The biggest tree in our woods has split apart, and it is squashing its neighbors. Its trunk crosses our uphill trail, so I walk underneath it, trusting those smaller trees to keep it from falling on me. These neighboring trees must be strong, might be suffering, and bend low under the intrusion of the tree that should have held itself upright—it had soaked up the resources and grown large enough.
This summer, we found the keeled-over bitternut hickory tree while hiking. Sam shimmied up the angled trunk, and Andrew followed, scheming about the chainsaw acrobatics required to deal with it. A tree that has fallen, but still hovers at least partly in the air, is known to foresters as a widowmaker. Liberating the smaller trees from the weight of this giant will be risky work, as it often is when tackling a bully.
Later, Andrew hiked out with his chainsaw and trimmed the tree’s branches, making all but the final, riskiest cuts (to my relief). But the tree remains. I stare at it, wondering about the work ahead of us. What personal risk will any of us take to lift some weight from the shoulders of others?
I think of the tree as Stella and I play a board game in which we are engineering ants. The game is cooperative—we win or lose together—requiring us to build gadgets to get past obstacles and free other ants. At the piranha river, I am thinking of a boat or plane, but Stella decides to drain the river and walk across. Faced with the giant spider, I am lifting the rope to suggest tying it up, when Stella whispers, “Let’s make the spider very sleepy.” As we tiptoe past the “snoring” spider, I thrill at her solutions that never occur to me. Together, we win the game.
Although the obstacles are huge, and the little guys are trapped under the big guys, Stella reminds me about creativity and cooperation. Our work on the farm this year—if we do it well—will foster different thinking and working together.
This year, some things will need to be dismantled. One corner of our side barn is caving dangerously, so we will take it apart—saving the beautiful and useful pieces, then gouge out its cracked concrete floor. This work seems easier than dismantling the hatred that appeared as swastikas painted all over a nearby town, hatred given permission by the guy we’ll inaugurate as president in 17 days, a man comfortably crushing his neighbors with his entire weight.
This year promises some risky work. I’m finding hope in creativity and cooperation, readiness to dismantle big obstacles or to devise new ways around them. In my better moments, I trust that the strength of compassion is greater than the power of oppression. When we take down the side barn, the farm will be safer, and the pieces will build other beautiful structures. When we figure out how to remove the broken, heavy tree, its neighbors can be free to straighten and thrive.