This bud’s for you.
It’s spring. The bud is nature’s signal to us that trees and plants are ready to get back in the game. It’s been a long hiatus. Buds are saying, ‘It’s about time.’
One afternoon, I watched a squirrel scampering up the Japanese Maple tree. The tree had just begun to bud. The squirrel worked his way to the ends of the branches. He clung perilously, while the branch swung wildly like a whip’s end. He began working his way back up the limb while he ate the nascent buds along the way, one after the other. He was soon joined by two other squirrels that shot up and down, limb to limb to limb, also picking off the buds. I feared they would eat all the buds and that the tree would die and never leaf again. I told my wife the squirrels were killing the tree. She accuses me of being an Eeyore – always anticipating the worst, lamenting the coming doom. She’s right. Despite my lamentations, in a couple of days, indeed the blossoms multiplied exponentially on the tree so as to cover every limb and there were buds to go around; lots for the squirrels and plenty left over for the tree itself, like the feeding of the five thousand in the Bible.
A hackberry tree grows just in front of our sun porch. Of all the trees in the yard this one has the most character and I’m especially fond of it. This is not a “pretty tree,” say, like a magnificent oak with its crown reaching majestically skyward in perfect symmetry. The hackberry is all over the place; it’s catawampus, branches protruding every which way, so convoluted as to suggest it has no idea what it wants to be when it grows up. The branches spread out arbitrarily, each one as if on an impulse, twisting and turning this way and that until finally, I can see that the hackberry has assumed the outlines of a ballerina executing a pirouette. I love the tree.
In early spring, before it comes to leaf, the hackberry appears vulnerable. Long after buds appear on other trees, I see no buds on its branches. Its skinny limbs look like random line drawings, smooth, no indication of buds. Every year I panic. I’m sure that the Hackberry is dying ––I think it will not come back to life ever again. I tell my wife. She mocks me, groans like Eeyore and says “Oh bother.” It’s just that I care so for the tree; it’s an anxious time for me.
One year a couple of its branches in fact died and had to be removed. This only added to the tree’s peculiar helter-skelter shape. In short, the hackberry’s excruciating slow budding each year makes me a nervous wreck. I fear for her demise. And then, the delicate limbs slowly reveal incipient bumps and eventually buds appear. To my profound relief, the hackberry springs to life to share space with us again for another year. I rejoice in her resurrection. However, I do wish she’d get on with it instead of dawdling.
An oak growing in the yard produces the largest leaves of all our trees, larger even than those of an ancient magnolia. One oak leaf I found measured near a foot from stem to stern, nine inches across at its widest. Unlike other trees in the fall, this oak is loath to surrender its leaves. Some will drop, but many hang on until spring, when the new buds force them off as if to say, ‘You had your day in the sun, now it’s my turn.’
These are the days of the pandemic, our world’s post-modern plague; we’re waiting for another kind of spring. We’ve been forced to withdraw and we must put our lives on hold, like the winter hiatus that trees observe. More ominously, however, some lives on hold will die. I suspect that many people worldwide are feeling somehow as I felt when I was waiting for the hackberry to return to the way it was before; I was anxious, but hopeful. During the times when nothing seemed to be happening, I had troubling thoughts: how many limbs will actually bud again and return to grace the spring. I feared that some would not. And, like much of the world, I’m uncertain and anxiously waiting.
As I wait, I’m comforted by our redbud tree. The redbud grows just outside the living room window. I look at it every morning as I have coffee. It’s been there for years. It has a story. I take comfort from it.
For years we made contributions to the National Arbor Day Foundation. They’d send us tree sprigs to plant – one of which was the redbud. We planted it. It showed little growth the first year. Unlike other sprigs we planted that grew robustly, the redbud languished. It remained alive, but barely, and we were not sure what to do. We left it for another year. It struggled, but still grew little. Cutting the lawn meant the inconvenience of have to go around it. Should we give up on it and just cut it down? We sat still, waited and the following year it began growing like a weed. Today It has four trunks wound around each other the way people embrace during moments of personal triumph. It’s now at least twenty feet high.
When the bright red buds of the tree give way to leaves, they’ll be shaped just like the human heart. Sometimes the best we can do is to wait expectantly, the way Jews once did, waiting for the affliction to pass them by, and Christians once did, waiting for Jesus to return.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.