Golden layers fall from the trunk like a ball gown. Their pattern brings tears to the eyes of any artist or designer who has observed, been inspired and tried to replicate. Some come close, like insects dancing toward the light. Yet, the sweet tragedy of all great art, and indeed the quality that draws us to it, is the longing to portray a vision or a feeling that we’ve internalized and, at best, always just coming close.
Autumn in the North, with its overbearing beauty and dramatic happenings, is full of this sweet tragedy for me. During sunny, crisp mornings in the park with Lucy the dog the desire to describe what I see flows forth in words that I just cannot keep up with. They pass through my thoughts and seem to fly right back out into the golden waterfalls of leaves, and wash away into the gutters next to the sunlit paths. At the same time, being able to retain just a small portion of this inspiration, which I believe I do, makes all of the difference to me. Just a tiny droplet of it can shape my day, my thoughts, my attitude, and the way that I relate to other people. This is no small matter.
Autumn’s sweet tragedy began to turn sour when I noticed in the Sunday paper that there is a planned execution in Stockholm on Monday morning. At some time tomorrow, which is likely being kept a secret for fear of the Robin Hoods of nature conservation hijacking the event, an oak that is several hundred years old, and that preceded all of the modern structures that stand around it, will be felled. Symbolically, the base of the oak is now entombed under the cement of the pavement in front of the Swedish public television station’s building.
Apparently it’s got a fungal disease and is a risk to passersby. We have to be realistic – it’s just a tree, some say. Yet, if one thinks about how many artists, thinkers and others this tree has inspired to new heights – how many thoughts this tree has impacted over time - one begins to appreciate the magnitude of what is about to happen. This sort of tree has not only been our witness, it has been a creator of history and culture over many hundreds of years.
It seems ironic that in this International Year of Forests in which Sweden is celebrating trees as both a part of our outer and inner worlds, the old oak which has seen us through so much has to go. If this was an elderly person, we’d do everything to learn whatever we could from it before he or she passed away. If it was a famous artist, a movie star or other celebrity, we’d be honoring it at galas. A tree is not a person, but there is a good reason why trees occupy a special place in the cultural life of this part of the world. They’ve shaped the way that we think. Observing a very old tree is more than just nostalgia or nature appreciation, it’s living history.
As I pass down the linden alley, I smile upon the youngsters. I’m older than many of these trees. It’s cheerful to be able to enjoy their soft and slender youth. Yet, in the gnarled forms and deep grooves of an old tree is the inspirational and intellectual heritage of a people. Perhaps, for these very special trees we’ve felt forced to fell, a ceremony of remembrance should be organized. Undoubtedly, this would be the sign of a society with greater self-insight than the one that we live in today.
Learn more about Julie Lindahl’s prize-winning new book, “Rose in the Sand,” a memoir of a decade lived on a Swedish island. Other books by Julie Lindahl available are: Letters from the Island (listen also to Julie’s podcasts from this site) and On My Swedish Island: Discovering the Secrets of Scandinavian Well-being.
Julie Lindahl is chairperson at Stories for Society, a non-profit organization dedicated to learning and communication through storytelling.