The Arbor Vitae 2013

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The Arbor Vitae Tree

May 10, 2013

Tags: Survive; arbor vitae, stone house, tree

The Arbor Vitae in its younger days
  I grew up where trees and flowering plants were named eucalyptus, jacaranda, bougainvillea, the music of color caught in the music of their names. Lemon trees, rose bushes, jasmine, magnolia, mango and palm wafted fragrances on a gentle breeze that I can still summon up if I close my eyes.
  Flaring out from a corner of our house in upstate New York, was a tree I had never seen before, spreading sculptural beauty, leaning outward from old stone walls, an intricate puzzle of smooth brown branches and tight circular masses of tiny green leaves. The tree is old, and bears no hint as to who first planted its roots into the earth. When we first bought the house, it was a dense splendor of large boles bearing perfect globes of miniature fans massed together, rich green, tight with sap, tiny fists of luminous green at every tip and twig vigorously reaching toward the sun. Brown branches twisted, threaded in and out of each other, leaned out from the grey fieldstone walls of the house. Magnificent.
   A tree expert came by one afternoon to tend to an aging cherry tree.
  “What do you call this tree?” I asked as we hurried past the corner of the house. He named it for me, looking back admiringly. “That's a fine old evergreen, an arbor vitae,” he said, “the tree of life.”
  As years rolled by, storms slashed at the arbor vitae. Heavy snows turned its dense green masses into gigantic snowballs, glistening white against a sharp blue sky. One by one, branches split off, pulled to the ground as fierce winds raged against the old stone house.
  Chainsaw in hand, my husband neatly lopped off ragged edges of loss as more years passed.
  I watched in dismay. “The tree will never survive,” I cried, seeing its beautiful shape scarred and disfigured.
  But each spring found the arbor vitae sealing off its losses. New shapes sprang from its branches. Its dignity intact, its silvered bark polished, smooth as silk, it raised dense masses again from its branches, newborn green tipping every twig. It did not die. Where dark green had been its vocabulary, it offered more spaces, more scars, more silver curved against the corner of the house. As the winds hummed, it sang new songs and danced new dances. It is such a beautiful tree.
  And I saw it at last as a metaphor for life, the arbor vitae, a life force that adapted to onslaught and change and still tipped its twigs in pale green fists in spring, pointing them proudly at the sky. It survives because it does not accept defeat. Its silver trunk gleams with the beauty of age. It shifts its shape to fit the moment and never loses its soul.


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