A few Saturdays ago, I drove around the circle late in the afternoon and realized, with horror, that our apple tree had been cut down. I had noticed the tree company’s trucks around the school’s campus that Saturday. They come each year to trim limbs and to check on the health of every tree, but it had never occurred to me that the apple tree would be there in the morning and be gone by afternoon..
In its place was a bare clearing, the stump raw. I parked the car and chastised myself for my quick tears. I loved that tree, loved how it marked the seasons—tulle pink blossoms the spring, rosy apples in late summer, etched bare branches stretching out against the winter sky. It had a sense of dignity in its clearing on our circle, an agelessness.
Just two weeks ago, a whole herd of deer stood under it in lavender evening—three does and two late-drop fawns, still spotted, all munching apples and gazing, unafraid, as I passed with our three dogs. When they were little, Atticus, our son, and our neighbor, Shea, would gather up the apples—entirely unfertilized—and make apple bread. As soon as he saw the tree was gone, Atticus texted Shea to share the terrible news.
“Absolutely dead,” my facilities director reported when I asked on Monday. “Sounded like a bass drum when they tapped on it; it had to come down.” Of course it did. Safety is the most important thing in a school. But, a small rebellious voice inside my head wondered—it was set back far from the street; it couldn’t have fallen on anyone.
“Did they do an environmental impact study?” my son demanded. He, too, was bereft at the tree’s sudden disappearance. “What about all the squirrels and the deer who relied on that tree—and the rabbits?” His indignation was a thin disguise for grief.
“We could plant a new apple tree,” my facilities director suggests. I nod. It will be decades before a sapling can grow large enough to fill the empty space, sturdy enough for a child to climb.
I remember how much I loathe Shel Silverstein’s book, The Giving Tree—that spoiled boy and the selfless martyr mother of a tree, handing herself over bit by bit until she is dead. Maybe it’s better to have our tree gone all at once, instead of witnessing her slow decline. But the vacant landscape feels jarring. I used to tease my son about how much he hated change; we got a new refrigerator and he mourned the old one; he did not want to paint his room or switch his comforter. He liked things the way they were, predictable. When it comes to disappeared trees, I’m not as adaptable or as willing to embrace change as I pretend I am.
That same week, our school celebrated its ninetieth birthday on Lyman Circle. The original property had been an apple orchard. I wondered, as I passed the strange new bare spot, if this tree had been one of those original apple orchard’s trees. In 1926, Sarah Lyman had brought members of her faculty out from Euclid Avenue to see the land. It was a muddy day. The teachers saw a sodden orchard, but Sarah Lyman saw a school. We see what we want to see. We can’t always see everything.
To my eyes, the tree was healthy, bright green leaves shooting from dignified limbs, apples freely given. But we cannot always know what’s inside. As an English teacher, I have taught girls for decades to trace the imagery of appearance versus reality through plays and novels. Truth isn’t always easy to perceive. And truth, as an absolute, is elusive. The tree company assessed the tree’s health and determined it had to go. I regarded the tree as an old friend, vestige of an earlier era, part of our family’s story here, aging, certainly, but not ready to be chopped down. Change is hard and takes time to get used to. I’ll miss the gracious lady and her apples. I think I’m glad I never knew that she was dying.
Tomorrow, Atticus and his dad are going apple picking. I’m going to be with other heads of school. We’ll talk about the state of girls’ schools, the opportunities and obligations, the responsibility we feel to nurture girls, to offer sustenance and shade and beauty and all the lessons of the natural and human world. Tomorrow night, perhaps I’ll make an apple pie—in honor of our lost tree, in honor of what she offered, in honor of all the work yet to be done and the trees yet to plant.