It is called the quercus alba, or the white oak tree.
Quite common in New England, chances are good that there is at least one of these trees growing in your yard or neighborhood. It is known by its gray gnarled bark ands its oversized green leaves with rounded edges, almost shaped like human hands. The white oak's most distinctive trait is the elegant upward arch of trunk and branches that reach to the sky, almost as if it is lifting hands up in prayer to its Creator.
At my home five white oaks, each more than 100 feet high, have stood sentry like in the front yard, shielding me from the world beyond my cozy abode. In summer the trees' green canopies give shade and a place to sit and read in my Adirondack chair. In fall oversized brown leaves carpet the yard in a lush brown overlay. Come winter the trees are stark, bare, resting, as snow piles up. In sweet spring I know new life is on the way as green buds appear on branches, signaling earth has woken up again.
Trees are amazing life forms, about the most plentiful, ubiquitous species on the earth. One recent study by British zoologists estimates that earth contains some 3 trillion trees: that's 450 trees for every single man, woman and child alive. Especially in this part of the world, trees surround us. Trees hug the land, mark this place, provide natural boundaries and thoroughfares as we travel from here to there. Fly into New England and its breathtaking to see just how tree covered, how green and lush and overstocked even, we are, with trees.
And yet, when we lose a tree, especially one we've come to know and even trust in a way, it can be a jolt, dislocating. That's what I felt last week when, upon awakening, the morning after our latest n'oreaster, and looking out the window, I saw that sometime during the night one of my great white oaks had crashed to the earth. Covered in a thick blanket of snow, it lay horizontal across the yard and driveway, felled by the weight of heavy snow or wind or age or disease or just exhaustion, I suppose.
I know, its just a tree. I know, that given how many trees knocked down power lines or came down on cars or houses in the past few weeks, many of us would be more than happy to be rid of lots more trees.
Yet losing that one tree reminded me of all the great trees that have been a witness to my one life. The tree in my childhood backyard I scrambled up into as an energetic little boy. The tree I leaned back against on the lawn facing the Charles River in Boston, at graduate school, my sacred place to study. The trees that grace the garden at the church I serve, especially the delicate red Japanese maple that always keeps me company as I write and think and pray.
Trees are mystical, magical, and mysterious somehow, perhaps more so than any other non-human species on the earth. I think it is because they live so long: the oldest white oak ever recorded was six hundred years old. The oldest living tree ever is a spruce in Norway, that is 9,550 years old and still going strong.
Trees stay. Trees stand and remain while human generations come and generations go. Trees remind us that we are a part of a much larger cycle of life and death and creation and extinction, of beginnings and endings, a God authored story that stretches out far beyond our little lifetimes or stretch of minds.
Trees have been. Trees are. Trees will be, long after we are gone.
The poet Joyce Kilmer was right. "I think that I shall never see, a poem as lovely as a tree....a tree that looks at God all day and lifts her leafy arms to pray....poems are made by fools like me but only God can make a tree."
So thank you God, this day, for trees.