Beauty That Does Not Die

A Sugar Maple Tree’s Mortality (And Our Own)

Duo Dickinson / 9.8.21

We are in yet another season of frenzy dealing with our fears. Here in New England the trees remain unfazed, despite having a decade of four separate blights killing millions of them. After a century of growth when farming was abandoned as a viable way to use the land, those fields are now forests seeing the results of infection.

Us humans have been dealing with our own infections lately, like a bad house guest who never leaves. Packed stadiums full of the proudly maskless, school boards of screaming parents. There are more Covid19 cases now than a year ago.

Maybe we can learn from the trees.

In coastal Connecticut, a rock-filled, salt-poisoned bit of tidal swamp land was never good for anything but a place for sheep to graze, avoiding the muck. Continuous eating by the sheep meant that the verdant undergrowth was consumed, so native trees exploded into life without competition and dominated.

One of those trees, a sugar maple, grew at the corner of our property line, and was used as a corner post for the barbed wire that kept the sheep from running free. It stood for decades watching over our hither and thither anxieties. The tree has seen world wars come and go, economic boom and bust, even a previous pandemic. Its leaves burst orange every fall before spring brought shade in the summer heat. That tree died about three years ago, felled by one of those blights, its orange leaves became a sign of dying.

No tree thinks about exploding into life, so ceasing to live is just whatever the tree is given, no understanding.

But as this last eighteen months has proven, humans know that life is a short thing. Defined by beginning and end. We, alone, see death ahead of us. As the Covid season frenzy has shown, we are fully terrified that death will, most assuredly, be our ultimate end. God made all of this inexplicable complexity, even if there is no way of understanding how or why. But we can know  the bizarre gift of life. Death is the last ignorance, and its excruciating disempowerment dominates humanity, despite its universal inevitability — like life itself.

We know so little as to be punching air when it comes to death. But, in these last decades we have come to know more about what makes life and what ends it, and, not surprisingly to me, we are completely lost in our ignorance.

The word “entitlement” is used as an accusation for those who feel they are owed privileges that are unearned. But life itself is unearned and death is given to us as well. We cannot create life; we can only manage it, until we cannot.

I’ve spent the better of three years trying to manage the death of a sugar maple tree.  Almost 140 years old, the plant contracted its version of Covid-19 and, like millions of others in New England, it died. Dead trees are usually mulched, cut, split, and/or burned. Though this tree was just one of many, just another casualty of one of blights all around us, we found that its life had a beauty in its death.

When the sugar maple died, I went to great efforts and cost to extend its beauty beyond its living. It is not Resurrection as the tree is, as the Munchkin said, was “most sincerely dead,” but its beauty is not. I made two floors and two countertops over these three years of drying, saw-milling, planning, cutting, sealing, fitting, installing, finishing. The exposed dances of grain are not alive (the wood has no life) but the vibrancy of creation is as alive in its death as any song, sculpture, or memory.

We mostly live not knowing that life is a miracle. We do not know the beauty in our lives, because we are living it. So we choose to address death in deflecting ways.

We can ignore, even deny death.

We can assert our control over it, and live fighting blindly against death.

Or, by the grace of God through the death of his Son, we can know that beauty does not die, even if we do. The gift of life is not our entitlement, it is God’s. The loss of it was fully on display in Jesus, and we can live our lives knowing that they will end, as his did, or we can deny or try to control it.

Whether by pandemic or all the other ways, death is as inevitable as the winter frost. But, in an revelation of past life, we now have more beauty in our lives in the celebration of 140 years of living —  gone, but now yet with us.