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The Tree at the Top of the Hill

Updated: Jun 18, 2021

Recently I was jogging in Potter's Forest near the Boerner Botanical Gardens in Greendale, WI. The trails there are one of my favorite places to reconnect with the serenity and tranquility of nature. They are as familiar to me as the street in front of my house, as I have run there hundreds of times in the last 25 years.

Every footstep of the toughest uphill climb in these woods seems to grow more challenging as the years go by. It must be me, as I'm certain the hill is not getting steeper. That day, as I looked up towards the clearing at the top of the hill, I noticed something so different that I thought perhaps I was on the wrong trail. The clearing was uncharacteristically sunny. It is always shady and cool at the top. The top of the hill is marked by an enormous silver maple, thick of trunk and graceful with spreading branches. Winter or summer, this tree is always a gladsome sight as I strain upwards toward it. More often than not, I pause to rest next to it, placing a hand against its trunk as I pant, trying to regain my breath.

Today, as I reached the top of the hill, I gasped as I saw the huge tree lying on the ground. It had fallen backwards into the forest, leaving the trail blindingly bright in its demise. The jagged shards of the wide trunk was still rooted in the ground next to the trail. The sun beat down upon the open circle of space once occupied by this sheltering giant. I felt shocked, almost disbelieving, that something so strong and stalwart could be laid so low on the forest floor.

I recalled that ecologist Suzanne Simard discovered 20 years ago that trees communicate their needs and send each other nutrients via a network of fungi buried in the soil — in other words, she found, they “talk” to each other. What were the messages that the trees in Potter's Forest were sending each other today? Messages of mourning for an old friend?

I bent down, pressing my hand against the trunk which stretched out so long that the tops of its branches were not visible as they were subsumed into the forest. My throat suddenly swelled. I felt sadness rising up inside me for the loss of this mighty maple who had stood so reliably at the top of the hill. Just a few days ago I had stood next to it, leaning on it as I had done so many times. I felt regret; I wished I had appreciated its steadfastness more.

I slowly stood, and began walking down the trail. As I looked over my shoulder at the maple, I was struck again with the awareness that nothing stays the same forever.

I reminded myself to be grateful daily for those things in my life that give me strength. Even trees.

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