The house was nearly ready. The front yard was nothing but dirt, but it was already cleared of most of the construction debris. Paulinho had planted a small evergreen tree that he intended to use as a local landmark when it grew larger. “The house with the fig tree” was his father’s. His would be “the house with the evergreen.”The sentence of death was announced on Thanksgiving. The decision had been made earlier, but it was revealed only when I was present to hear it in person. One more eternal verity is about to hit the dust—quite literally in this case.
—From an unpublished novel
The pine tree in my parents' front yard was planted the month before I arrived on the scene. The family photo album is full of pictures of the first-born standing next to it. The tree's growth quickly outpaced mine and soon it towered over everyone and everything. For many years my siblings and I referred to it as simply “the Christmas tree,” in honor of its once-a-year decoration with lights and in recognition of its uniqueness. No other house on the dairy farm was so adorned. Deciduous trees and spindly palms dominated the landscape, while our evergreen stood out in singular splendor.
For all I know, the execution has already been carried out. My parents and their friendly neighborhood tree surgeon were simply waiting for a mutually convenient date to do the deed. My Christmas visit will tell the tale, and I will know the outcome while still several miles from the family farm. The tree's absence on the horizon will be more than obvious. The loss of the lifelong landmark will be acutely felt.
My parents did not make a casual and unfeeling decision to raze the tree. The decades had inflicted significant damage on the evergreen. A dangerous crack in the upper reaches of the trunk had already forced a hasty topping of the tree before it dropped its crown on the house. No other remedy was possible. The truncated tree was still taller than anything other than the oldest palm trees (it's framed by the two tallest in the above photo), but its glory days were now clearly over. The loss of its upper third caused the tree's remaining branches to spread out in renewed vigor, extending them to the point that they began to sag and threaten to break. The old tree required either a serious and continuing pruning regimen or ... removal.
My parents made an economical and prudent decision, so the tree's fate was sealed. I passed the information along to my manuscript editor, who was aware of the tree's supporting role in my novel. He quickly replied to my message with a painfully apt poem by Seamus Heaney:
I thought of walking round and round a space
Utterly empty, utterly a source
Where the decked chestnut tree had lost its place
In our front hedge above the wallflowers.
The white chips jumped and jumped and skited high.
I heard the hatchet's differentiated
Accurate cut, the crack, the sigh
And collapse of what luxuriated
Through the shocked tips and wreckage of it all.
Deep-planted and long gone, my coeval
Chestnut from a jam jar in a hole,
Its heft and hush became a bright nowhere,
A soul ramifying and forever
Silent, beyond silence listened for.