Grief is a sacred journey

For the Love of Trees

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Land Trust Hector costumes“Come on, Elaine, let’s dress up in our Hector regional costumes and take a photo for the party invitation.”

“I have gardening to do, Vic. Let’s do it tomorrow.”

“No, today,” Vic insisted. “It’s a perfect day. You’ll be glad we did it.”

I reluctantly took off my shorts and pulled on overalls, rubber boots, and a big straw hat. Vic grabbed a spade fork and a shovel. I put Daisy on a leash so she wouldn’t wander off to hunt. Vic arranged his tripod, set up the shot, and put the camera on delay. Leaping and laughing, he hurried next to me in time for the camera click.

IMGA few weeks later, friends and a few people from the Finger Lakes Land Trust showed up for a ritual celebration. We walked to the woods and stood silently around a majestic red oak tree.

One by one, we gave offerings to the forest and created an altar around the base of the tree. Some said a prayer or read a poem, some buried an acorn, many offered flowers from home or picked a wild flower or found a feather along the trail. Some brought crystals, beautiful stones, or tiny carved animals to place near a small Buddha statue. Jayne Demakos played her harp. The oak received many hugs.

Earlier that summer, Vic and I had signed a conservation easement with the Land Trust. I hesitated when Vic first made the suggestion a few years before. It would cost money for lawyers. Too many details to figure out and too much bother. We procrastinated.

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Ritual to celebrate our conservation easement, 2005

Then our neighbor who owned 150 acres bordering our forest died. His widow sold the lumber rights. Men came with chainsaws and bulldozers. I walked through the woods each evening to visit the standing trees on the neighbor’s land, just as I’d done for many years. Every morning, men and machines demolished the forest, tree after precious tree. Since I couldn’t stop them,  I witnessed and grieved. My spine tightened with fear, and I wondered if the trees sensed the threat. I hugged the giants and wet their bark with my tears.

The next day, the trees I had hugged the day before, the majestic oaks, maples, and pines, lay mortally wounded on the ground, as though a hurricane had crashed through. The giants crushed and broke most smaller trees as they fell. Anything remaining was destroyed as machines dragged the logs out to the neighbor’s field. And so it went for weeks until each tree was gone. Pocketing her profit, the widow moved away.

An unforgiveable devastation of a mature woods, habitat for struggling forest birds, animals, and plants. Irate and heart sick, we couldn’t allow this to happen to the trees we owned, even after we sold our property, even after our death. Anger and grief fueled action. We called the Finger Lakes Land Trust. The effort and cost to create a conservation easement suddenly seemed small.

Our 71 acres remained privately owned, but the agreement in the deed bound us and future owners to leave the property undivided and undeveloped and follow a long-term conservation plan for fields, forest, streams, and wetlands. The easement allowed us to love each tree, view, and stream, knowing we protected their future as we protected each other and our children.

More than ever, the forest became my healing sanctuary, the place where I turned when life dealt me a blow, the trees I leaned into when Vic was diagnosed with cancer, the place where we buried his ashes, the place where I found solace after his death.

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What have you preserved for your family or for future generations? How has Nature nourished and healed you? You might also enjoy My Hector Home: Protecting the forests of the Finger Lakes or Lost and Found in my Own Backyard.

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16 Comments
  1. My land hugs me when I’m home and calls out to me when I’m away. The spring peepers, the fox and kits that live under the deck, the ducks and geese that nest around the pond and even the darn minks that dig holes through the pond banks are my family. I am never alone.

    • Beautiful images, Robin. A fox and kits under the deck? I’m lucky to see fox tracks, but they don’t come close to the house. I have birds, though, and plenty of peepers. Last night the woodpeckers were banging away since one of the conservation practices is to leave some old sick trees for the woodpeckers to excavate for food and for cavity nesting birds. Love my forest and the swamp. Still sad about the beautiful neighbor’s forest. You and I got lost in that area where I occasionally venture to watch Nature make a comeback–but there are few young oaks and hard maples because deer eat the baby trees.

