In Union Cemetery, there are many old trees with great character. There are straight-backed pines that make me dizzy if I stand on the roots and look up. There are irascible cedars that prickle me as I walk past. There are oaks that drop the noisiest acorns, so my feet crackle irreverently if I pass too close. There are groves of Hemlocks that drop a carpet of needles and shade the ground all day long– you could dig your hemlock root in the dark at noon there with no trouble. There are dogwoods that flower milk-white innocence in Spring and burn with scarlet foliage through late Autumn. There is holly, not just bushes but an actual holly tree, red as blood and bitter as gall as holly has ever been. There are sycamores that always look as though they’ve just been scourged, with their bark hanging off in shreds. Their leaves look sickly, even in summer, and are the first to turn in late August. There are skinny white birches adorned with gold leaves in autumn, like a finger bone in a reliquary; then they drop all finery and stand bare, stark trunks against the gray of an Ohio Valley winter sky, until they’re recalled to life in the Spring. There is also a stately beech tree, and that tree and I are friends.
My tree stands by the Cemetery Road by the Old Stone Bridge, and none may cross the bridge without passing it first. Its long branches shade the path, and its roots reach out to nearby graves. This has left the tree open to a great deal of abuse. Something about the smooth, immaculate bark of a beech invites tormentors as surely as caves invite echos. Over the years, vandals have carved memorials– deep slashes, names, initials, declarations of love long forgotten now, but the tree has not forgotten a thing. Everything remains etched in the living wood. Despite its scars, my beech tree is pleasant to touch– solid, clean, just the size to get my arms around if I wish. It stands unresisting, waiting for abusers and for mad tree-huggers alike, for those who ignore and those who stop to pay a visit.
When life is difficult, I go for a walk in Union Cemetery. I lean on my beech tree and cry. A cemetery is a good place to cry; no human visitor bothers you or asks you why you are crying. The tree offers no hollow consolation or advice. It remains alive, present, listening in its way, in the way that all of nature listens. The graves are old and silent–the ones surrounding my beech were filled a hundred years ago. There is no sound but my sobs, and the crunch of beech leaves under my feet.
There is, after all, only ever one grave– one Earth, and to Earth the ashes fall and are buried at the roots of one Tree. There is only one Death, one door which all pass through: my grandfather, myself, and every tree in Union Cemetery. Even the Word Made Flesh passed through that door and was buried in this same Earth, after He embraced the Tree. Only one cry is heard in Ramah, Rachel mourning for her all of her children, mourning and not consoled, and she is mourning still. There is only one death groan and that is Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani, it is accomplished, Father, into Your hands I commend my Spirit. We breathe our last, and it is all the same breath.
There is one Resurrection as well, and I’m told its time has already begun. His mother mourned and could not be consoled; then she saw Him, and was glad. He raised her up, and she is with Him now. May we all follow where they have gone. My beech tree, with its roots in the graves, its tortured trunk before me and its branches in Heaven, tells me that in its way. All of creation was placed here, in part, to teach me that lesson.
One day I will return to the cemetery to find that Rachel has dried her eyes at last, because He has returned. On that day, He will tell me all things plainly. Until then, he speaks in parables, and the beech tree is one of them.
(Image: Beech Grove by Gustav Klimt, 1902