Amid the Fray

A Tree Falls and Is Noticed


I've never lost a tree before.

Our property had three magnificent oaks, each more than a hundred, maybe 150 years old. Like J.R.R. Tolkien's Ents, each had its own gravitas.

One died after a long decline, and we finally had it taken down. It was so large that I couldn't reach my arms around it. So lofty it could easily be seen across the street or around the block. It was home to squirrels and a way station for woodpeckers and mourning doves, blue jays and mockingbirds. Even the occasional ill-tempered crow.

Recently I watched it being dismantled by fearless men scaling its eroding trunk and severing its limbs with chainsaws, standing on doomed branches that for so long knew only the footfalls of much smaller creatures. I felt a deep sadness at the loss.

My tree was born when this land was a woodland escape for city dwellers. Its green sprout may have seen soldiers who had fought in the Civil War. As a sapling, it certainly saw veterans of the Spanish-American War. It looked down upon the first horseless carriages, and looked up to see the first airplanes buzzing overhead.

After World War I, it saw houses erected nearby. After World War II, it became part of the property we now live on. Under its encompassing bower, families came together, grew up and departed. It is unlikely children tried to scale it, by then towering above a two-story house.

My aged sentry witnessed births and probably deaths, joy and sadness. It watched generations of homeowners rake its fallen leaves in autumn, and rejoice at its first buds in spring. My oak provided cool shade during hot, sticky summers, and stoically bore the occasional snowfall that would edge its dark branches.

By the time I had entered its domain, its age was showing. Branches occasionally tumbled to the ground—first small ones, then larger. A pruning meant to restore it to some health instead most likely precipitated its final decline. A massive branch fell one night, waking the neighbors and crushing a chain-link fence.

It was time to say goodbye to my humbled giant.

Perhaps my sadness at its passing comes with seeing my own reflection in it.

I too look out on a changing landscape, marveling at all I've witnessed, yet with some sadness at what has passed. That tree and I, we have each done our duty. We've fulfilled our given roles with diligence, and honored our commitments.

We have done our best to comfort and support those who depended on us, providing hospitality to those who passed our way. We witnessed not just the changing of seasons, but the changing of eras. I look back on all that I have seen and experienced in my family and my work. The children are gone now, finding their own way. The profession I chose is changing. The chainsaws are growling.

Yet we can only be responsible for our time and our place. Somewhere, perhaps nearby, a new oak is taking root, a sapling growing stronger each day. It grows heavenward, and in its time it will see new seasons and new eras.

Like a memento, the stump remains. Squirrels play on it, and already the vines are preparing to swallow it up. We can count the rings that mark its years, but that data does not adequately record all that it witnessed, all it sheltered. It is for me now to note its passing and to wonder what new giants, what unnoticed signs of hope are just now being born.

Erlandson, director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service, can be reached at