Molly Beauchemin

On Cutting Down A Childhood Tree

I first met Jonathan when I was nine years old. It was Earth Day at my suburban Maryland elementary school, and in order to spark some environmentalist zeal in us young-ins, the teachers had contacted a local forestry company to supply the classes with pine tree saplings. “Here’s your tree,” the teacher said, setting down a hearty, six-inch tall specimen. “Take good care of it”.

But when I looked into the pot in front of me, I didn’t see a tree: I saw my own little horticultural pet, a charge entrusted to me by Mother Nature herself. It was then that I decided to name my little tree-baby Jonathan, and to take care of him until the day I died (a decidedly serious sentiment atypical for my age, but then again, I was always precocious). So I placed him in his cradle of soil, poured a trickling stream of water atop his teeny-tiny peak, and watched us both grow up.

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There’s something really intimate and sacred about caring for your first tree. That most trees outlive their caretakers by decades or even centuries lends the care-taking process a certain degree of reverence, the thrill of involving oneself with nature’s permanence. As Jonathan crept onwards and upwards towards every vertical milestone, so did I complete the trials of my youth: school and graduation, first kiss and last heartbreak, college and coming out. Where a visitor to the house saw a crooked, mangled pine, I saw a yardstick and a symbol of my youth.

The other afternoon, my parents informed me that Jonathan, now fifteen years old and over twenty feet tall, was doomed. As he nears the thirty-foot mark, my arboreal charge has come dangerously close to pressing up against the telephone wires, and besides that, he’s got an appearance only a “mother” like me could love: warped trunk, leaned over to one side as if drunk, with branches spaced so sparsely and far apart, it’s as though the tree just forgot to grow some.

His bunches of needles might even be considered profane, resembling dozens of hands flipping the middle finger. It’s no surprise that Mom and Dad have already begun making trips to local nurseries to find a replacement – a beautiful crepe myrtle, perhaps, or maybe a tulip tree. And I don’t blame them – in our carefully-curated yard, Jonathan is the ugly duckling who would have been cut down sooner had it not been for his sentimental value.

jonathan tree

Jonathan, encroaching on a power line.

I don’t live in Maryland anymore, so this matter is out of my hands; I don’t plan on chaining myself to his trunk and staring down the mulcher like a cowboy at high noon. Rather, I’m going through a mourning process of sorts, venturing out into the yard to visit him whenever I’m home as if I’ll never see him again. I lay my hand on his sandpaper-y trunk, slide my palms over the rubbery needles, smell the salty-sweet sap oozing out of the pine cones, and find myself transported to earlier in my childhood, when such scents and sights were not just new, but wondrous.

I think of the time I rushed out after the blizzard of 2003 in a parental panic, terrified that the snow had taken him under (he survived, eventually enduring several record-breaking winters). I think of the time my kitten scaled Jonathan’s low-hanging branches, and how his gradually-widening shade provided shelter from the rain and heat. And of course, I think of my mom’s warning when I planted Jonathan for the first time (“That’s an ugly tree, Boo Boo,” she groaned), a mutt amidst purebred groves.

But I also remember that nothing in this world lasts forever, and that we gardeners must make difficult decisions to do what’s best for our garden. With the scraggly pine out of the way, our Amy Schumer marathons are safe, and the manicured lines of bushes lining the picket fence can stand tall, proud, and unencumbered by unruly boughs. Sometimes, you have to let go of the icons of your youth to move forward, be it a tree named Jonathan or a stuffed bear named Teddy.

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