than primal reflex, other forces at play. Perhaps behind the anguished gush of adrenaline or tree sap, lies the faint persistent pulse of service. Perhaps after all, we live not to gorge, but to serve. And in the elegant, ordered, cadence of the seasons, we serve from vigour and also from wane, learning that service is called forth from simple presence no less than from grand deed.
My white spruce is topped, and dying. It is diminished, but not abject. Dying, it still stands, its flourishing fully mature. In a few weeks, the finches will return, their vibrato will resume, and a noble tree will serve still.
Fact-checking readers may want to check out a few useful background sources here. And for a more extensive (and metaphor-free) argument against the fell-swoop approach to end-of-life, please refer to the affidavit posted in Supplementals, along with four opinion pieces published in 2014.