COMFORT FOR THE DYING

Arden Kass

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Psalm 92:12 "The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon"
I am here to comfort the dying.

So I tell myself while setting out my picnic
on a cheery light-blue wooden bench
40 yards away but still within relational distance of a titanic Lebanon Cedar tree.
If she still had leaves, she could shade me.

This specimen, known to be
among the longest-lived trees
in history and/or botany
was planted in 1859 by two brothers,
to honor the father whose life and work
(in biblical argot) begot this sacred arboretum,
my sanctuary city of trees
during this past year and more of the
Covid pandemic & ensuing pandemonium.

This is the tree whose mighty forests
Gilgamesh battled to conquer,
whose bark Moses soaked in water
to cure leprosy, whose planks and resin
built the great temples of antiquity.
A tree even then so precious, Hadrian
claimed its ransacked groves for his own,
enclosing them with boundary stones carved
"Property of the Roman Emperor, alone."

In recent seasons,
with each visit this legendary example,
state champion of her specie
for height, canopy spread, and longevity,
has visibly shed a measure of vitality
sloughing off green needles by the bushel,
postponing the birth of new cones indefinitely.

This final day of August she stands bare
stripped of her foliage and secrets
once shady axillary crooks and folds exposed,
mosaic bark dulled to inanimate uniformity
naked twigs splayed against a flat tin-gray sky
threatening the approach of an early hurricane.
The tree, in these few last months above ground
seems indifferent
rain or no rain, nothing to be gained, nothing left to lose. Only her nervy finger spikes flared
and the trace of a silent scream—
pitched beyond the range of human hearing—
still decaying in the airless air
betray the intricate civilization that
photosynthesized, respired and thrived within.

It takes considerable time for a tree this alive to die, apparently. Not nearly as long as it took to grow to her celebrated size, to attain the monumental majesty
that might too easily be mistaken for imperviousness
to age, weather conditions, wars, political and religious strife, economic fluctuations, fashion and/or climate change. But now a prominent sign proclaims
what is evident even to the untrained eye:
The great tree is dying.

Not discernably diseased, infested, nor shrunken,
yet inexorably disappearing, right here
in full public view of families and nature enthusiasts.
I chew my lunch— bread baked by a friend,
a slice of perfectly ripe avocado
a firm white cube of delicate feta cheese,
I shiver with delight at the syrupy surprise
of just-picked cherry tomatoes squirting inside my cheeks, each vibrant orange orb promising
as a tiny undiscovered planet dropped in my hand,
each one full to bursting with potential
(as days shrink and dusk descends too soon)
to be the sweetest taste of summer—
the simple, natural magic that will save me from
whatever darkness is slouching toward us.

Like a truck climbing a narrow, switchback mountain road I steer my focus away from the precipice,
away from imagining what waits below.

I am here to comfort the dying, this tree that has so often comforted me. But how can I repay the favor; what is there to say.
As the bearded young caretaker with a nametag informs me, The cedar was expected to live much longer.
Might be the weather we've been having, he suggests. Weather? This is not the climate that tree was born into, I reply. True, he agrees, and we stand in silence. Silence. Silence. Silence at a thought too large to speak.

I am here to comfort the dying.
But perhaps it's not the tree I have come to comfort

Tyler Arboretum, August 31, 2021

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