The Tree of Life

Old willow tree with new growth

For more than 100 years it grew, gracing the home of the people who planted and gave life to it. It added a note of beauty and peace to the center of the small town, heralding spring with the fresh green of bursting buds, town crier for the renewal of life. It gave shade and coolness in the summer, bent with limber limbs in the winds, turned a golden yellow in the fall, glowing in the late afternoon light.

It watched over births, triumphs, tragedies and deaths; over generations of humans each locked into the perspectives of their own short lives. The willow was there, greening, gracing and growing.

Times changed. The town grew. The willow just grew and greened and lent its loveliness to the people of the town.

But in the course of human events, the land was sold and the new owner didn’t want it anymore. He decided to cut it down. Controversy raged among the townspeople, but in the end, there was nothing they could do. There were no laws in place to protect a tree. A tree has no rights. The willow could only stand quietly as its limbs were hacked off and it was uprooted by a bulldozer, its bark stripped and torn.

The limbs were carted away to a trash pit, but the huge old stump was heavy and lay there drying in the hot sun. One man, his heart hurting at the sight of the once mighty presence, wanted to do something. He felt a deep sadness for what had been done to something so old and venerable and stately, yet ultimately helpless. He arranged for a backhoe to lift it onto a truck and brought it to the Earthfire Institute’s Wildlife Garden, a place where rescued wild animals play. For them it would be a treasure. The animals loved it and made it theirs.

When he brought it to the Garden, the man had an inexplicable urge to “plant” it against all reason. Did he sense the life force still present? Did it communicate on some level that it wanted to live? He stood it upright and piled soil around it. He watered it. He visited it. He talked to it.

The winter snows came, with its blizzards and cold and dark. The tree stood in the Garden, surrounded by tracks of the animals who visited it.

The days lengthened. The man came again in the spring and visited it, talked to it, touched it, watered it. There was a single slender twig, two feet long, left on the inside of one of the cut off limbs. Several weeks into spring, outlined against the blue sky, the man saw what looked like a single swelling bud near the top of the twig.

Day after day, several times a day, he visited it and it became clear—the bud was swelling! Life! Was it the last gasp of a dying tree or would life take hold?

It leafed out into a tiny branch with several leaves. He looked more carefully. He walked around the massive base and saw a bud peeking out from underneath an undamaged piece of bark. Then he saw another bud. Then another. Over the days he found another and another and another—five buds, fourteen, fifty-two, more…

The tree had been so grievously injured. Could the dried out roots grow back to nourish the leaves, or was it just drawing on its last reserves? The man watered and visited, watered and worried, watered and encouraged. Some leaves started to turn black. Despair. Some continued to grow. Hope.

It has been fifteen years now. It is thriving. The animals love it. People come to visit it. It grows and greens and graces. It reminds them never to underestimate hope, love, and life.

The willow was rescued by Jean Simpson, co-founder of Earthfire Institute and professional animal handler.

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