“Aging in Place”

[JUN2022] I guess it’s finally time to tell you about a major happening here. Though this happening happened last autumn. One afternoon, in the midst of a day filled with rain and wind, I heard a tree crash down in the forest. Living spot in the middle of 40-50,000 trees, some of them old or damaged/diseased, that is nothing particularly uncommon—particularly when winds challenge the strength of trees loaded with water or snow.

But out on a walk a couple days later, I discovered that what I heard crashing down as loudly as a whole tree was Spirit Tree losing one of her largest “arms”. If you are a guest to whom I have told the story (or if you read my contribution to the book The Extraordinary Tree Project), you will know that discovering this grand old maple was one of the big pokes nudging me to consider selling my conventional house—and conventional life—in the GTA ‘burbs and move to an off-grid homestead in the middle of a forest.

Poor Spirit Tree looked so forlorn with this gigantic branch lying at its side and over top of several other small trees and shrubs it took down along the way. If you’re not a tree person you may not understand when I say that I was heartbroken. But I was.

My initial inclination was to get out the chain saw and clean it all up. Remove the sad evidence from the scene. Then a few weeks later I was thinking that I should transform some of the branch into something with a function that would endure over time rather than cut it up as firewood. But then came snow and winter, early as it tends to be up this way, which deferred any action or grand gesture. And gave me time to process the happening more fully and explore what kind of action resonated deeply.

In the end, I came to feel it was best to leave it where it lay. To remove it, and sequester this part of Spirit Tree’s life story, would not be honouring an arboreal matriarch which has stood there for 150-200 years. And she continues to live on, leafing out in spring as profusely as always, and providing all the graces and wisdom as before. Plus maybe she is reminding us that all living things are destined to age. And with aging comes change in appearance and function, but that doesn’t mean any less meaningful or useful, just that perhaps utility and meaning evolve.

There is a core Buddhist notion of impermanence, that everything is changing. Always. Whether or not we can perceive the change it is inevitable and unstoppable. As the Stephen Batchelor writes in Buddhism Without Beliefs, “The only thing certain in life is death, the timing of which is uncertain. So what will you do?” Spirit Tree still has much to do methinks, as do I. And I suspect that the tree will outlive me, so this happening is yet another poke from my tree-friend to get on with it.

A dear guest of Off-Grid Retreat was on a return visit last December and felt called to express her experience visiting Spirit Tree eloquently in poetry. With her permission, I share it here:

spirit tree
mother tree
sister tree
grandmother tree
what do you call a tree that looms so large
in the year since i last visited
a huge section of her has fallen
a void space in her core
part of her broke away
under the strain of a storm i imagine
yet still she stands
i am grateful that her severed piece hasn’t been removed
sawed up
taken away
it tells a better story left where it fell
a story of resilience
we can suffer great losses
i stand in the clearing and take her in
in all her real 
a tree so broad and so tall
gnarled and age-ed
i stare up at her leafless canopy
and wonder what she looks like with foliage
how many more seasons will she cycle
is she a sister tree
a mother tree
a grandmother tree
she is most certainly a tree with life force


While I did want to leave the big arm where it fell, I did saw out a couple feet of it, where it had hinged from the trunk, so that Spirit Tree can once again be encircled and hugged. Though you will need at least three people to hold hands and fully surround this glorious tree. On the cut area of the branch, I have oiled with an eco-friendly blend to preserve the grain and pattern. I invite you to explore this on your next visit. Spend some time with Spirit Tree and see what wisdom she has to share with you.

Look carefully and you will see the branch fallen branch is already nursing new plant growth on it surface.

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