Mother Earth Living

My Old Friend the Juniper Tree

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.

  • Published on Feb 1, 2004
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