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Making the Most of the Mess

I’ve always loved mowing. There’s just something deeply satisfying to see all those little grass blades trimmed at the same height. (If I’m being honest, my yard is half grass and half clover, broadleaf and who-knows-what-else, but the fact that they’re all the same height gives the optical illusion of a sea of suburban green).

So you can imagine I was feeling pretty good that day with the grass mowed, edges straight and the walkways swept. Everything was trimmed up, hauled off and given a nice, long drink. All was right with the world.

Check. (Actually, great big check off my great big chore list.)

I rushed off to my mom’s apartment where I’ve spent most of my days this summer. As we sat down to dinner, the sky turned black, the wind kicked up and sheets of rain came pouring from the sky. On and on. Lightening. Thunder. Pounding rain.

As I ventured home that night the signs were ominous. Sticks and leaves and small branches littered the road. The closer I got to home, the worse it was; big branches strewn across the road, garbage cans turned over.

Sure enough, as I pulled in the driveway, I was greeted by a lawn that looked like it needed a full fall raking. Every branch, every leaf, every stray piece of bark littered my lawn. In fact, big sheets of sycamore bark have been falling off our tree all summer. On the one hand, it creates that lovely camo pattern on the tree; grey, brown, creamy white limbs that I love, and on the other hand, it has been a summer of storms and debris, storms and debris.

I don’t ever remember the tree losing this much bark - so I googled it. Is the tree in trouble? Come to find out, the brown tips you may have noticed on many trees and the bark sloughing off my American sycamore are likely due to the Brood X cicada invasion this year. After mating, the females pierced the living layers of pencil-thin branches to deposit their eggs, according to Adrian Higgins, gardening columnist of The Washington Post. These nymphs made their way down to the ground and will burrow for another seventeen years (until 2038). According to Higgins, oaks are the favored target, but trees of all sizes and shapes will do. This accounts for the last 12 inches or so of outer branches dying and now falling off - especially in a big storm.

It may also account for my sycamore bark peeling off in unprecedented sheets.

Which brings me to another dilemma - I want my sycamore tree to have those stunning white limbs and mottled appearance so unique in a winter landscape, but the cost is to have an untidy lawn. The tree isn’t born this way. It grows up and looks rather typical at first, but the thin bark does not accommodate growth and starts peeling on the upper limbs. In order to reveal its unique beauty, it has to go through this process. This messy process. This dare-I-say Biblical process of shedding it’s old life to get new life.

What we see in nature so often depicts the inescapable cycles of life in which we all turn. We want new growth and maturity, but the only way to get it is to ride out the storms of life. It's not a matter of if we will have love and loss, but rather what we will do with the debris. Will I go around the yard and cringe every time I bend over to pick up a stick or will I marvel at the colors and shapes and thoroughness by which they have accumulated on what was my magazine-ready landscape?

Will I let growth reveal something new or will I cling to the old and familiar? Maybe this tree is trying to teach me something.

I can still remember when I fell in love with trees. At the back of our yard growing up stood a grand, old tree that marked the path that my brother, sister and I travelled each morning on our way to swim practice. A big cavernous mouth opened at the base; two smaller holes looked out above. “Mr. Nobody” greeted me each morning silently, steadfastly. And thus began our friendship.

Back then there wasn’t much to do in the summer, so I would skip down the path, cross the creek and roam those cool, shady paths for hours. I didn’t know it then, but marking and naming the trees along the way not only helped me pass time, it made me feel like the trees were my friends and helped me remember the way home. I came to know the woods and to feel somehow as though I was known by them.

We grew up together. Until I was a sophisticated teenager and didn’t need those silent, patient friends. They stayed put and I moved on.

When I had a chance to go back to those woods a few years ago, nothing was as I remembered it. The creek was dry, the paths overgrown and the mossy banks bare. My woods had grown up and it made me a little sad. Even Mr. Nobody had fallen down and was already turning to nothing more than a pile of mulch.

The inescapable cycle of life.

I can’t go back and be that little naive girl again, but that’s okay. I’ve stretched and grown and weathered storms I could never have imagined. It’s not easy to crack and peel and grow, but that is how we become more than just a pretty planting, we become the life that lives for more than just itself.

I heard it was a lightening strike that finally took him down. His hollow hull is becoming somebody again - in time, new life will rise from those fertile chips that were once my summer love and friend.


‘Tis a fearful thing

to love what death can touch.

A fearful thing

to love, to hope, to dream, to be –

to be,

And oh, to lose.

A thing for fools, this,

And a holy thing,

a holy thing

to love.

For your life has lived in me,

your laugh once lifted me,

your word was gift to me.

To remember this brings painful joy.

‘Tis a human thing, love,

a holy thing, to love

what death has touched.”

Judah Halevi



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