June 25, 2018
Yesterday as we were circling up for Sunday school, the subject of trees arose, and took hold. This was not in my lesson plan! But one thing I’ve noticed and learned to love about leading a class: “The Spirit bloweth wild, high surging where it will.” As I pondered how I could work with the Spirit while easing us toward our lection—maybe I could say that Goliath towered like a massive oak over sapling David??—we spun tales of trees we love for their beauty and suffer for their messiness: limbs and sticks, drifts of dead leaves, gumballs on the ground, brown curlicues of pollen, yellow dustings of different pollen, brilliant red magnolia seeds smashed into driveways, magnolia cones thumping onto roofs—oh you magnolia! Good thing your flower is heavenly and your leaves so green, at least for some of the year. We spoke of the wisdom required to properly place a tree, that is, in a few years you will rue the day you planted a live oak close to your house. Naturally we couldn’t let the subject go without mentioning the sin of “crape murder.” Well, perhaps we accomplished as much in this preface to the lesson as we did the rest of the hour! For me, every moment was exhilarating.
Exhilarating. Life-breathing. Wisdom is a tree of life to those who take hold of her. So spoke the proverbist of old. Which brings me to my darling Chinese elm. Technically, she may be a lacebark elm. I don’t know for sure. I just know I love her! Listen to an essay I wrote a few years back. Listen, and see if it moves you to your own love song. How dearly we need love songs about our particular corners of creation. “A song, a chime, a chant sublime,” from our hearts, rising to heaven, for the healing of the world:
She has that certain something. Regarding her unusual beauty, people attuned to such things ask me what she is, where they can get one like her. Centerpiece of our small back yard, she’s a Chinese elm, thirty-five years old, arms outflung in wide embrace, to the fullness of her height.
Springtime drops over those arms a shimmering frock of palest green, by which she captures hearts as surely as any Southern belle.
In summer her greenery darkens. Her trunk and branches swell with vitality, flinging off gray curls of bark to reveal mahogany smoothness beneath.
In the fall she sets seeds; they fly from her hands on brown-paper wings.
In winter she composes herself to rest. Her poise is a dancer’s, balanced, strong, her inclined stillness enlivened by a supple turn where she widens to meet the earth. A bonsai master could not have posed her more charmingly.
But it was Hurricane Bonnie, not bonsai, who shaped her when she was young, the storm twisting, then laying her flat. With hope, and help from neighbors, we hoisted her heaviness upright as best we could, staked her—and somehow she lived. Subsequent years brought more challenges—ice storm, Hurricane Rita, Hurricane Ike, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, severe prunings on her south side to render room for power lines. But in spite of all, this lady-tree grows more beautiful every year. Her life lifts my heart.
She’s noted for her hospitality. Little boys enjoyed her shade; so did their dog, of blessed memory. In her branches, birds of every hue and feather—tiny wrens, fierce hawks—have sheltered, sung choruses, mated, or merely paused to catch their breath. You hear a northern cardinal? Look up. There he is, at her crown! Squirrels travel the highway of her arms.
Yesterday I saw a curious sight: In the hot afternoon a squirrel was napping on one branch, smack in the middle of the highway, as if in his scampering he simply gave out—this far and no further. Maybe that droning cicada-music got to him. Who knows? Anyway, there he lay, spraddled on his stomach, chin on Mother Elm’s smooth skin, all four legs hanging down, tail stretched out behind. “Surely I have composed and quieted my soul; like a weaned child rests against his mother…” After a time he sprang up and resumed his travels.
In Hebrew imagery, that which lifts the heart, reinvigorates, restores high spirits, is called a Tree of Life. According to Proverbs, Wisdom is a tree of life to those who take hold of her, and happy are those who hold her fast. Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths are peace. What do you think? Can one’s back yard contain Wisdom—an invitation to prayer, to the perfect stillness of divine embrace? I believe so.