A Way of Looking

· Articles & Essays · ,

by Stephanie Kaza

This morning I rose early to speak with a tree that didn’t know it was going to die today. The tree was a backyard elm that shaded the southwestern corner of my mother’s new house in Portland, Oregon. Planted forty years ago when the development went in, this suburban tree was not part of any fragmented forest. It was planted as a horticultural decoration and visual barrier between neighbors’ yards. With drooping, spreading branches, the tree dominated the property and acted as guardian for the backyard. Its shapely limbs offered a modicum of grace to this small section of the neighborhood. The tree, however, had unknowingly overstepped its bounds. With vigor and the force of life, the roots had begun to press up against the foundation of the house. In addition, the elm was a “messy tree,” dropping thousands of leaves and small branches each fall, littering the ground with troublesome debris. Human inconvenience and fear of falling limbs determined the tree’s fate.

When I heard the tree was slated for removal, I asked my mother to delay the felling until I arrived from California. Though I felt helpless to stop it, I wanted to be present for the deed. For almost a week before, the roads had been covered with ice and temperatures remained in the teens, making tree work too risky. But today, with a break in the weather, the contractors were ready to take the tree down. The warmer air and dripping rain had melted most of the snow. In their opinion this was hospitable weather for tree felling. They thought they should take advantage of the break before the next storm hit.

This week my family had come together from London, St. Louis, and California to celebrate Christmas in Oregon, our forested homeland. My two youngest brothers had strong feelings for trees, and I thought they might join me in this tree event out of arboreal devotion. I had a vague idea about holding a family ceremony for the tree as an attempt to address the loss together. I thought we could serve as witnesses for its demise. Would the offer of solidarity make it any easier for the tree to die? I didn’t know.

When my youngest brother was nine and I was away at college, the highway department laid a new freeway through the deep ravine behind our first Oregon home. They cut and felled a wide swath of Douglas firs as the price of connecting two major highways. My brother was very upset about it. He composed songs to the trees and wailed his loss on the piano. He wrote detailed letters to me chronicling each stage of destruction, calling for company in his anguish. He was having a tree awakening, and I was his witness. Each new phase of clearing brought another round of sorrow and protest. Of all the children in the family, he was the only one to have grown up in that neighborhood since birth. He knew every bike and foot path through the trees; the woods were his playground and place of escape. He was heartsick watching them disappear.

While he moaned for the Douglas firs, I fretted over five giant sequoias planted in a grove at the end of the ravine. Taller than the firs and distinctive in their arrangement, they stood out as beacons from several approaching roads. Their perfect conical tops were a reference point for me, a sign of the home landscape on my return from school and other excursions. As a child I had often walked under their spreading boughs in search of solitude. Now the road flagging tape was laid dangerously close to these five prized sequoias. By the time the asphalt was poured, two of the trees had died from stress and invasion, and I joined my brother in his mourning.

The second youngest of my four brothers was in love with the Douglas firs on the edge of the ravine. He had built a succession of platforms and tree forts in the high branches where he would practice his French horn in true Wagnerian style. These were his personal retreat areas, spare and simple in construction. Safety was a minor issue next to his passion for being with the trees. Despite one forty-foot fall, he couldn’t be kept out of the trees, no matter how loud my mother’s protests. For all three of us the woods in the ravine were a place to wander and to evoke the wilderness in our souls.

Now we were together for the winter holidays in my mother’s home, facing the loss of the elm. Experts had been consulted, the matter discussed, a decision made. The tree would come down. I stood outside in the gray dawn light and gazed at the tree, rain falling gently on my face and shoulders. What could I possibly do? I felt obliged to mark this tree’s passage from life to death; something inside was crying for the tree. My brothers stayed inside, leaving me alone with my uncertainty.


It Was Almost eight a.m.; the tree crew would arrive soon. I looked through my suitcase for miscellaneous tools of ceremony. What is the proper ritual for a tree death? I didn’t know. I had never seen one done before. Tree removal is something arborists do, a specialty trade like being a mortician. Most people don’t pay close attention to this kind of work. Today I would. The sadness was gaining momentum. I thought a ceremony might at least deflect my grief.

With three sounds from a small bell, I began. I walked slowly around the tree nine times, breathing deeply, calling the tree people to listen. I knew almost nothing of the tree’s history. I had barely begun a conversation with this tree. It felt like giving communion to a total stranger before death. Last rites, these were last rites. I lit a small candle and offered four sticks of incense to the four directions, placing them at the base of the tree. The tree was the centerpiece of its own altar, the altar of its death.

