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Letting in the Light

As my family helps my mom back onto solid ground, the sumacs, sassafras and wildflowers are forming the same kind of protective circle around our old tree.

Acable is wrapped around the soft bone in my mom’s newly reconstructed hip, holding together what remains. Following two falls on steep steps, her skeleton was “crushing in on itself,” the surgeon told us, with shards of cartilage floating around in her joint fluid. “She must have been in extreme pain,” he added, though my stoic mother later disputed that description.

There’s a cable wrapped around the branches of the tallest tree in my backyard, too, placed there lovingly a few years ago by a kind arborist who couldn’t bear the thought of removing such a beautiful living being before her time. He spent hours observing her from many angles, peering up close into the branches and checking her out from a good distance away in the back meadow. In the end he provided two estimates: one for adding more reinforcing cables that would give her extra stability in the short-term and one for cutting her to the ground and making her into wood chips. The latter option would be drastic for the life around the tree, he warned, gesturing toward the nearby shade and meadow gardens. “These plants will go into shock with all that sudden light.”

My husband and I chose to let the tree decide for herself when and how she wants to go. Though a large fracture splits her trunk almost in two, she’s still standing, still leafing out at the top and reaching her arms toward the sky. She’s been dropping limbs for years, shedding her burdens whenever the wind blows too hard, and letting in more light below. Each summer among the ostrich ferns, maiden ferns, golden ragworts and black cohosh at her base, new plants gather to greet her—black raspberries, pokeweed, Virginia creeper, spicebush, fleabanes, shallow sedges, and nimblewill. In the surrounding gardens, the wildflowers and saplings, long situated at the edge of sun and shade, are bursting forth from the receding shadows.

I’ve spent years preparing for sad endings and new beginnings in my habitat. Though visiting botanists and arborists have been unable to figure out her exact identity, everyone agrees that the distinguished matriarch towering over all our other plants is some kind of ash, and therefore doomed to a life cut short when the emerald ash borers inevitably find her. Yet our sweet tree hangs on, still sheltering her friends and neighbors from harsh sun while also letting in more rays. She’s finding the balance between guarding her loved ones and letting them go and grow, branching out and reseeding on their own and in new directions.

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At one time, she was the only tree left standing in the vast expanse of lawn cultivated by the previous owners of our home. Not long after we moved in, a nearby sister tree toppled during a thunderstorm. Even when they’d stood tall together, it must have been a lonely existence for them both, plunked down as hopeful saplings into the lawn and then spending most of their lives watching giant riding mowers crush the land around them week after week for years. Scientists have discovered that trees share resources not just with others of their own kinds but also with entirely different species. What would it be like to have gifts to give and no one to give them to?

Sensing that one day our beloved tree would grow tired and weak, and wanting to give her some companionship in her remaining days, about a dozen years ago I began adding plants at the edge of the shade cast by her canopy. It started with three woodland sunflowers, planted in holes dug directly in the turf. Soon those spread but seemed a bit lonely, too, so I smothered a patch of grass with newspaper and leaves to make way for more plants, and I added a spicebush nearby. Then came a bayberry, golden ragwort, wild ginger, and more wildflowers. On the other side of the tree, where I used to have a catmint-lined path to a rose-covered trellis, sassafras began spreading into the garden and the nearby turf, so I let them flourish while I gradually dug out the remaining grasses by hand and replaced them with native groundcovers. The old trellis is falling down now and covered in wild grapevine, with heirloom roses still peeking out beneath.

In anticipation of the tree’s decline, I’ve celebrated and nurtured each new plant sprouting nearby — the tulip poplars and sweetgums, redbuds and maples, oaks and walnuts and hickories and staghorn sumacs. They have started to form a large circle around the old lady, protecting her from winds and casting new shade in new places. In the space where her canopy continues to shrink, the meadow garden is expanding, a sunny clearing in the middle of the developing woodland at the perimeters. The wildflowers and grasses there were fine in part-sun, blooming and spreading slowly each year. But this season, as increased sunlight combines with voluminous rains, the riotous patch has taken on a life of its own, filled with Joe Pye and swamp sunflower and ironweed and golden alexanders and mountain mint reseeding and sprouting anew among the golden ragworts hugging the ground below. The serviceberries and sweetbay magnolia that once struggled along for more light have shot up and out, coming into the world with more energy. Some plants compete, some collaborate, and all are thriving, separately from the plans I once had for them and far more beautifully than I could have anticipated.

***

People often want exact prescriptions for creating a wildlife garden. But there’s no set recipe for nurturing life, no one-size-fits-all guidebook for raising a child or caring for a parent or planting a tree. There are universal ingredients, starting, of course, with love. The more you actively love a person or a tree or a frog or a slug or anyone who relies on you to help them survive and thrive, the easier it is to add the other ingredients to your mixture — the ability to observe, listen, ask questions, and respond to the individual: What do you need from me? What don’t you need? What signs of stress should I be looking for, and what signs of life and joy should I celebrate and let come into their own? What old assumptions do I carry with me that are no longer serving anyone or were never true in the first place?

The cables won’t last forever in my mom’s body or the tree’s. But though we have more in common with trees than we think, there is one key trait that separates us: Once a person falls, she can often get back up again, whether on her own or with the help of friends or family or medical professionals. To help my mom on her feet, we have walkers, a cane, a wheelchair, a rental lift chair, and most of all, my devoted dad. Just a few days after surgery, she’ll be stronger than she was before. And the twinkle in her eye is already back, along with the relentless tall tales about my teenage hellion days.

For a tree, falling and getting back up again isn’t an option. Dying trees know this, and researchers have found that they can pass nutrients through underground fungal networks to surrounding trees throughout the forest, leaving a priceless legacy for the next generations. Even after the fall, though, the tree still gives life — to the beetles and carpenter ants who come to live in the stump, the wood-nesting bees who lay their eggs in the fallen trunk, the woodpeckers who raise their young in the standing snag and make holes that bluebirds and tufted titmice and many other animals will later use.

Soon my mom will be well enough to come over for a visit. We’ll admire the tree, and I’ll make a bouquet from the flowers below for her. She’ll bring me a fruit salad or some “goodies,” as she calls sweet treats, along with little treasures she’s held onto for decades but no longer needs. I will add them to my collection of things, letting them nourish and inspire me until I no longer need them either. But I will always carry inside the other gifts she’s given, trying to actively harbor the patience to grow slowly among shifting shafts of sun and shadows, sharing my own resources, taking only what I need, and looking always for that little bit of light.

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