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In This Place

The way trees die

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Liz Lerner
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A fallen tree in Beebe Woods in Falmouth.

A lot of trees came down this winter, largely the result of two fierce windstorms in January. Most were pitch pines. With their brittle trunks and shallow root systems, the pines are particularly vulnerable to high winds. Some snapped in half, but remained connected, exposing their shockingly-bright, deep-gold heartwood twisted into fantastic abstract sculptures. Others toppled over, indecently exposing their shaggy root-balls indecently into the sun. Fewer oaks fell, and where they did sometimes remained tilted part-way down at an acute angle, as if refusing complete surrender.

Trees carry their life histories, their wounds and scars, with them, out in the open: broken limbs hanging from their trunks; lichen and moss growing on their bark; insect galls deforming their limbs and branches; their dead carcasses lying everywhere, or remaining upright, barkless, starkly white, providing nesting holes for woodpeckers and owls. The way that trees die has always struck me as so public, so exposed, so, well, unseemly – so different, that is, from the way we humans treat our dead, removing them from sight as soon as possible.

But over this past winter I began to see things differently. This time, when I walked among the broken, twisted trunks and limbs of the dead and dying trees, the sight called up the omnipresent images, impossible to ignore, of the exposed, mangled, and mutilated bodies that lay in the streets, train stations, hospitals, theaters, schools and shattered houses of Ukraine, bodies that often lay for days, even weeks, before they could be safely removed from sight and buried, often in shallow mass graves – mute testimony to the savagery that humans are capable of inflicting on one another.

Yet even as I made the comparison between these dead trees and those dead people, I knew it was false, for trees, after all, do not kill each other.