I grew up in a small white house at the very edge of a tiny town in northwest Ohio. Beside the house my parents had planted just a few years before my birth a cut-leaf weeping birch tree, Betula pendula laciniata—a transplant from Europe, as my ancestors had been. The laciniata refers to its small, many-pointed, lacy leaves.
As a child I loved to stand under the weeping threads of its branches, next to the slim white trunk. Its young bark was thin and crinkly as tissue paper. In junior high, sent to rake the birch tree’s generous fall of yellow leaves, I would rake and daydream, sometimes arranging the leaves in the rectangles and squares of a floor plan, with windows and doorways laid out as in blueprints. And when I was in high school, the tree, now thirty feet tall, witnessed my longings as I sat beneath it on summer afternoons, immersed in books, reading everything from romance novels to C. S. Lewis. I can’t say I shared secrets with the tree, but I did feel different—calmer, a little more confident or clear—after being veiled for a few hours under its leafy fall.
Fifteen years out of high school, when I was in my early thirties and living two thousand miles away on the West Coast, the birch tree became a friend in a new way. One evening as I crossed the living room after dinner, an image popped into my mind. It was the birch tree, and in the space of a moment the tree was as present inside my head as the sofa was present before my eyes. I sank down and closed my eyes. What was happening? I hadn’t thought of the birch tree for years and had no reason to be thinking of it now.
There was no announcement, there were no words. The tree simply rose suddenly in my awareness, its tall, graceful image strong in my mind—stronger somehow than a memory. The presence remained vivid for a few moments and then gradually faded. A feeling of quiet gravity, almost sadness, had accompanied it.
Two weeks later I received a call from my brother, who still lived in our hometown. We talked a few minutes before he said slowly, “Well, I’m afraid we’re going to have to cut down the birch tree. It’s got a disease or something.”
Ah, so that was it. The tree had come to say good-bye. I hung up the phone and paused for a moment to focus my attention on the birch tree again and say thank-you.
I knew the birch tree very well from my years of living with it. What I hadn’t realized until then was that the tree also knew me.
—From the paper I presented at last weekend’s conference on religion, ethics, and nature at Ohio Northern University. If you’d like to see the paper, please feel free to email me using the Contact Me form in the sidebar.
Update: This story became the foundation of a chapter my book, Kissed by a Fox: And Other Stories of Friendship in Nature, published in 2012. More about the book, including reviews and book trailer, at kissedbyafox.com.