It’s a surprise to me, coming out for a walk into the lovely cold sunshine, to hear the saws buzzing. A tree is being felled. I walk slowly up the road to see a man looped into the height of the tree, lopping off branches. He is lopping off branches while the smell of sap and pine saturates the air. It saturates the air as I walk slowly and my heart gives a lurch.
Why are they cutting down this gorgeous old tree? I don’t know and I don’t understand. The tears suddenly come and stream down my face. I’m really crying now and hide my face as I pass the tree and the men busy making mulch of the branches. The sound of the saws follow me as I reach the end of my road and turn left. I turn left then head up towards the cows on the hill. As I walk, my tears dry and I try to understand what just happened.
What just happened? I haven’t cried like this in a long time.
I don’t think my tears have as much to do with the tree (although I do hate to see it come down) as with something deeper. Something deep was struck within me, something visceral. I make contact with this pain with my hand, and feel my hand’s pressure penetrate into that pain. I realize that it almost felt as if my branches were being lopped off as I watched the tree’s branches being cut so ruthlessly, as if the tree’s losses were mine.
Yes, of course. This is the pain of grief. Yes, the grief of the tree being cut down, but also the grief of isolation. The grief of helplessness. The grief of my world shrinking.
The isolation is real and we’re all suffering. We’re seeking meaning, and it’s difficult to find answers. Meaning making is what humans do – and how does one make meaning of what’s going on right now? We have to be okay with not knowing. We have to be okay with having little power beyond isolating and wearing a mask. We can be distracted from this by trying to go about our regular lives with a positive attitude and our heads held up. But there is a collective heaviness, a collective anxiety, a collective grief that can be difficult to not feel, even on our best days.
I carry this collective heaviness with me as I climb the hill to the barn. I can’t hear the saws buzzing anymore and Mt. Rainier is crisp against the blue blue sky. The air is cold in my lungs but I’m warmer now and take my hat off. I look up as a huge flock of geese flies overhead.
Coming back home, I listen for the saws but they are silent and I wonder if the tree is felled. As I reach my street, I see it there, a shorn post in the sky. The man is still up there and as I watch, he cuts a V in the tree. There is sudden activity below and some shouting and then, fast and hard, the top third of the tree comes down. The sound vibrates inside my heart and suddenly I am transported back to a day many years ago, more than two decades, sitting with my daughters in the pasture behind our house watching as a cottonwood comes down.
The guys had been working on it for a bit and we went out to the pasture to watch, far out of reach of its 200 foot height. They hadn’t felled any of the branches, were just cutting it down from its base. I sat in the long scratchy grass clutching my daughters who were three and five. They were three and five and it was a hot summer day. I still see the bright sundresses and blue sandals they were wearing as I held them to me waiting, smelling the dried grass and hot air, wondering what that space would be like without the cottonwood tree that was part of our landscape, just outside the back corner of our yard. Its leaves would shimmer silver and olive in the wind and it would drop puff balls and those sticky pods that the dog would always bring in, those sticky pods that smelled so sweet. It was a huge tree and had been there for a long time and we were curious what it would be like with more sun in our yard and less debris.
And we heard the yelling then, the muffled yelling, and as if in slow motion the tree started to fall. It started to fall as if in slow motion and we watched it mesmerized. For one brief moment I thought we weren’t far enough away, but we were, and it fell with an impact so heavy that it seemed like an earthquake coming to us from its epicenter. Then, silence.
We walked up to the tree then, and found grasshoppers, hundreds of grasshoppers, hopping all about it in its branches. My older daughter started to cry, already missing the sight of the tree from her window, and I picked her up and kissed her. “It’s sad,” I told her. “I’m sad too.” I don’t remember what happened after that – most likely we went inside and I made us all peanut butter and honey sandwiches for lunch.
I hold that memory close in my heart and relish its resurrection. I hadn’t thought of that day in a very long time. The feel of my daughters in my arms as we wait in the field for the cottonwood tree to fall is eternal. I hold this in my heart and somehow, my grief there seems to lessen. I walk past the men at work, through the large pinecones and branches littering the street, back to my house. Home. My cat’s green eyes meet mine through the front window and his tail twitches as I unlock the door.