Almost 20 years ago, a monthly Advocate feature asked readers to send in anecdotes about a particular topic. It was especially helpful around the holidays — Christmas memories, what people are thankful for at Thanksgiving, love stories around Valentine’s Day — which can be hard to write about.
Of course, it didn’t take long to run out of obvious subjects, leading to much-dreaded meetings to produce the next topic.
At such a meeting, Danny Heitman, then a feature writer, suggested asking readers about their favorite tree. Dubious looks followed, and I reacted as seemed appropriate to such a dear friend and respected colleague. I mocked him mercilessly. Your favorite tree? People have such things?
Naturally, this topic received the largest response of any such story we ever attempted. My consolation was noting, in an era of letters instead of email, the irony of how many trees died to pay homage to them. Now, I had nothing against trees, in general.
I prefer a forest to a desert. But growing fond of a particular tree seemed strange. Once again, I would learn how narrow my viewpoint was.
When I bought my home in 1987, a full-grown elm dominated the front yard, shading the house and providing a perch for birds and squirrels. Still, it was just a tree, a part of the landscape, no more, no less.
I would eventually learn what Heitman’s correspondents so lovingly expressed.
In 1992, Hurricane Andrew split apart the elm, sending one large section onto my roof, another across the driveway. This was the first of several storms that would wreak havoc on this tree.
Yet, with each loss of limb and branch, it showed a remarkable adaptability. As sunlight penetrated previously shaded limbs, twigs shot out, turned to branches, some turning to limbs themselves. Leaves, which migrated on the color wheel from Kelly green to dark green to brown as seasons advanced, appeared in unlikely places to capture rays that drove the elm’s photosynthetic process.
If a tree can have a spirit, this one had an indomitable will to live — not only live, but thrive.
It’s something we admire in people, a perseverance that separates the successful from the excuse-makers.
The storms kept coming. Limbs disappeared, replaced by others. In summer, leaves hid the damage. In winter, bareness revealed its scars. I’d once thought this tree would outlive me, like a small child assumes his parents will be there forever.
But two months ago, on a calm afternoon, a large section of the tree sheared off, filling the front yard with wood.
What remained of the elm left no doubt. It was time to call the tree-cutters. Because of a nearby water line, the stump was left intact.
I admit it. I miss that tree — that fighter, shade-giver and wildlife magnet. The yard no longer looks like mine. Spider-lilies and four-o-clocks have sprung up, but they are a pale imitation of an elm.
As for the stump, I’m tempted to keep it. We leave markers for people. Why not trees?
Especially our favorite ones.
Advocate readers may submit stories of about 500 words to the Human Condition at firstname.lastname@example.org or The Advocate, EatPlayLive, 7290 Bluebonnet Blvd., Baton Rouge, LA 70810. There is no payment, and stories will be edited.