I’ve always felt an affinity for trees. Even as a small child, sitting on low limbs of an old, gnarled Osage orange in the schoolyard while eating my lunch, I felt the tree was alive, holding me up, its limbs wrapped like arms around me.
The years I worked as an artist, trees always were prominent in my paintings and in my pen and ink work. When I first moved to my farm in the Ozarks 25 years ago, a cedar tree (Juniperus virginiana) stood just outside my bedroom window. The tree was 80 or more years old, and showing its age. The top had been hit by lightning. Someone used the treetop for an electric pole, probably when the house was being built in the 1940s. The tree bore the scars from those ordeals, and the old, brown insulators remained bolted into its top, grown into place.
On sleepless nights, as I tossed and turned and thought about life, the tree creaked and groaned quietly, as though it was gently lulling me to sleep. I began to look forward to those sounds every night.
Over the years, I gathered the tree’s bountiful blue berries, using them in a winter potpourri I like to make. Mixing them with chopped pine needles, orange peel, cloves and sassafras limb pieces, I preserved the delightful smells and used the fragrant mixture in the house.
I saved the best berries and used them for cooking or tea. In winter, a cup of juniper berry tea, sweetened with honey, is a regular beverage for me.
I have added on to my house several times, and the room next to the tree has become part of the living room. Sitting beside the wood stove with a cup of juniper berry tea and looking out at the snowy landscape is one of the more peaceful pastimes imaginable. Alongside the old tree I built a new, more spacious kitchen, a deck and a porch that jutted out just under the tree.
There’s not a season when such trees don’t shed needles, in a constant rain of what looks like All-Bran cereal. That shedding, and the annual heavy crop of berries, often clogged the guttering and downspouts. The debris from the tree was always on the porch, no matter how many times a day I swept. Over time I began to see the tree as out of place in my landscape. None of the perennials I planted under it would grow.
The tree, being evergreen, kept much of the sunlight out of the kitchen, which I had constructed with lots of windows for growing plants. I trimmed back the tree’s lower limbs to let more light into the house. I put up gutter shields to little avail.
For several spring seasons, I considered cutting the tree down, but could never bring myself to do it. One day, I had a tree service in the yard, trimming some trees that had been damaged by windstorms. They then removed an oak that had grown too close to the well. I asked them to go ahead and take down that old juniper.
As the tree trimmers brought their equipment around, I wrapped my arms around the tree and said, “Goodbye, old friend.” Then I went off to let the trimmers do their work.
Now, nearly two years later, I still feel a tinge of sadness every time I pass the stump. The porch is clean, the gutters are empty, but I continue to feel like I have betrayed a good friend. The stump I had the trimmers leave is now an oversized post for a bird feeder, a rather sad tribute to the tree it once was. I no longer pause and nibble on the frosty blue berries as I always did in winter. I don’t have to sweep the porch as often, and there definitely is more sunlight in the kitchen in winter, but I no longer hear the creaking lullaby of the tree at night.
It was a good tree, an elegant tree, and it had lived on this spot much longer than I. Next time, before making such a decision, I will remember to listen to the song a tree sings first. I will taste the berries, make some tea, and think long and hard about removing such a venerable plant from my garden.
Jim Long writes and gardens from beside Table Rock Lake, in the Ozarks. Comments and questions welcome at Lcherbs@interlinc.net.