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Slow death and the felling of trees

A man wearing an orange hardhat using a chainsaw to remove the top of a tree

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 black 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 black 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.

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Paris Master-McRae #

    Hello Catherine,
    What a beautiful and thought provoking piece of writing. I do miss you and Pat very much and hope to see you in the near future. Happy Birthday on Wednesday, I will be thinking of you.
    Lots of love and the best always, Paris.

    April 14, 2013
  2. Brenda Griffin #

    Dear Catherine:
    Very interesting! As you know I am not a writer but you make us think .! Like lots in nature there more to this story then we frist see.I been so lucky to spend some time with you and your trees.The blog makes us think how we value our life even after death,how we value youth vs being mature,how we value just being vs doing,question the value of time and how we use ,importances being still sometimes just to have peace. And about acceptance of what is and will be now, and later.
    You know me the questions and thought come each time I read. You feed my mind and heart with your words. Lucky for me to have share some of your time I can only quess what life was for some of your students.
    Thanks to your blogs you serve many!

    Take care.
    Brenda Griffin

    April 13, 2013
  3. Etta #

    Dear Catherine,
    A powerful piece worthy of you publishing it somewhere – perhaps The New Yorker. It is our struggle against “assisted suicide” which came to mind almost at the beginning of the piece.

    The inner struggle of our own decline and those who might want to “saw” us down.
    It is written with extraordinary wisdom and insight into the meaning of “living”.The tree is humanity with its dignity. weakness, strength and endurance.
    Your writing is gripping. CONTINUE.


    April 13, 2013
  4. Melanie Panitch #

    Dear Catherine,
    I too know that tree and the summers on your deck, listening, watching, & scheming in its shadow – devouring it all. I never felt more like a tree-hugger than at this moment.
    Reading with great longing for you, and for more of your voice.

    April 12, 2013
    • cfrazee #

      Hello Melanie!

      Thanks so much for stopping by, for reading and posting, and most of all for your ever-generous encouragement. It was your email urging in mid-February to “keep blogging” that somehow shook me loose again. The right words, at the right time – always your magic touch.

      April 13, 2013
  5. Audrey Cole #

    I tried to “like” but am rejected!

    But how could I not like? I know that tree!

    I also know how much I have missed the poetry of your words and how much I welcome their return.

    I also know the world is better for your understanding of but inability to embrace the logic of “fell-swoop surrender.”

    And you must know how much we value that understanding and the magical manner with which it is conveyed.

    Thank you,


    April 11, 2013
    • cfrazee #

      Thank you so very much, Audrey. I have great respect for your perspective on the issues I am trying to explore in this blog. It means a lot to know that you are ‘with me’ in working through some mighty big questions.

      April 13, 2013
      • Audrey Cole #

        Thank you Catherine! I can think of no-one with whom I could feel more priviliged to be on these issues. But I am also wholeheartedly with Etta on this one. It has to be published more widely! It has to be read by those who, whether or not they know it, are aching for that wisdom and insight and metaphorical magic!


        April 13, 2013

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Guest Blog: “On Trees and Travel and the Value of Life” by Audrey Cole | Not Dead Yet

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