  2. Oh, Elaine, I applaud you. What a sad day it was when those trees were sacrificed for money….that no longer exists. Bill and I had 67.5 acres of woods, meadows, streams, a spring, rock out droppings. One summer we planted 1500 more trees…they should be very tall by now but I lack the courage to visit them. We learned about the possibility of our trees being cut because the previous owner had it in a program to save taxes. We took it out of that program and watched our taxes sky rocket and the trees flourish. When we sold it all we turned down great offers made by people who wanted to develop the land and found a buyer who put it in a trust for conservation and who still live there and will. So we left 67 glorious a pacers for the future and added 1500 trees to it…all pine. Some day I may walk those woods again but for now I can not even write about them here without a flood of tears. Me ories of life there are just the best…deer, turkey, coyote, and more in our yard each day. Fawns born in our yard right in front of us. Long walks and cross country skiing our land, sunsets over our meadows and more. You just gave me a treasure trove of memories to sleep on. Thank you. Mary

    • How wonderful, Mary, and another way we are connected. Vic and I planted at least a thousand trees, bordering on the road side with a thick hedge of woods to protect the privacy of the fields. So many birds nest in those trees. I love the fawns, but they grow up to be tree eaters and trunk bark strippers (rubbing their antler velvet off against the bark of young trees and stripping off the bark and branches). So I’m glad when I hear the coyotes howl because they help keep the deer in balance. Mostly, I love the beauty of the old oaks and hickories on this property and like to visit each one and thank them. Someday when you visit your tall trees, you’d likely have a good cry but your heart will soar with the sense of renewal and growth and with all the good Bill and you did for the earth. Thanks for your story and for your encouragement.

  3. It feels good to have visited your trees and to be able to visualize them as I read your words. As kids, my brothers and I loved to climb the big maple in our grandparents’ front yard in New Hampshire. Some of the earliest photos I took, learning how to use a camera as an 11 year old, were of trees and sunlight dappling their leaves. I can empathize with your fury and sorrow when the neighbor’s trees were cut down in their prime! Much love…Liz

    • You know about big maples in New Hampshire and big oaks in North Carolina. And you and David are doing so much for your land. I can hardly wait to see all you’ve done. Thank you, Liz, for being part of the Official Tree Huggers Brigade. I can hardly wait to see all you and David have done with your property. Sending love and looking forward to one month from today. One month! Love to you, E

  4. I’m glad there are people like you in the world to protect the old trees & undeveloped we have left.

    • Thank you. Sometimes it seems like a losing battle, but we can act locally, so that’s my approach. My major environmental focus now is fracking and fracking infrastructure. It’s an uphill battle in NY State, but the movement is growing to protect the water, environment, and natural beauty.

  5. Love the ma & pa with pitchfork & shovel photo, Elaine!

    • Thanks, Nanci. Vic had such a good time setting that up–and his silliness was contagious. One of the many things I miss about his absence–but David and Anthony have a similar sense of humor.

  6. Thank you for honoring the forest. We live on violated land. Thank goodness the county at least demanded the developers to situate seimentation ponds throughout the community – not for any noble sentiment but for utilitarian purposes. But “Our” pond is already a tourist site for dear, fox, bear, birds of many colors and little beasts galore. And the weed trees are prepping the earth for richer varieties. We are glad we’ve lived here long enough to salute the earth’s rejuvinating determination,

    • Thank you for your response, David. The pond that was once on my land filled in with sediment, so now it’s a teeming swamp with many birds, reptiles, and other living plants and animals residing there. Peepers make a deafening chorus. We tried to nurture and protect young maples and oaks and saved a few from the deer. It’s been amazing to watch this land change and thrive in 40 years. Have also had to watch the beech die and now the ash decline and the threat to hemlocks. We’ve found a few chestnut trees and hope they’ll make it, but I’m told they rarely do. I am forever grateful for what thrives and saddened by what doesn’t. Sounds like we share this attitude and that we are both trying to do our small part on behalf of the Earth.

  7. Every now and then I drive past our old home sold more than 4 years ago on condition that the oak tree was never cut down. I know that all else in the one acre property has been cut down but that beautiful tree still stands. I always greet it as I drive past; it’s at least 100 years old. Right now I’m looking out of my study and am surrounded by trees and those beautiful jacarandas over the wall weaving in the wind – thanks Elaine, a lovely homage to trees ..

    • Ah, your beautiful oak, Susan, still standing to greet you. Vic loved one particular red oak that stands at the top of a small hill in the forest. He asked that his ashes be spread beneath to feed it. Thanks to my sons, we went a step further by burying his ashes close to the oak and building a cairn over them. I’m grateful we signed a conservation easement even though it lowered the value of my land. The value of the land was in the trees–per board foot for a logging company and lumber mill. I’m glad that will never happen to these healthy majestic trees. Our forest plan allow cutting sick or crowded trees for the health of the forest, but otherwise the trees are safe to grow and thrive.

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