On the day I considered my last day of summer vacation before school started, I took a walk up the St. Regis Mountain trail. I wasn't intending to climb the mountain to the top, but wanted to walk to the spot where the "old" trail meets the "new" trail ... a site where a man-made bridge crosses a delightful bubbling stream, where the ranger's cabin used to sit. The old and new trail designations are relative ... the new trail has been in place for a very long time. Although I've climbed the mountain at least a dozen times, I haven't climbed St. Regis to the top since it was constructed, so I'm entitled to call the trail "new" until I do.
I'd been having nostalgic thoughts about the end of summer, about a summer of great beauty, visits from wonderful friends, and many hot days. We'd spent many hours on our back porch, taking in the views of Mother Nature while sitting on a couple of lawn chairs, surrounded by squirrels and chipmunks. We had a couple of fierce storms this summer, with howling winds and drenching rains. And during those storms, a lot of trees toppled to the ground. There were a few downed in the woods near my house, loud with their cracking and falling, and several had fallen directly into the road between my house and the highway during a storm in early July. I know that sometimes big trees fall in big storms. I know that.
During my St. Regis hike I noticed a number of large trees that had fallen, some near the trail, some across the trail ... hinting that big cracking sounds had happened several times during the storm when the towering giants fell to earth. A couple of giant trees had totally crossed the trail, forcing hikers to climb over or through the branches, or create another trail around the mass of branches and trunks. When some trees fell, uprooting their root system, they created an intricate art form, perpendicular to the trunk, roots woven into the earth now standing tall like a round, woody sculpture. The new obstacles made for interesting climbing, especially when I'd have to sit on a huge trunk and swing my legs over, one at a time, to the other side. I felt like a kid, enjoying myself in the quiet woods, playing in the trees.
I didn't feel badly about the fallen trees. I saw their fall as part of life in the forest ... eventually all trees fall or die standing. When we walk in the woods, surrounded by a million trees sometimes we forget that they, too, are impermanent, just like us. I can accept that they become part of feeding the forest, and that the wild animals find a lot to enjoy when downed trees are caught in other tree limbs or are sprawled flat on the ground.
Honoring an old friend
When I got home after my splendid hike, I spent some time honoring my dying elm tree. It rose high into the sky over the two story house, outside my bedroom window, outside my favorite chair in the kitchen, and over my back porch. There wasn't a single day I didn't look at that amazing tree, and feel gratitude for its gifts of shade and comfort. I took a number of photographs, and had someone take a picture of me hugging the tree, something I'm famous for even when it isn't my own tree that's getting the hug. I listened one last time for the wind to move through those high limbs, rustling and reassuring at the same time.
The next morning the arborists came to take down my tree. Its Dutch Elm disease had wreaked havoc on its mighty branches, which were all but bare. Since June we'd been watching the leaves turn yellow and brown and fall to the ground. Lots of woodpeckers and nuthatches had spent solid pieces of time pecking at the bugs that were so prevalent in its bark. It was looking sadder and sadder as the weeks progressed. It was time to do the right thing, before decaying limbs fell on the house itself.
I let the professionals do their job. The sound of a beloved tree hitting the ground is huge, like a little earthquake. But the crack, the moment when the integrity of the trunk is reduced to the point of breaking, that's the electrifying sound of nature I'd imagined on my hike up the mountain. The sight of all those other mighty trees which had fallen in the storms had softened the blow of this one familiar tree's time to fall.
So much sky
Still I was shocked. I'd been preparing myself for weeks, but I was startled by the sight of so much sky overhead. So much light had been gathered up by the elm's mighty branches and limbs over our home, we'd been blessed by shade for all 34 years we'd been here. And all those who came before us in this location had been similarly blessed ... the original cabin on this site was built before the turn of the last century, and the tree was here then, being the cornerstone for the lot, being the marker for the bend in the river and home for birds and wildlife every day.
So here's to the memory of a huge and beloved tree: Thank you for your shade and security for all these years. Thank you for the hours I was able to watch you grow and shelter us. Thank you for the lessons of letting go, for moving on, for teaching me that trees are powerful friends to those who take the time to let them speak to us. The night sky is now something I can see for the first time from my back yard ... and I am thrilled to let starshine fall on my upturned face. The elm's final gift was the space it once held being given to us for light. And even though I miss our mighty tree, I am grateful for that light I truly am.
Randy Lewis lives in Paul Smiths, and is the author of "Actively Adirondack: Reflections of Mountain Life in the 21st Century," Adirondack Center for Writing's People's Choice Award for Best Book 2007.