It wasn’t till the last couple years I lived at my parents’ home, the house I grew up in, that I noticed the little stalk in the back corner of the yard by the weathered split-rail fence. It was just a shin-high stem coming out of the weedy lawn, but it looked like it wanted to be something more ambitious and substantial than a weed. Stiff enough that I could give its free end a little pluck, like a harp string, and it would vibrate tautly. There were no signs of it having been recently planted, as the turf around it looked undisturbed. It seemed to have sprouted up overnight, for no particular reason.
A day or so later I saw it again and went to find my Dad puttering in the barn, packing away duck decoys or who knows what. I asked him about the plant and he stood there blank, not knowing what I was referring to. He followed me across the yard to the slender shoot, and he looked at it with his brow furrowed under the bill of his cap till eventually a memory slid up out of the deep. “Oh…that might be that black walnut…I planted it years and years ago, but something ate it. Every Spring it would come up, and it would get bitten off right at the bottom. Probably rabbits. And then it would be gone for the rest of the year, until the next spring. I meant to protect it before they got to it, but never remembered in time.”
Dad was surprised to see that twig of a tree. I think at some point he’d thought it died after repeated amputations, and he’d wholly forgotten about it. He wasn’t certain how long it had been since he planted it, but I believe “at least twenty years” was his guess. The wiry little stem was probably older than I was. I crouched looking at it a good while, thinking how many times it had stuck its head up into the world and had it clipped off once again, while I played in this yard and never knew. All this time, and here it looked like it could‘ve been a seed just days ago.
I found a splintery wooden garden stake in the barn, and a bit of chicken wire. I pounded the stake into the still-soft earth a few inches from the stalk and fixed the scrap of mesh to it, making a tight cylinder that was twice as tall as the encircled tree. I made sure the bottom edge was right against the ground, and figured I had done all I could to discourage nibblers. I mowed around it when my turn came, and prevailed on Dad to do the same.
Nothing got to it, and that summer the tender shoot almost exploded out of the ground. It got taller than me and sent out lanky sprays of leaves. By the time the leaves fell the trunk was turning woody and strong where it came out of the ground, and didn’t look like it needed protecting, though I left the wire sheath in place for the time being. Another year and the sapling must have been ten feet, and flinging out leafy branches in every direction. It grew almost by the day. The base of its trunk was already thicker than my wrist and its bark was getting rough and furrowed like real tree-skin. I didn’t know how fast a black walnut grows – there were no others within my boyhood roaming territory – but I knew this couldn’t be the standard, or we’d all be up to our chins in lumber.
After college my new wife and I lived next door to my parents for a couple years, and I could watch with pride as my rescue-tree surged skyward into an early sylvan adolescence. A few summers before, it had been an elongated springy toothpick amid the clover – the summer before that, a non-presence. And now it was a sturdy thing I could climb into. As best as I could figure it, every year when the walnut sent up that hopeful shoot, its roots had grown a little too. Then one of the local cottontails that were ever-busy after dark would clip it, and the baby tree, exhausted, would sleep under the earth till next year. Just a nub left, too small for the world to notice. But every year, more roots. That bit of stem must have had decades of roots put down, the day that I found it. Once it got its chance, it could pull no end of water and nutrients out of the soil, and it went rocketing up.
Sometimes I feel like that beleaguered walnut tree. I can feel chewed down, bite by bite, after a series of unlooked-for troubles. I expect you know what I mean. Other times life brings us such a blow our spirits feel nipped right off at ground level. We marshal our energies and send up a desperate shoot, hoping to catch some life-giving light. We make repeated efforts to reach up for what we need, and see them get devoured. Maybe this season feels too long to be a season, until we forget we ever knew anything but barrenness. Why keep trying?
Yet underneath, something is happening. Up where we can see, all is futility, but imperceptibly our roots are growing. Filaments fanning out, anchors taking hold. When the time comes – and I think, in the end, it always does come – that our vulnerable little shoot endures to reach the rays, to put out leaves and breathe deep and drink sun, we will make better use of it for all those hard-won roots.
Being the tree-lover I am (could you tell?) I have a little hoard of tree books. Many of them include instructions on pruning. It interests me that pruning is often done to remove branches that are weak, diseased, or even dead. That even healthy growth is sometimes removed to open a tree’s structure so light can get in, and the air move through it freely. And that there are seasons when a tree should be pruned and others when it should not be. The whole concept feels so ripe for spiritual metaphor, it’s no surprise that Jesus made use of it. It was the low-hanging fruit, if you’ll forgive me for saying so.
I can’t help feeling that the rabbits were doing some kind of preemptive pruning on that baby black walnut, sent by the One who sows and makes to grow. Not that I think its successive springtime stalks were diseased or wrong in some way. But apparently the Rain-giver knew that this particular tree was going to need twenty years of roots laid down before it even got started. I don’t know what that tree has ahead of it that might require such a long head start, but then I don’t need to, and neither does the tree. Because He does.
If that level of pruning on a helpless infant tree seems to us like overkill, how much more do His seasons of hard pruning in us feel like near-annihilation. Does He not realize how harshly He’s cutting us back? Is there not such a thing as going too far? Can we really come back from this?
In Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there are living trees that survived the atomic bombs of 1945. There is even a term for such trees in Japanese: hibakujumoku – hibaku ‘bombed, nuked’ and jumoku ‘trees’. Some of the trees closest to ground zero had their trunks thrown down by the initial shock wave or burned up by the firestorm that immediately followed, and yet they grew back from the roots. The trunks of others remained intact though badly burned by nuclear fire and radiation, and lived to put out new leaves. A variety of species are represented among the hibakujumoku, but a fair number of them are ginkgos, which in some places have earned a reputation for weathering catastrophes.
