Behind my house there is a strip of woods that separates the backyards of my street from the backyards of the next street over. It somehow belongs to the town, despite being entirely surrounded by private property, and no one I know spends any time in it, as overgrown and deer infested as it is. I feel very fondly for that bizarre little strip of land, a holdover from long ago that was somehow never portioned out for private ownership. There are certain places in my room where I can look out the window, see only trees, and pretend I live in some wooded bower instead of squashed, suburban New Jersey. The trees sing to me, insect song in the summer and a nearly oceanic rumble of bare windblown winds in winter. I don’t spend that much time directly looking at the weird little forest, but it is my companion nonetheless and I enjoy having it.
About a year into the pandemic, one of the trees in these woods decided it was finished, that it wasn’t going to bud its green leaves like its brethren. It stood stark against the bright summer sky and the green of the surrounding trees, almost as if in protest. At first I thought that maybe it was a fluke, that it was going to bud late that year for some reason, but spring and summer came and went and the branches remained bare. I sat in my room, withering myself, separated from my friends by the risk of spreading sickness. In the midst of this, a dead tree somehow felt appropriate. The world had changed and so had the view from my window.
It was a pity, but still striking all the same to see the body of the tree continuing to stand strong despite ceasing its growing cycle. It made a memory spring to mind from many years ago at a sleepaway camp tucked away in the woods of northern New Jersey where I learned about the tragedy of hemlock trees. Ravaged by rampant bug infestation, they are a dying breed. But their fallen twigs are the best kindling for campfires. And if you stand beneath a hemlock tree’s corkscrew-like arrangement of branches, even if they’re dead and stripped bare, cool air filters down like a natural fan. Death is a sad, inevitable, and necessary part of life, but there can be a certain beauty in it too.
While the tree behind my house stood dead, life continued around it. Time passed, seasons changed, the trees around it became green once more, and I could see my friends again, although we were all changed by what had happened, what was (is) still happening. The skeletal tree stood tall and silent and watchful, but not really watched by us very much as we moved on. But it has recently grown tired of being ignored and decided to demand our attention. Worn down by wind and weather, it’s been dropping limbs on our and our neighbor’s garage. My mom looked at the deed to our house, determined that the tree was in fact in the town-owned strip of woods, and contacted city hall. They sent the town forester, a man who took one look at the tree and said it definitely needed to come down. He told my mom that it was an ash tree and had likely been killed by a parasite that is felling others of its kind all over the place. Someday soon workers will come cut down the tree, likely just dropping the limbs right there in the woods to save themselves the trouble of hauling the lumber out to the road. The view from my window will change again, but I wish it didn’t have to.
Change is an inevitable and necessary part of life, but there can be a sort of beauty in it too, like the bold shapes of a tree after it decides it doesn’t need its greenery anymore, yet stretches its limbs ever upward all the same. But I am not a tree, I am a woman, and as much as I want things in my life to change, I feel unable to cast off my own greenery and reach up for new opportunities, even for ones that I am nearly guaranteed to successfully seize. I am stunted by my fear that without the comfortable blanket of my current leaves I will wither and die and watch my own limbs fall off or be cut off by the world around me while I’m reaching out naked and vulnerable.
A friend of mine has pointed out to me in the past that I often talk myself out of things with “what if”s, that I dream of disaster before anything has even started to happen. Maybe I don’t have to worry about being cut to pieces on the forest floor if I change. Maybe I am already that dead ash tree, the world continuing around me while I stand brittle and alone, the parasite eating away at me, held back by giving way to it again. Crumbling, losing pieces of myself because I don’t know how to even consider change without falling apart.
This isn’t how I thought I would be in my 30s, too afraid to branch out, too afraid to stay still and be the only one not blooming, but life is impossible to predict, especially after the last three years. I feel like Schrodinger’s ash tree lately. Do I have it in me to keep growing upward? Or will I collapse?