There used to be a tree in my garden. Down there in the far corner, where the four-foot high brick wall curves with the road. I'm not sure what kind of tree it was. There isn't much left of it now - just a gnarled stump like a dwarf's dinner table, the rings of its years rippling out in circles wobbly but concentric. Down at the post office they told me the previous owner of the place had it cut down, four, maybe five years ago. No one is quite sure why. Some people say the tree had been infected by insects of some kind and was dying. Others say it was fine and the owner just didn't like trees. He wasn't very popular in the village it seems. They speak of him with disgust.
At any rate, the tree is gone. I'm not sure how I feel about it. Sometimes, on clear days like this, when I sit at my writing desk and look out of the window all the way across to where the opposite hillside descends with a headlong rush to the valley - the scene like some Dutch landscape, bathed in sunlight - I can't help thinking that it's a good thing the tree isn't in the way to block the view. After all, it's this panorama, this sense of distance, that made me choose the house in the first place. What would be the point of living this high up and having this spectacular vista blocked by some silly tree?
But there are other times, times when, for instance, I'm sitting in the garden in the deck chair trying to read a book, one hand raised to shield my eyes from the afternoon sun, that I wish the tree was still there after all. How pleasant it would be to lie in its shade, book in hand, listening to the cool rustle of its leaves overhead while I mouthed Tennyson to myself. And there would be the birds: sweet-throated messengers, building their fragile nests in the tree's high branches, filling this lonely, hilltop garden with the pulse of life.
But birds can be a nuisance too. They'd be leaving their droppings all over the place, every now and then one of them would fly in through an open window, disturbing the calm of my house, filling its rooms with panic. And there'd be all that singing in the morning. I can't stand that. The thing is, I'm not a good sleeper. I have bad dreams. By the time I get to sleep at all, it's usually pretty late, and even then, the slightest sound is enough to wake me. Imagine a flock of birds sitting in the tree, striking up their infernal racket with the first light of day! I'd never get any peace in this house. And peace is what I'm up here for, isn't it. How am I supposed to write without it?
Just listen to me, will you? "How am I supposed to write without it." As if these words of mine, these putrid little droppings I leave on the page, really mattered. As if they were reason enough to cut down a centuries old tree, banish the birds from my garden forever. Isn't this precisely the kind of thinking I left the city to escape? The impatience of people, their arrogance. Their selfish belief that everything and everyone in the world must be shaped to their own satisfaction, their own convenience. And yet here I am, alone in my country hermitage, having abandoned the only life I know and already I'm trying to reshape the world to my own specifications. Was all my disgust with the city really only a kind of frustration then? Was I vexed by the city not because it presumed to order Nature around, but because I wasn't the one doing the ordering? No, it's not okay to cut down trees to make life easier for ourselves. It's the houses, the fences, the mass-produced, ersatz settlements that spring up like weeds in our meadows, that we should be chopping down. Not the trees. The trees foster life. Our plywood houses hold only Death.
I think I'm obsessing about this tree too much. After all, it's not as though I'm the one who had it cut down. It was already gone by the time I got here. No, that's not making excuses; that's simply stating facts. I must try and keep some perspective. What was it my therapist said about not trying to take the world's guilt upon myself? I called him about the tree. I don't have a phone up here, but I went down to the village and rang him up from there just to tell him. He told me I shouldn't think about it so much. That I should try to focus on my work. That's good advice.
The thing is, it's pretty hard to ignore, you know. I mean the stump's just sitting there, in the middle of the grass, like a boil, or an amputated limb. Every time I look at it I can't help imagining what the tree must have looked like. And then all the questions about the tree start up again.
My cousin came to visit and I told her about the tree and she said, "If it bothers you so much why don't you just have another one planted in its place?".
I could do that. It would be a nice gesture. I spoke to the gardener who comes in every Wednesday and Friday and he seemed to approve. He said that spot where the old tree was is the only one that will work, though. Which means before they can plant the new tree they'll have to completely dispose off the old one. Tear it up by its roots.
I imagine the scene. The tractor or truck or whatever it is that they'll bring straining away at the chain. The whine of its engine. And then, slowly, like a fist coming unclenched, the dead roots of the tree emerging from the soil, wrenched free from their hold of ages, from their centuries' long sleep. The gnarled and secret limbs exposed, the rotten underbelly of the stump. Do I have it in me to inflict this final indignity on the tree? Isn't it enough, that we have killed it, without digging up its skeleton and making a mockery of its age? And wouldn't this make me an accomplice of the man who first had the tree cut down, a co-conspirator, helping to cover up his crime by destroying the evidence of it?
And yet, is it so wrong to want to cast out the old to make way for the new, so wrong to clear the way for a younger life, for a fresher hope?
I can't make up my mind. I called my therapist again, and he said he thought this place was turning out to be very unhealthy for me. He asked me if I'd been writing at all, and I told him yes, I'd written a bit, but then he wanted details and I hemmed and hawed and he could tell I was lying. He wants to see me in his office next week. He thinks I may be better off living closer to the city. In an apartment in some suburb perhaps. I don't know. I've grown to like this place. Still, it does get lonely up here sometimes, with only a dead tree for company. And it's true that I'm not getting any work done. Maybe some place with more people.
The day before I head back to the city, I go out to the tree stump and sit beside it for an hour. There are a few ants crawling over it. I think they live inside it somewhere, feed on its bark. I run my hands over its sad, wrinkled skin, wondering if it can still feel my touch. "I'm sorry", I say, "there was nothing I could do".
Sometimes the choices we regret the most are the ones we didn't make.
P.S. Am going to be out of town the next 5-6 days (attending a conference) so may not be updating the blog. Regular blogging resumes next weekend. Try not to cut down trees in your grief. It upsets Dogmatix.