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The Miracle of Death

July 22, 2019

About 3 years ago, I had realized that a fine 100 year old sugar maple in front of our house had “the blight” that afflicted perhaps 50% of maple trees around us.

It was a sad recognition that beauty simply happens and just as incoherently, ends.

My “tree man” was of classic deep intelligence and New England understatement. “You know what this is?”. He said as we walked down to see the Swamp Maples that needed their suckers trimmed.

“Well, no, – it’s not a beech..”

“It’s an elm.”

“No way!” I gasped. Then I knew it: the tree had simply exploded in growth over the last 30 years after a 200 year old white oak came down, killed by my then neighbor’s new septic field. That field provided water, and I assume nutrition, and thus the nascent elm had tripled in size to a height of 50 feet and a girth of perhaps 30 inches at its base.

But more, it’s insane growth meant that the old farmer’s retaining wall was simply busted apart.

And, like all those elms I had dealt with before, it’s surface roots hard cast a carefully planted, replanted and planted again garden to its north, killing everything its roots encountered as the soil became organic concrete.

“How?” I said, having lived in one “City of the Elms”, Buffalo, and now another the “Elm City” New Haven and in between the Cornell campus that, like so many 19th century “City Beautiful” places had planted elms because their shape is gracious and the trees grow with extreme vigor.

But bugs in logs from Europe arrived after World War 2 and the American Elm, all American Elms, had a death sentence imposed upon them.

My tree man said simply – “I have seen it before, if a sapling is far enough away from others, the bugs cannot travel far enough to kill it.”

Great pride (for no reason) welled up within me. We may be disposing of the gentile sugar maple now in its death throws, but we had a fully healthy elm. An Elm!

Then a year later, I repaired my driveway from heavy rain yesterday. Again.

Brown leaves on the gravel, many, many more than the last repair…

I looked up and saw the branch at the top of the peak. Naked limbs.

Another death sentence.

Another dead tree growing.

Damn.

I had been given the gift of understanding a miraculous life that defied knowledge . I had understood what I had observed for 30 years, and now, reality met its percentages.

We live on a coastal glacial moraine salt marsh, on the hillside that faces north. No sun. Rocks, so densely packed by glaciers that nothing grows without luck or extreme preparation. Or vicious invasiveness. But sometimes things find love in hostility. The same salty water that killed over 100 grasses I had planted when the town cleaned out the culvert that allowed a free-er flowing tide seemed to delight the 6 Wild Oats I had also planted to the point where they now own the north edge of our dry land.

In a place where more dies or never lives than grows, these opportunists enjoy the limited sun, bad soil, salt poisoning. Until they don’t. I hope it is until the next set of glaciers meander across this land in 60,000 years.

The bugs that killed millions of beauties over the last 50 years of my life had not found our one beauty, that replaced another beauty. That beauty was in rampant health and vigor. Until now.

I am almost 64, I am desperately pedaling in my recumbent bike as I type this, and I hope words and Level 25 will extend my life. I had a genetically flawed blood vessel in my head fulfill its flaw, it’s beetles found my bark, and I lost balance, but nothing else, and it returned 5 days after $40,000 of monitoring.

Death is as normal as any relationship, but exquisitely painful. Especially when it comes to those you know well. My sibling lived a life in the toxic threat of extreme judgement over not much. He hated school, liked to smoke, eat the worst kind of food. His parents, my parents, simply let him know that he had failed their expectations. He did a variety of drugs washed down with large portions of alcohol, but was fully functional, like the elm, and the sugar maple and the grasses, until he wasn’t. He found a place changing gender, being devoted to a job others found tedious, and was, finally, after 2 failed marriages, seemingly, OK.

But I would not know. She never returned any call or letter from me in his last 15 years, and the beetles of her childhood killed her last year.

I am healthy, though somewhat fat. I have allergies that continually remind me of my frailty, but so far, my beetles have not found me.

The cycle of beauty and death is fully mysterious. The “why’s” of survival, flourishing, death and absence are without logic, or beyond observation, let alone understanding.

We are all elms, and sugar maples and my brother-become-sister. We have a shelf life. We all turn to room temperature. But in the moment of beauty, when survival becomes miracle, we have that moment.

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