The Life of a Tree

A mighty Ponderosa Pine

A tree slowly inches upward as it lives in a previous time. As we respond to each day’s heat or cold or wind or snow, the pine and maple and elm and oak take little notice of the brief event. To them it is the series of days and months and years of nature’s forces that affect a life’s journey. Trees live in the past.

A gardener rubs a callous after a hard day’s digging in rocky ground, spots a new gray hair or three between summer haircuts, notes another toe on the crow’s feet around our laughing eyes as we pose for a holiday portrait. We notice the new events on our physical frames as the tree sways unnoticed in the distance, climbing higher to the sky.

The stifling summer afternoon drives us to the cooling shade and a welcome respite with lemonade or sun-warmed ice tea. The protective tree creates the shade while it bears the full impact of the sun-drenched day. It has no respite.

We seldom notice or think about the punishing blows that the tree absorbs. A single day of staggering heat is but a pinprick to a mighty forest bastion. A sequence of weeks with heat and wind and lack of rain begins to wound the mighty arbor, but like the proud father before his worshiping children he shows neither pain nor discomfort.

A tree lives in the past. The growth we climb and photograph and hide under in the relentless heat is the result of the days it experienced two or three years before. It gathers the light and air and water of today to form energy in the complex formula of life and transports that energy deep down to the core of its roots. There it stays, added to yesterday’s and last week’s contributions. The roots grow and increasing vitality lies unused, yet waiting, in the yielding soil.

When the tree requires nutrition to add the leaves and needles to continue the cycle it draws on the stored reserves. The lengthening branches and towering crown pull from the root-borne sustenance. In days of heat and dry, it sups on the deposit from days of cool and wet. Once used, the energy is gone.

The cycle of storing and consuming continues for the life of the tree. The lengthy delay between the two assumes a balance will exist. It assumes that the force that congregates over many nameless months will be enough for the unforeseen future need. When the scale tips precipitously we do not notice and the tree does not proclaim.

As the stress of sun and drought reduce the energy deposit we enjoy the green and cool from many days earlier when the tree bathed in the rain. As the desiccating cycle continues we offer gratitude for the tree that provides us relief and shelter. The tree does not ask for anything, but the balance is broken.

When the rains fail to fall and the sun stokes the atmospheric furnace, the tree does not cry out in thirst and pain. When the arborial life-restoring machine slows in the parched air, the tree pulls from its core to show green and growth and to slake our need for coolness as it sacrifices itself. We curse the heat, praise the tree, and do not think to restore the shattered scales.

Is is later, much later, that we notice the sacrifice. A tree lives in the past. It is showing today what it experienced years ago. The tree knows it is weakened after long periods of want, insects and pests recognize its weakened state, but we assume all is well. Trees are tall, trees are strong, trees live longer than we. It is only when it is too late that we notice its faltering.

Few new needles, sparse leaves, wilting limbs, and brown replacing green are our first signs, but they are the postscript in the tree’s diary. When we see damage and stress and pain, it is too late. Our action and aid will have little effect. Trees live in the past. The water we lavish today will reward the tree years from now, but to withdraw that deposit it must survive until then.

If we had audited the balance sheet when the scale tipped we could have forestalled the death. A tree will accumulate future growth as a function of its being. But if there is no water, there is no life-sustaining moisture to gather. The strongest roots breaking through granite will find no water if none exists. It will use the last of the liquid essence in its veins to grow and find more. This ultimate starvation is hidden from the casual observer.

It is only at the end of it’s life after its core is laid open that we are able to witness how the tree reacted to its struggles. The ever expanding rings bear witness to each season and each battle and each yearly accrual, but always in the past.  We can trace the rings and find our wedding year, when our first child was born, and the point of the tree’s death. That death is not in the thin final ring, but in the meager bands two and three prior.

As we duck from the pestering rain and remember the drought of a few years before, we study the ring on the stump that bears witness to months of stress when we were thirsty too. If old enough, we may recognize the large circles from the early days when we cared for it, watered it faithfully, and documented its growth. Like human children we know they reach a point when they can care for themselves. With age and stature comes responsibility for one’s survival and we cease to nanny our children or the tree.

Trees can’t ask for help when the pressures of life are too much. They can’t scream in anguish. They can only show us their end in the throes of decline.

We live for today and look to tomorrow. A tree lives in the past and each day is only a show of its yesterdays.


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