The tree workers arrived with their gear— chain saws, ropes, belts, and harnesses. They had heard I wanted to do a ceremony—what were they imagining? They pulled on their climbing boots and checked the chain saws. Only a few minutes remained before the first cut. It looked like they were preparing for surgery, only this was not going to be a healing operation. My brother used the word murder. Yes, why not call it that? It was a premeditated choice to destroy another living being. I chanted a dedication under the dripping rain, a request for forgiveness for those who plant trees too close to homes. I asked for compassion for those who are uncertain about how to care for tree beings and for those who suffer the consequences of loss of tree friends. I felt unprepared with tree prayers. I had never learned anything of this sort in Sunday school.

Three last bells and the short ceremony was over. It was a quiet act of intention that did little to reverse the fate of the tree. But at least the elm did not die alone. I brought the lit candle inside to symbolize the life of the tree. We could watch it burn down as the tree was dismantled. My nieces and nephews were awake now and wanted to know what I was doing. My brother thought it better for them not to participate in the ceremony. They wouldn’t understand, he said. They would ask, “Why are you killing the tree?” Children are too young to understand, he said. I wondered. Maybe children are the only ones who understand. It made sense to them that the candle was the tree.

Chunk by chunk the tree workers handed down the limbs of the tree. They worked carefully and skillfully, drawing on years of experience with tree morphology. Even in the rain they placed the branches precisely, never hitting the roof or fence during the three-hour process. When the last big section of trunk fell to the ground, it shook the house with a solemn thump. My nephew came running in. “Aunt Steph, Aunt Steph, the candle fell over!” The children explained the obvious: “Of course,” they said, “the candle fell over because the tree died.”

I had thought the ceremony would be a family event, but in the end I was alone with the tree and the dilemma of death. Maybe the candle was the most important piece of the story. The children understood the life of the tree going out like the candle. They could see as well as anyone that the tree was dead. I wondered if I would have the courage to be honest with them about my feelings. I felt selfconscious and culturally inadequate. It is not common for Americans to consider that trees carry spiritual value. I wanted the children to see how our choices as human beings affect the lives of others, but I didn’t know how to talk about it. In my tongue-tied empathy with the tree, all I could do was watch and stay with its spirit presence.

As the workers sawed up the corpse into firewood, I held my brother’s baby by the dining room window. His eyes never wandered from the activity. We were both paying close attention to what the men were doing. What were they doing? A baby has a way of looking that makes you look too. “Yes, little baby, here are the people and here is the tree. The tree is on the ground now, laid flat. The people are taking the tree apart. The tree is dead now. The tree is a pile of wood.’’

Does a baby understand death, I wondered. Or does he sense my concern and helplessness? I was grateful for his company in this time of watching. There was now a hole in the universe where the tree used to be. In a few rainy hours the architecture of graceful branches and arching limbs had been reduced to a foot-high stump surrounded by sawdust.

Photo by Alexander Lyubavin

My mother had consulted an expert and the expert told her what to do. It will be better for the house, he said. It is something you should do. The expert knew something about trees that she didn’t know, and because of her lack of knowledge she felt obliged to defer to other voices. But I had wanted to speak with another voice, the voice that speaks from relationship with trees. Though I did not know what to say and my words did not alter the fate of the tree, I at least wanted another voice to be heard. I wanted to show the children there might be more than one way to approach trees.

Someone planted this backyard elm just after World War II, two generations before this baby was born. Perhaps that person expected children to play under its canopy in the warm days of summer. I found myself wondering what trees would be here for this baby as he grew up. It seemed difficult and clumsy to think into the future, imagining specific relationships between children and trees. Seeds of these relationships planted now might mature long after my death. I deeply wish the next generation a rich and considered relationship with trees. But how will children learn to care for trees? To be respectful? To pay attention to the old ones? Who will encourage them to cultivate depth and integrity in relationships with trees? How will they find their own voices that speak with trees?

A baby learns about trees by being around others who know about trees. Children learn from how they see people act toward trees at home, at school, and in the community. What are today’s children learning from their elders? To look at the record of worldwide tree loss, it would seem the primary message is about consumption of trees for products. I cannot accept this as adequate. It cuts too forcefully into the generative core of life. The children will ask later, was this much destruction necessary? I want to have an answer for them. It will not do to simply pass on the old ways without question .


Stephanie Kaza is former Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Vermont, a writer and Zen practitioner. She currently lives in Portland, Oregon.

From The Attentive Heart: Conversations with Trees. Copyright 1993 by Stephanie Kaza. Published by Ballantine Books. Reprinted with permission of the author.

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