In the wake of death, new life

By Marsha Crites • Guest Columnist

Much has been written in this paper and others about what is causing our gorgeous hemlock trees to die and what steps one can take to forestall or halt the disease. Rather than belabor these horticultural lessons, I am moved to talk about the emotional response many of us are having to losing these old giants who have guarded and shaded our lives for so long in the mountains.

One of the wonderful benefits of working on the land is the many lessons that nature teaches us about human life. This summer I have spent many dollars having the largest and most dangerously located hemlocks removed from my property. I have also spent many hours and much sweat cutting down the smaller trees myself. It is thus that I have had time to contemplate much, about not only hemlocks but also about the role that trees and plants play in my life in general.

Having grown up playing in the woods a few hours from here, I always appreciated the wonder of a large tree, awed at the height, the sturdiness, and the gracious cool it offered in my childhood. With my friends and siblings, I raked houses and whole communities in the leaves, and imagined those leaves to be currency we traded for other commodities in our make-believe world. I guess one might say I was a tree hugger from the start, resenting even the cutting of the small trees my father cleared to make my playhouse in the woods when I was 10.

I won’t further depress you by citing all the ways we continue to degrade the earth that range from the conversion of land from wilderness to agriculture and then to urban use to the careless use of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers and the resulting loss of three species a day to extinction. Indeed, never before have human beings wielded so much power over God’s creation. Do we know what we are doing?

OK, maybe I have further depressed you. But my intent is to instead point out all the ways that Mother Nature is our teacher and our inspiration. Modern physics and other sciences now remind us of how intertwined our lives are with those of all other creatures and elements of nature. Increasingly I feel that connection as part of my livelihood as a landscape and garden designer.

Frequently, when I turn the soil, compost my food waste, plant or cut a tree or shrub, or help to lay a garden path, some lesson of human living becomes clearer to me.

As I was cutting a small tree this week, that last piece of bark kept resisting the sawblade. As my temperature rose and my aggravation heightened, I was reminded of all the ways that small portions of grief or guilt still cling to those parts of our lives we thought we had let go of long ago.

As the trees come down in my woods, the space and light have changed, and new shrubs are already emerging that had been too heavily shaded to thrive before. Isn’t it true that when we clear away old ways or destructive habits, we allow the Universe or God or whatever you call your Higher Power to work in new ways?

Those of us in the landscaping and gardening world are still moaning about the effects of the Easter freeze, that weekend when frigid winds and snow covered the mountains this past spring. But as I have pruned away the damage on some plants and removed others totally destroyed, I am also aware of those species that survived.

I will plant these plants again and may think twice about using a less resilient plant in the garden. I also know when such a killing freeze strikes again, I will be more patient after the freeze, since some plants I never thought would recover from the freeze and the persistent drought are only recently showing new life. True, too, of some people I know. In our impatience we often give up on those whose progress and recovery from the blows of life is simply slower than we would wish.

Over and over again, I see in plants the kind of resilience that causes a mountain laurel’s roots to cling to a large rock, a wildflower to pop up actually cracking the asphalt, or a new hosta leaf to pierce a persistent layer of leaves and mulch to spring to new life.

When my daughters were children they hated me to read the story of Freddie the Leaf, the tale of how a lovely leaf looses its color and falls off the tree to die. Perhaps they were too young then to see the beauty and renewal in autumn, winter and in death and the life that springs from decay.

As for me, I will continue, as Julian of Norwich reminded us so long ago, “to be a gardener, to dig a ditch, to turn the earth upside down ... making abundant fruits to spring and take this food and drink and carry it to God as worship.”

(Marsha Crites is a social worker with individuals, organizations, plants, and gardens from Harvest Moon Gardens in Jackson County. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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