One ginkgo in Hiroshima stood on the grounds of a temple, not quite three-quarters of a mile from the center of a 2-mile circle of “total destruction.” The temple was no more, but the tree, despite being scarred and disfigured by the fire, brought forth new green leaves a few years later. When the temple was later rebuilt, a forking staircase was built for it that curved around the now-thriving ginkgo. Seeds from this tree have been planted around the world as symbols of peace and nuclear disarmament. There are other temples and shrines that have been built around various hibakujumoku. The image is a powerful one: the man-made religious structure centered around the God-made living thing, a living thing that had apparently been destroyed. I’m not sure we shouldn’t appropriate the arrangement for our own houses of worship.
If a tree can weather the attentions of the worst weapon yet devised, and go on to flower and bear fruit, how much more will we who have the Source of life within us? The one who sends the sun and rain also commands the drought and the locust and the lightning, and they all come in their right time and measure. The rugged beauty of any truly ancient tree came to it through the outlasting of a thousand hardships. And the human soul was made to outlive not just trees but forests and mountains. The True Vine we are grafted into is the original hibakujumoku, and we can no longer be anything else.
In his essay “A Room Called Remember” Frederick Buechner writes, “We have survived, you and I… after twenty years, forty years, sixty years or eighty, we have made it to this year, this day… And what does that tell us, our surviving? It tells us that weak as we are, a strength beyond our strength has pulled us through at least this far, at least to this day. Foolish as we are, a wisdom beyond our wisdom has flickered up just often enough to light us if not to the right path through the forest, at least to a path that leads forward, that is bearable. Faint of heart as we are, a love beyond our power to love has kept our hearts alive.”
No seeds from the Japanese survivor trees have come into my keeping, but I have planted a ginkgo every place I’ve lived, where possible. The most recent is now at least thrice my height. Careless lawnmowers have bumped it near the base multiple times, leaving deep wounds. At times I’ve looked at these gouges anxiously, knowing that if the bark is torn off all the way around, a tree is strangled, unable to bring water and minerals up to the leaves. And then I remember this tree has cousins that have stood through tsunamis of fire and black radioactive rains, and still wear green in spring and shed golden leaf-fans in autumn. The tree reminds me how to laugh over a bruised heel.
As for the orphan black walnut in my childhood yard, it stands six hundred miles from where my roots are now growing. I don’t get back as often as I would like, but I hear news of it – crowding out the adjacent pines, dropping green-husked nuts that the squirrels shred open and stash in my mother’s garden shed. Still growing. By the time I see it again, it might not recognize the one who swaddled it in chicken-wire and adopted it. But one can never say. Trees have long memories, and it’ll probably remember me when I’m the one in the ground, waiting to re-sprout into life. And I in turn will remember it, back from the before-times when suffering was still abroad in the land.
The featured image is courtesy of Aaron Burden via Unsplash. We are grateful for Aaron’s good company as a team member of The Cultivating Project.
Matthew is fascinated by the use of story to create experiences that awaken us to powerful, redemptive Truth. Several years ago he took up a quest to own and read every book ever published by C.S. Lewis. He shares his home with his wife and daughter, four cats, and a smallish serpent who has thus far never endorsed the consumption of prohibited produce.
Great! I did not know you were such a “tree adopter”! I find the trees one of God’s great blessings. I have a forest of pines that I call my children! You made such good insight to the things of our Lord.
A beautifully written meditation on the power of God in nature. Indeed the trees of the hills tell of his presence whether planted in the ground or turned into pages and bound. We often think of God as creator, but not as the Being who sustains all other being, but that is at the center of what you’ve written here.
I did not know that about the Japanese trees, but I’ve always loved the ginkgo just because it’s leaves are so different than most native trees. I think the last line you wrote was the most poignant. A great note of hope with which to end your symphony.
I loved your storytelling in this piece, and your story/metaphor of this tree was one of the most memorable things from this whole issue for me. Thank you for writing this, Matthew.
Jay, you didn’t know? I also have a Dawn Redwood in my yard; they were thought to be extinct and known only from fossils, and then in 1944 someone found a small grove of them tucked away in a Chinese forest. They’ve been propagated from there and today are growing all over the world, and hopefully in no danger of extinction.
Thanks for reading and for dropping me a line!
Thank you DJ, my thoughts exactly. In the middle ages, theologians used to talk about “the book of nature” as revealing God’s character alongside “the book of scripture.” I relate to that, like David saying “the heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.”
Thank you for reading, friend, and for taking the time to offer your generous comments and encouragement.
Michael I very much appreciate you saying that. I had no idea this tree’s story carried any particular meaning, until I was pondering for this issue what “Receiving Life” might mean. And then this memory shook loose and I knew it was telling me.
I’m thankful that this was meaningful to you, and grateful that you took a moment to tell me so.
Matthew, a decade or so ago a dear lady taught my daughter literature in a homeschool cooperative group. One book she selected was titled ‘Hope for the Flowers’. Your wonderful piece could easily be titled ‘Hope from the Trees’ . Thanks for letting the voice of His creation speak Hope so loudly and clearly, in full support of the One tree that carried Him who, battered and bruised and pierced, carried away our death. Denise
Thank you Denise, for reading and for your kind words. It just occurred to me it would be fascinating to collect every instance of the use of “tree” in scripture and see what they look like together – tree imagery in the Bible is so varied and seems to touch on all kinds of important things. Anyway, I appreciate you taking the time to respond to this piece!
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