Death on a Large and Lovely Scale

I admire trees.

The average age of the world’s trees is about 200 years old. These numbers are skewed by rainforests, so I figure that the average age of a Nebraska tree is 100 years younger. Back before she became a state, Nebraska had no trees. Pioneers who settled the Nebraska Territory – most on promises of free land from the government – found the territory to be nearly bereft of vegetation of all kinds. It was considered part of the Great American Desert. Homesteaders didn’t so much build their houses as pack them together from sod.

I try to imagine this. Me, bumping along in a covered wagon, pots clanging in the rear. A wife, bouncing a boy on her lap. Flies. Outlaws. Tornadoes. Every day is a hunt for lumber to build a cabin. A roof. The baby gets wet every time it rains. The wife is coughing thick, black gunk. Boiling, predatory clouds form in the east and, out of options, I start packing mud together with my hands, making my home. It is 1860. I am twenty years old, with a patchy beard. The average American is not living past 45. But if I can’t get my mud fort put together soon, my whole family and I will die today.

And people died in droves, in their sod homes and sod coffins. The Nebraska legislature, seeing that their new territory was leaking settlers faster than it was filling with them, decided to do something about it. This is what they did.

The legislatures announced that for every acre of trees that a man planted on his own property, $100 of that property would be exempt from taxes.

It was a sensation. Trees were planted in the tens of thousands. Elms, ashes, maples, and box elders sprung up like hands at a big tent revival. They riddled the territory, infusing the great, grassy plains with a wild, winding livelihood. Cottonwoods, a nimble little thing with loose roots, were the most popular. Their seeds had washed up along the banks of the Platte River, and were easily plucked from the sand, scattered anew, Soon, it was not uncommon for a Nebraska homesteader to not be paying any property taxes at all.

Not content with even this success, one J. Sterling Morton, a stern Detroit man who had staked a claim in Nebraska City as a newspaper editor before being appointed the Secretary of the Territory by President Buchanan, spearheaded an initiative he called Arbor Day. It was to be a holiday that would “urge upon the people of the State, the vital importance of tree planting.” He announced that the first annual Arbor Day would be April 10, 1872 and publicized it with religious ferocity, offering a $25 library to the settler who planted the most trees and $100 to whichever agricultural society did the same – magnificent sums in those days. Leaflets caked the Territory. No pioneer was unaware.

And on April 10, 1872, one million trees were planted in the Nebraska Territory.

Property taxes became, essentially, a thing of the past. So much so that the Nebraska legislature repealed their law in 1877, fearing what amounted to bankruptcy. Pioneers grumbled, but the law had done its work. Cabins were made of lumber. Apples fell in bucketfuls. Great branches of great trees brushed the eastern Nebraska sky with a calming rush of leaves.

Nebraska City, Morton’s erstwhile home and the center of his revolution, remains paved with trees today. It is not a long drive from my apartment. So, I make it. It’s a dull trip on a pretty day, gravel roads dotted with lonely stoplights that blink red. Eventually, the monotony of the Great Plains is broken by a hill, then a valley, than you cross over into a whole new place altogether. This is the work of J. Sterling Morton, rolling meadows and not a bare patch of ground to be seen. The world is made of trees.

To imagine that Morton’s estate (now a state park) was once considered part of the Great American Desert stretches the imagination something fierce. While Western Nebraska is still mostly cornfields and rock piles, Nebraska City’s cup runneth over.

Choose a path, any path, and you’ll be led down into groves awash with trees, high, vaulting trees that catapult the mind off the horizon and into the skies. Great oaks, the wise old man of trees. Merry maples, kindly and bright. Chestnuts, thick and winding. And pines – bristling from trunk to tip. All these stab up and spread out, creating canopies where the sunlight can only dart through in dinner-plate-sized patches. So the grass is spotted with little pools of light and everything in front of me is straight stacks of tree trunks and above is green, all green leaves that dart this way and that.

I’m told but can not confirm that some scientists feel that the life of a tree is so complex that we must ascribe to them some sentience. The ancient Greeks understood that desire, and made gods of them. I understand it too, but I rather doubt that trees are anything that we could call “alive.” Anyway, what is so grand about self awareness? I’ve never accomplished anything wonderful owing to my own sentience. My finest moments come from forgetting myself. I expect yours are the same way. And these trees, perhaps, are better without sentience. The way they just are. It’s inspiring. I would like to forget myself more often.

There are apple trees too, in remarkable abundance. They drop their fruits with liberty; I walk barefoot and squish them underfoot, their juices bubbling up between my toes. I fill wooden pails with what I can pluck from the trees. I munch apples until I’ve had my fill. Apple juice dribbling down my chin. Curious fruit flies buzzing around my face. Eyes stuffed with summer colors. Everything’s a miracle. See twigs instead of branches, buds instead of twigs. See the world as a million little pieces, with God the one whole that shoots through it all. Thank-you, Mr. Morton. Thank-you, God.

So, I admire beauty in trees, but there’s more. I admire trees for their reliance on death. The life of a tree hinges on its ability to die, well and often. Annually, as you know.

A tree falls gracefully into death. It welcomes death warmly in the fall. The first breaths of cooling winds come, and the tree shrugs leafy shoulders oh-well-nice-while-it-lasted and there you go. Autumn will come, is coming. The green leaves will wilt, shrivel, turn brittle and drop with little happenstance. A little October breeze can strip a cottonwood in minutes. Leaves will crunch underfoot in fecundity. We call it all beautiful and it is but it is also death. Death on a large and lovely scale.

Would our own deaths be more bearable if they were as on the nose as a tree’s? If we knew how and when our allotted time would come? I don’t know. I think so.

You’re Adam and Eve, the two of you are making your way the best you can in the world. All you know of the world is green – shrubs, plants and trees. You’re just getting used to things. There’s a pleasing constancy to life. Everything grows all the time.

Then, one day, leaves are browner – crisping around the edges. Hmm. No matter. One more mystery in a world full of them. The next day, the plague is spreading. Some of the leaves are a fiery orange. Some are stony amber. None of them look like they used to. Nothing looks right. Days pass. The leaves are dead. All of them. They float down in sharp, tic-toc angles. They crunch underfoot. The trees are naked, gnarly hands clawing at the slate grey sky. This can’t be real. This can’t be happening. The world is dead. What, oh what, did you do wrong?

So goes the first autumn.

So we go here, in our own autumns of lung spots and thinning bones. Nothing looks right, and our own gnarly hands claw at the sky. How, oh how, did this all go so wrong? And while we clamor for divine attention, the trees go through autumn and spring at the same pace that we do, but with no protesting. They’ve no self awareness. They just are, trusting to renewal, never protesting life’s lot. This is not us, and I doubt if it ever could be: this plain acceptance of the inevitable, trusting to other inevitables, and praising God above in both our deaths and the acceptance thereof.

An acquaintance of mine, some time back, made a book design out of this piece. I thought it was quite good, and hope that everyone who needs design work will contact her.

Leave a comment


  1. Kristin Tuttle

     /  October 25, 2011

    I have read a bit of your blog and this is my favorite post I’ve read thus far. A beautiful picture well written…. keep doing what you do, keep sharing 🙂

  2. Your writing–you–always make me feel more alive, and I think that’s one of the very best things a person can give to the world.


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