Life According to the Trees

If you want to experience wild beauty, you can find it in a region of northern Minnesota known as the Iron Range. Every season has a magnificence that is deeply rooted in the souls of the trees.

There is nothing like sitting on a dock in the summer sun, listening to the wind in the poplars…or the energy of the reds, golds, and oranges of the Laurentian Divide in the fall…or the diamond-sparkle-frosting on the pines of Giant’s Ridge…or the joy of seeing baby buds begin to pop out of branches you were beginning to believe were going to stay bare forever.

My childhood home was nestled in the woods—forty acres, to be exact, a wonderful playground of delight and intrigue. My big brother Cedric used to take Little Girl Me for walks through the swamp on trails he could navigate with his eyes closed. Out there, we weren’t nerdy and awkward, like we were in real life. Out there, he was the king, and I was the princess, and together we ruled with stories and laughter.

Later, when I was about nine or ten, my friends and I used to dream up all sorts of adventures in clearings we named “Wonderland” and “Thousand Islands.” Our outdoor world was vast and full of promise in those days, and the trees called to us incessantly while we were stuck doing chores or eating Campbell’s Soup and wieners on white bread.

We didn’t need Playstation or XBox. We had water and old pots and pans and sticks.

We didn’t worry about violence, drugs, or creepy guys giving out candy. We had a Springer Spaniel who sniffed around and barked at even the slightest whiff of a predator.

We didn’t need adults shuttling us to carefully supervised activities with objectives. There was a pecking order, but it was understood that we were to look out for one another.

In other words, we spent our time just being kids, something we all know is somewhat lost on our own children today. We ran wild for hours with our imaginations in tow until our mother’s voices ordered us home for dinner.

Watching over all of this was The Big Tree, a massive white pine that grew in my parents’ yard. I used to lie on my back on the grassy hillside of our far-from-manicured lawn, watching the clouds slip by the branches that were swaying back and forth hundreds of feet above me.

Its needles were wishbones that ended up in our mud soup, and its roots were the perfect place to sit with my big brother and talk about life, the universe, and everything.

After Cedric died in 1987, I used to tuck myself between those roots in an effort to feel closer to him. While it was never quite the same without him, there was a modicum of comfort in the embrace of The Big Tree. Sometimes I even heard traces of his voice in the wind blowing through branches that were much closer to heaven than I.

When I was older and went out walking by myself in the woods, I was almost always able to follow my Finlander sense of direction. If I ever got turned around, though, all I had to do was look for The Big Tree to guide me back to the road.

One time, when a hailstorm overtook us on the way home from a graduation party, my dad simply pulled the car under the protective branches of the tree and waited for the ice boulders to stop falling from the sky.

Not once did we worry that The Big Tree was going to come down; it was too big, too grand, too much a part of our collective consciousness.  It was our guardian, it brought us joy, and it whispered of constant strength whenever our family life dipped into dysfunction. That tree was home.

Sometime in the late nineties, when I was a married woman and a gainfully employed teacher, The Big Tree got sick from a beetle infestation. It started going bald as the top branches began to die. The whispers grew fainter, and soon the time came for it to come down.

Trained professionals put it out of its misery, first by strategically lobbing off the top and then by cutting down the trunk in chunks.

My mom documented the event with her camera and sent me pictures that knotted up my stomach with grief. My dad hauling away branches in his truck for days, and soon all that was left of our beloved tree were some forlorn logs in the field. Coming home for the first time and seeing the remaining stump of our Giving Tree was pure agony.

As always, though, life went on, and my brain went to work figuring out a way I could bring part of our tree home with me. I decided that a cross-section of the trunk would make a great coffee table.

During one of our trips home, then-husband and I revved up the old cross-cut saw and cut several pieces from the logs (under Dad’s careful, eagle-like supervision, of course). We stacked them in the boat garage for “later” and went back to our busy lives. We hardly thought about that wood after that day and assumed that things at home would always be as they were.

On Thanksgiving Day 2004, however, my dad passed away after battling a fungal lung infection he had picked up while cutting firewood one summer.

I don’t care how long you have; there’s no way to prepare to live in a world without one or both of your parents. Doing so requires you to step into a completely different dimension of reality that feels colder and infinitely more uncertain.

As the “oops” baby of the family, it was difficult to lose my dad when I was only 33 years old, especially after having lost one father figure already when I was fifteen.

Losing them both—as complicated and as maddening as they both could be—was a cruel hand to be dealt so young.

For several years after, I felt like a lost little girl, not recognizing the landmarks around me or the position of the sun in the sky. However, I had to get up every day and put smile on my face so I could be a mom, a teacher, a wife, a friend, and a productive member of society. But I was hiding a brokenness underneath it all.

Every day was an exercise in survival, and for a while, I completely lost my sense of direction. I became a different version of myself that I didn’t recognize. I fell apart.

Not many people knew how deep my pain was, of course, because the world keeps spinning with or without you, and no one really has the time or energy to deal with your stuff when they have enough of their own to manage.  That’s just how it goes.

Eventually you learn to continue with life–it really is your only choice.

A few years after my dad’s death, my mom started spending time with a very nice man who our family had known for years. They started having coffee and watching Laurence Welk together, and soon Bob was her date for concerts, weddings, and anniversary parties. He was a talented carpenter and woodworker, and he fashioning gifts for her with his hands.

After seeing a beautiful plant stand he made for her birthday, I asked Bob if he would make my coffee table out of my “for later” wood. He did so gladly and beautifully. He took such great care in leveling it, sanding it, varnishing it, and giving it new legs, and he even meticulously counted all 109 of its rings.

He also took great care of my mother until she no longer remembered who he was. His last act of love for her was to stop visiting—it made her too upset, he said.

It must have been hard for him to say goodbye to her for the last time—to slowly walk out the door, leaving her behind and trusting that God would hold her tightly.

We all had a hard time saying our final goodbye to her not long after that. But we knew she was home—with my dad, with my brother, with my dog, and maybe even with The Big Tree.

One morning, I ran across some pictures my sister-niece Amy posted on Facebook of the new white pines starting to thrive in the absence of The Big Tree. As I marveled at how big the trees had grown, some familiar thoughts rooted in old hurt began to surface.

Why me?

Why have I experienced such a ridiculous amount of loss, so early?

What truth do I possibly need to learn that I haven’t already pondered incessantly?

How many more tears must I shed before I catch a glimpse of my real smile again?

How much longer would it be before I would feel joy as deeply as I did when I was a sprite running through the woods?

Once those familiar thoughts passed, however, an unfamiliar one poked its way to the surface and handed me a new truth:

Perhaps in the absence of something great—something that you couldn’t imagine living without—growth and beauty become sudden possibilities because the world eventually reorients itself with creation.

Yes. Yes, that’s right. I remember now.

Every summer, the wind rustles the leaves as the sun shines on the lake.

Every fall, the hillsides are covered in color.

Every winter, the trees glisten against the post-snowstorm blue sky.

And every spring, the buds poke their way through the bark.

They just do…it is their nature. And so it is with us.



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