The hole in my canopy is bigger than I thought it would be. The missing tree was a real stand out. Not like those others – those scrawny natives thronging against the backstage of my house like rock fans in a mosh pit. The floor tickets have been sold out in this forest. Trunks are pressed together with branches interlaced, and a tree may only enjoy the celebration of life by squeezing and swaying with its nearest neighbors. The muddled collage of green and brown shades often abstracts my eye. I find myself admiring the assemblage over its members. Sometimes, I can’t see the tree for the forest.
Not so with the missing tree. She had ample elbow room in the VIT section at stage-right, and shaped herself to enjoy every bit of it. Her most impressive extension drooped down and out 25 or 30 feet from its shoulder with the main trunk before diverging into a wide, open space. This yawning arm spread in one direction to texture the sky in front of my dining room window, and in another to provide ambience and mood lighting over my firepit and picnic table. Back at the center, and 15 ft above the earth, the trunk of the missing tree divided into three major sections and braced its inverted skypod against the heavens 95 ft or so above our heads. In her own old-fashioned way, without the industrial groan of compressor or the modern revolution of fossil fuel combustion, the missing tree conditioned the air on the western side of our house by merely filtering and absorbing the sun’s hot burn. The northern leg roofed a cool stable for our 21st century horsepower on even the hottest of summer days. No, this one was not just another trunk banger in the moshpit. This one was a real celebrity.
I knew the missing tree was good. Its just that I didn’t know the full extent of the good. Isn’t that the way it goes? Something must be physically gone to realize the full extent of how good it was. Especially if “it” was a living thing that actively participated in my life experience. Somehow memory knows goodness more completely than present consciousness ever will. Present consciousness is distracted by substance, while memory, of necessity, interacts more fully with essence.
I remember that my daughters and I were never content to hang around at her ankles. I attached a string to a weighted ball, and made an underhand toss to drape the string over one of the larger limbs. I used the string to pull a rope back over the limb, and we used the rope to climb into Silver’s canopy. Yes, the missing tree had a name. She had become more to us than a mere plant from the genus Acer and the scientific family saccharinum. She was in our family, now, and we called her “Silver.” The girls and I had such a good time in her arms that I was inspired to expand the experience to include other children. With Silver’s collaboration and my daughters and their friends as test subjects, the idea for a business called “Riverside Outfitters” was born. Tree climbing in Richmond would not just be for arborists anymore.
I remember well the way she lifted and held my daughters, but what I miss most is the glimmering dress she wore each year to summer’s big party. Every leaf of every tree in the forest is an engineering marvel, each species having its own unique light harvesting strategy in mind, but Silver’s leaves were more than just effective solar panels. They were delicately fringed with fine points and valleys suggesting a greater kinship to her cultivated, far-eastern cousin, the Japanese Maple, than to her own wild, native siblings. The leaves were a lite, almost bluish-green above, but a pale silver beneath, and under the influence of even the slightest breeze her dress of delicate leaves would ruffle to flash its silver lining. A real party girl, this one, but unlike her many relatives in the maple family, Silver made no dramatic costume change when the season of sleep beckoned. In the fall her silken garment merely shriveled and faded through pale shades of yellow and grey, and when finally tossed to the ground, quickly disintegrated into fine particles of leaf dust.
Our scientific minds very much enjoy deciphering the functional design of nature’s machinery, but it’s the nonsensical or unreasonable features in nature (human nature or otherwise) that give our experience its mystery and allure. Since I can think of no special reason this tree would so delicately fringe her leaves or line them with silver, I conclude that to appreciate the silver maple leaf design is to appreciate the work of not only an engineer, but an artist as well. And as such, while a full or scientific understanding of the work is unlikely, a simple admiration is probable. Admiration and wonder. Perhaps, as it is with other great works of art, the silver maple tree has maintained its status and longevity on this ever changing and axe-infested earth not by its technical superiority, but by its ability to interest and mystify. By its allure.
Not surprisingly, this plant kingdom aristocrat didn’t drop her annual offspring brusquely to the ground or send them on undignified journeys through the digestive systems of beast or fowl. Like all maples, either of American or Japanese descent, Silver adorned each of her seeds with a veined wing that allowed them to spin and float to earth in aeronautical style. Each year many of the tiny helicopters hovered their way to soft landings in the gutter of my house. Since my gutters are clogged with leaves and other tree discard more often than not, the baby trees were able to find enough moisture and nutrient to grow into saplings. I was always impressed with the way these newborns made their tiny attempts at life and growth with no regard at all for their own long term prospects. Silver and her babies reminded me that in nature there is always hope, and always an effort to grow. Inspired, I wrote a children’s book about her to share the lesson that living “naturally” is the precise analogue of living “optimistically,” and that “human nature” would do well to follow this example set by life forms whose earth experience out-dates the human experience by millions of years. Hope and growth have always propagated in nature, and are always the right answer to questions of existence.
It took me several weeks working in my spare time to remove Silver’s substantial carcass from my yard. A painful process, creating this huge hole in my canopy one brutal punch at a time. I hated it. And then I hated the hole created, and hated the unfiltered rays of the sun where before there was a cool, blue haze and the happy union of nature’s two great kingdoms. But I realize now, writing my first elegy for a tree, that the physical hole fertilizes the memory. Memory is the silver lining of loss, and in memory the essential goodness of this tree continues to shine and grow.
I wrote another elegy for Richmond Outside a couple years ago for my brother-in-law who was a great lover of trees and a gifted tree climber. As he was laid to rest, the picture chosen by the family for his memorial service was one of him smiling peacefully from the sparkling folds of Silver’s summer dress. In a way no human ever could, the tree was somehow able to soothe him. There was something about her, something in her essence, that brought out the best in him, and the best in me.
The essence of this tree is good. Memory knows best. And I find it a great consolation for the substantive loss, for the hole in my canopy, to know that as her essential goodness shines on in memory she has reached the pinnacle of existence for a living thing. As we all hope to be one day, Silver is remembered well.