The Ugly Tree

A.V. Walters

Tom Tree

Even before I was born, my parents moved their young family to a new home on a site that had been a farmer’s field. Not one to miss a trick, the developer first scraped and stole all the native topsoil, and cut any and every tree that he could. (Then he sold the topsoil back to the new residents, at a premium, knowing that they couldn’t grow anything in the heavy clay he’d left behind.)

My parents immediately began planting trees—any tree they could get on their meager budget—knowing full well that they were planting for a future that would likely exceed their stay on the property. We had an area just northeast of the house that we called “the forest,” though it was really just a collection of hopeful, spindly saplings. The forest was visible from the kitchen window, where my mother did dishes. It was her view. There were cherished trees, (mostly hardwoods) free trees, and then “filler” trees—planted too close for the long haul and whose only task was to make the more desirable trees grow straight and tall. From time to time, we’d thin the fillers and then add more trees to the outer edges of the expanding forest of sticks.

My father liked the oaks. My mum favored the hard, red maples. Most of the fillers were soft maples, but there were some others in the mix. One was an unruly locust that my mother called the ugly tree. I thought all of us knew which tree she meant.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Decades later, my friend, Tom, emailed me a photograph he’d taken on one of his “walk-abouts.” Whenever Tom was blue, he’d disappear out into the wilds to recover his equilibrium. His photo was of a misshapen, “flag” tree in the foothills of California. He loved that tree. It had been topped and was leaning and bent by the winds. He saw its scars as a tribute to its survival. That battered tree spoke to him. I had the photo framed for his office, to serve as inspiration in tough times. Not everyone saw the beauty that Tom saw in that tree.

Tom and I had a falling out. It started as a misunderstanding—but Tom was bruised by it, and he gave me the cold-shoulder and cut off all communication. I had no idea why—I tried calling and emailing, to no avail. Later, I learned that he’d cut me off because of a rumor he’d heard—inaccurate, as it turned out; but hurt, he’d wasted no time in spreading it, and others. Then I was angry. Though I fully understood his emotional state, I was flummoxed that someone who was a true friend (and he was) wouldn’t come directly to me with his concerns. Clarity and communication would have completely avoided our pain and distance. Still, even when we cleared the inaccuracies, Tom would not apologize or acknowledge his role in the problem. He was too deeply entrenched in his hurt to see my position. Though I was angry, I thought about our falling out in the context of that tree in the picture, and figured he’d come around in time. One doesn’t walk away easily from a decades-long friendship.

We didn’t get that time. Within a year, Tom died suddenly of heart failure.

Clear, direct communication is a gift. It isn’t always easy. Sometimes, clarity is undone by our assumptions. One day, as my mother pondered the forest while doing dishes, she called out to my brother, who was mowing the lawn.

“While you’re out there, could you chop down the ugly tree?”

Chopping down a tree, even a spindly one, is a lot more fun than running a lawnmower. He got right to it. In fact, my mother was still standing at the sink when my brother came out with the axe, and in one stroke, severed one of her cherished trees. She cried out, but it was too late. She knew, in the flash of the axe blade, that she had not fully communicated. Beauty is, after all, in the eye of the beholder.

Since then, in my family, the expression “the ugly tree” is code for miscommunication. That’s all you need to say to fully explain whatever the bollix.

After Tom’s death, I spent a good bit of time looking at the picture of the Tom tree. It was Rick who pointed out that that lovely, twisted, solo tree was the lone survivor of a clear cut. I’m left to ponder the meaning of that observation.