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Toppling Trees and Tentative Tightropes

When Catastrophe Comes Calling

It was a glorious fall day. I was having a grand time in one of life’s simplest pleasures: just getting out of the house and enjoying a walk around my neighborhood on a beautiful day. The best part of walking in October is crunching the dry, brittle leaves underneath my feet. I don’t know why, but it’s immensely satisfying … like popping bubble wrap.

As I rounded a corner, I was surprised to see an orange barricade in the middle of the street. Why was the road closed? Well, I live in an old neighborhood with equally old trees, so I figured it was probably a downed tree. Yup, sure enough, several people were gathered in the street as a crew worked on cutting up and disposing of the fallen oak.

The tree had crashed mostly down the driveway between two homes, but a large branch sliced through a top floor bedroom of one house, while another branch knocked off the chimney on the other. It happened at 11pm while the homeowner was in bed in that particular bedroom. I was told that the branch actually landed at the end of her bed, though fortunately neither she nor anyone else was injured. But an incredibly close call.

It’s not the first tree recently to come toppling down, without warning. Just a month ago, I was preparing for a client-directed recording session when I heard a crew fire up their cutting equipment. And a few years back, I remember talking with a friend in my family room when we heard a strange cracking sound. We looked out the back window just in time to see a 100 foot tree – in what looked like slow motion – suddenly veer over and fall, taking several other trees with it. Fortunately, this was in the woods behind my house, so no one (except maybe a slow-moving squirrel) was affected.

When you live around old trees, you have to be proactive. The neighborhood received a harsh lesson years ago when an especially strong storm uprooted dozens of aging oaks along our streets. In some areas, it looked like a giant’s game of pickup sticks. Immediately afterwards, the community had each remaining tree along the streets carefully examined and endangered trees were replaced with younger, sturdier ones.

In all things, it’s best to think ahead so we can check against potential catastrophes and hopefully prevent the worst from happening. It’s one thing if we’re talking about an old tree that looks sick and weak; a call to an arborist can help determine if we need to remove it before it falls. But sometimes, the catastrophe comes without warning.

And it can be very personal. One day, we feel perfectly healthy. The next, our life is in danger from something we didn’t even know was there. Like a tree that looks healthy yet has a developing hollow center, we may have a serious medical problem that has not yet manifested into any symptoms we register, until it’s too late. This is what happened to a dear friend. A robust and healthy guy, he suddenly felt exhausted, had no energy, and became very ill. No, it was not Covid. A medical check-up revealed the worst: stage 4 cancer of the gall bladder that had spread to the liver. He was told that he only had two weeks to live. He didn’t make it seven days.

It doesn’t take much for our fortunes to turn on a dime. Sometimes we can plan for the worst and offset it: check the health of tall trees near our homes, make sure that the heating, cooling, plumbing, etc. within our homes are all in good working order. Sometimes bad luck catches us blindsided and we can only react, as in accidents, medical emergencies, or a once-in-a-century pandemic. But occasionally, we can turn something bad into something good.

The pandemic has, and still is, causing upheavals in our society, far beyond the health risks Coronavirus poses to us and our loved ones. In trying to contain its spread, the long shutdown of large segments of our economy has led to a significant loss of jobs and businesses, diminished personal financial resources, civil unrest, and high increases in the incident rates of anxiety, depression, and spousal and child abuse. Yet, through it all, people are rediscovering their sense of community, new businesses are popping up that cater to a shuttered population, and many individuals and workplaces are discovering how much more can be done through virtual conferencing than previously thought. And when this unexpected worldwide emergency is past, we’ll be more aware of the cracks in our society that this incredible stressor has produced – and hopefully do something to address repairing them.

This fall season has seen a few things falling for me: trees, the sudden and unexpected passing of a friend, long accustomed ways of learning and working, old perceptions as our society is in the process of rapidly transforming in myriad ways. As human beings, we’re fairly adept at changing with the circumstances – in the long run, if not in the immediate short-term. But it’s hard when we don’t have control over things that radically impact our lives. We can plan and improvise, but sometimes all we have is our choice on how we react to unwanted happenstances.

So how do we go about doing that? Religion and philosophy give us guidelines, comfort, and inspiration in these matters. Art, literature, and culture show us how others have reacted through the choices and decisions they’ve made. Our modern communications systems allow us to share and support each other as we collectively grapple with our common experiences.

It’s easy to bemoan our woes, hard to accept what can’t be changed or avoided, and challenging to rise above and beyond them. But human beings have done all three of these things. Personally or communally, we all go through tough times. The key phrase is to “go through.” We’ll experience the down days, maybe learn from them, and move on … until the next crisis! Or happier times, whichever comes first.