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The Tree

(the opening two pages of a chapter from
"Why Do I Love These People?")

This will sound like a fable, but every bit of it is true.

            It starts with a story about a remarkable tree, an American elm with a lush green crown that spreads over 60 feet across. Its trunk is now about twelve feet in circumference, so the tree is surely over a hundred years old, perhaps much more.

            This elm is next to a barn, at the bottom of a hill, beside a cherry orchard, on 47 acres of a family farm. This farm is three miles outside a town named Beulah, near the northwestern tip of Michigan’s lower peninsula. Beulah is so tiny that it says “Welcome to Beulah” on both sides of the sign.

            Back in the 1950s, the family that owned this farm kept its cattle bull chained to this elm. All day long, the bull would pace around the tree, dragging his chain with him. The iron chain scraped a trench in the bark that circled the trunk three feet off the ground. Over the years, the trench deepened into a gash.

            Then the family sold the farm. They took their bull, but left its chain, cutting the next-to-last link such that what remained resembled a stub necklace, a chain loop now nearly embedded into the bark, with a single link dangling down.

            For a few years, the farm was dormant. Then a family arrived. Two grandparents, their adult son-in-law, and his two boys, one eleven years old, the other only four. The four-year-old boy found the elm right away, and he felt a kinship for this grand old being, with its horrific scar and its curious dangling link. By then the bark had started to grow back, and it nearly met itself as it reached over the iron links. This boy, too, had a scar. His mother and his sister had recently been killed by a drunk driver.

            The next year, the boy’s wound got deeper. His father remarried and moved away, taking his older son with him, but not the boy. There were reasons offered, but none that made any sense to the boy, who simply understood that his father and stepmother did not want him. The boy remained on the farm to be raised by his maternal grandparents. He rarely saw his father again. But his grandfather was loving and playful, and the boy glommed on to the old man.

            The next years put the great elm in jeopardy. Dutch Elm Disease, a fungus carried from tree to tree by beetles, proceeded to wipe out nearly all elms in its spreading path through North America in the 1960s and 1970s. The county was terrified, because these American elms were ubiquitously used for shade. Surveyors were sent out to forecast the likely damage. The elms lining the road up to the farm, a road made of tar and woodchips, died quickly. The grandfather figured the old great elm would be next. There was no way the tree could last, between the encroaching fungus and that chain belt strangling its trunk. He considered doing the safe thing, which was to pull it out and chop it up before it became diseased and fell onto the barn in a storm.

            But the grandfather could not bring himself to uproot the elm. He and the boy had spent so much time in its shade, the darn thing felt like a family member. So he let nature take its course. Miraculously, the tree did not wither. Year after year, it continued to bloom great cathedral-like canopies. Nobody could conceive how this was possible. Word of this elm traveled throughout Michigan, and plant pathologists and horticulturalists from Michigan State University were dispatched to examine the curiosity. The boy was ten by then. He well remembers the crew from the university that came out that summer. They were not sure what to conclude. By then the tree had thickened, and its bark had completely grown over the chain; the descending lip of bark turned out as it met the ascending lip, creating a fat seam the boy could run his finger along. The chain inside was as rusty as a shipwreck, its single dangle now partly immersed. The university crew had only one theory to offer. Somehow, this scar, this chain – which for years everyone thought was going to kill the tree – instead had saved the tree’s life. They suggested that by absorbing so much iron from the chain, the tree had become immune.

            To the boy, this offered a powerful metaphor. Perhaps his scar was not going to kill him, either. Perhaps someday, when everyone expected it to destroy him, it might save his life.

            With the grandfather’s extensive encouragement, the boy studied magic tricks, and in public he adopted the persona of a performer. This hid the pain of his loss. Then, one April day when the boy was seventeen, the grandfather went down to the barn beside the elm and shot himself. Nobody ever asked the boy about this, and the boy did not want to talk about it. That was the way it was handled back then, in that part of the country. The boy’s scar was just another notch deeper. It was miracle enough to stay alive. He carried on with his grandmother and their inspiring elm.

            Today, the elm dwarfs the barn. The chain is completely covered with bark, and may even have decomposed inside, though the scar is still there.

The picnic bench in front of the trunk gives some sense of proportion.