Editor’s note: Each Thursday, we feature a throwback piece from Topology’s predecessor, catapult magazine. In this essay from 2004, Wm. Anthony Connolly reflects on death and change in his own back yard.
The place where we live is named for its trees. The house sits among trees. Water oak, Ponderosa pine: our own forest. It teems with morning songbirds, squirrels, and nocturnal possums. From second-story windows, you can see nothing but trees; it is like living in a treehouse. Once a woodpecker stared in at me. He seemed to ask with his curious stare, What are you doing here?
During the summer, the branches are heavy with bright greens and yellows. While fall drains the colors here, the season is still one of whimsy. Up until late February, early March, the leaves are still falling even as new growth sprouts almost overnight. The trees are one day brown, next day a pea green.
One day a new neighbor moves in. I can’t recall seeing the old neighbors move out. Did they say goodbye? The new neighbor comes over, introduces himself, and we exchange small talk. Soon he tells me a dying tree in my backyard is hanging over his fence. It’s not dying, I was thinking, it’s changing. I don’t know what dead looks like. I was never one to care about the changing seasons or the inevitability of nature. The trees would be here forever. I look at my tree as this growing wonder. One day it has leaves; the next it does not. It has grown greatly in the years we have been here. My former neighbor and I seldom talked about dead trees and who should cut what and when. We talked about our dogs. Now, here is this new neighbor and he’s anxious to deal with my dying tree. Cut whatever you need to, I think I said wanting to get back into my house. My neighbor cuts off all overhanging branches. Frankly, the tree looks injured: stunted. This stuns me. I stand in my kitchen in my blue terry cloth housecoat, a cup of coffee in my hand and just stare at what my neighbor has done. I am angry. Maybe I did have something to say about my tree. Maybe I had a lot to say. When did I start caring about trees? However, it is too late: the tree is dead, it must be cut down. The pruning has made this obvious. My wife takes matters into her own hands. The dying tree is to be removed. She decides a handyman will cut it down and haul it away. I do not even have to watch. It will happen when I am not looking.
The other day I came home and found my yard had more light. I stand in the yard, and look at all the remaining trees. There is a slight breeze. The leaves are falling and landing by my feet. I see the handyman has taken the wrong tree, and my tree, the tree whose branches stretched over into another’s yard, is still standing. I look up at its gnarled branches, the benevolent leaves recklessly blooming in spring’s new heat. There, high on one of the branches, in a crook of knotted oak, rests a nest of dusty twigs and nearby a tiny speck of pea-colored magic. I stand there once again in the presence of something greater than I; mystery, birds, blooming; the inevitability of nature and God.