Ode to the weeping cherry

I was blind to it at first. The property I’d just bought had more trees, shrubs, and plants than I could count. You couldn’t turn your head five degrees without seeing a new explosion of color or reaching branch. Even the bits that had grown out of control endeared me to the property. There was something about the yard around my new house that was just on the verge of chaos, the upslope of some nature trip that you had to experience to understand. I spent so long wandering through the grass that I didn’t stop long enough to get a good look at the weeping cherry tree in front of the house.

Something was wrong with it. That much was clear. It was an old tree. Its trunk was nearly 15 inches in diameter. The western half of it was green and covered in pink blossoms. Its weeping limbs reached for the ground and made it look as though the blossoms hung suspended in mid-fall. It was the type of tree you use for a family photo, one where the setting sun sets gold on your faces and the blossoms look like they’re growing out of woman’s fine hair. On that half, the tree was perfect.

The eastern half of the tree was nearly gone. It was a tangle of mostly-dead branches, stumps of old growth, and holes where beauty should be. It was misshapen, crumbling, and dangerous. At some point, something bad had happened to that side of the tree. There was no doubt that the weeping cherry used to be beautiful from every angle. Now, half of it was, in a word, missing.

“You might be able to save it,” said one expert. “Cut as much of the dead away as you can and see what happens.”

So, around this time last year, I grabbed a ladder and a branch saw. Wearing a pair of old cargo shorts and my red Coke t-shirt, I climbed into the tree and began cutting. One by one, the dead branches fell away and stuck in the soft ground below me. Sweat poured from my hairline and soaked my shirt. After much too long, I realized my new neighbor was watching me with a mixture of amusement and concern.

“Is that you up there?” he asked. He would prove to be among the kindest and warmest of neighbors we’d meet. I remember those words and how he said them exactly.

I stopped sawing and said aloud what I thought.

“I hope so.”

***

When you perform an amateur surgery like that, there is a lot of hope to manage. The change in appearance was radical, but at the end, the tree now looked–instead of half-alive and half-dead–half-alive and half-gone. Still, you can only hope time will bring back the good parts–the parts that had suffered injury, died, and fallen away. So, we waited through a hot summer, warm autumn, and soulless winter.

As the months passed, I looked at the tree from every angle. No matter how I looked at it, it was half a tree. And on some dark nights, it cast an ugly, haunted shadow over the entire house. Approaching our home from the street would’ve frightened a lot of people under the right moon.The only night it looked right was Halloween. I handed out candy from the front porch in front of a small fire pit. More than a few neighbors poked out their heads to confirm our house wasn’t burning down.

By and by, winter evaporated and gave way to an early spring. Around the country, meteorologists shook their head. No spring was supposed to be so warm or come so soon. I, for my part, stood on my front porch and waited to see what would happen with the weeping cherry. As the other cherries and dogwoods bloomed around the property, the weeping tree in the front struggled to wake. When it finally did, it barley managed a few blossoms before sagging against its own ugly weight.

A friend who knows about trees stopped by and stood in the drive with me as I explained what happened–how I’d taken on this tree as a project, a problem to solve, a blight to fix for the family instead of efficiently eliminate. The goal was to make it as much of a looker as the rest of the property. The friend shook his head slowly and said, “All trees have a lifespan.”

He didn’t have to say any more.

A professional arborist arrived yesterday. He was a young man named Blake. He stood beside me with hands on hips and looked the weeping cherry up and down.

“That thing ain’t coming back,” he said.

I knew that. I knew it the moment I climbed into the tree a year earlier, sweaty, scared, and certain I was going to fall and kill myself. Getting rid of the dead branches wasn’t going to save the tree. It was just going to hide its ugly side a little bit better. I was struggling against the inevitable and clinging to a hope in which nobody ever really believed. The only sane thing to do was let Blake the Arborist do his job–quick, efficient, humane, clean.

“Get rid of it,” I said, and I left Blake standing under the tree. By this time tomorrow, it will be gone.