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Heart of the Hearth, by Jo Leath

When we first moved to Down to Earth Farm, we were inspired by the huge maple tree on the north side of the long rutted driveway. We were less enthralled with the maze of poplars that was knitting a hedge around the house; lifting the roofing; scraping the siding; and smashing the glass out of windows. The poplars had to go. We felt a right to claim access to the sunlight, and security in our shelter. The maple by the driveway stood majestic and tall, far away from powerlines. It was unable to intrude on our animal comfort, all the while providing shade in the summer time. It harboured some of the birds that so thrilled us as they came near to discover our intentions.

At the base of the trunk, two adults could not hold hands and encircle the girth. This was a tree that had stood through hundreds of winter storms, had sprung into new yellow life for as many seasons. It had flamed with the fire of Eastern seaboard autumns since before my ancestors set foot on this land. This maple tree was a totem to history, and I loved it.

Living on a forested mountain side, surrounded by dozens of species of trees, amid acres of equal maples, somehow that sentinel tree became known as The Maple. During our first summer here, we repaired the woodstove in the house. We replaced the cement that fireproofed that corner of the kitchen where it stood. We renewed some of the rocks in the pedestal and purchased new pipes to connect the hole to the chimney. We learnt all there was to know about the anatomy of the airtight stove.

In the autumn we took delivery of multitudes of apple wood, and its fragrant heat warmed us through a winter of cold nights and howling winds, as we scurried to make repairs to the chinks in our habitation. We marveled at the heat released from the wood, the years of sunshine that were suddenly liberated into our home. We paused, when stoking it, to enjoy the leaping flames; the glowing embers; we huddled by it when we returned from the inhospitable open air.

Storms were plentiful that year. Cold swept down from the Arctic at breakneck speed, swirling with the immense tides in the Bay of Fundy. The winds gathered force and swept over the mountain, slamming into our home. The roof creaked, the chimney endured, and The Maple groaned with ghostly pain. Great whirling blizzards cut through the weakest of the limbs. Amid squeals and shrieks and crashes, huge pieces of the maple thundered to the ground. Fragments, as big as trees in their own right, landed on the driveway. Bark, peeled on one side, flapped like the skin of an agonizing wound. Massive boughs flew off into the meadow, and speared the land, driving themselves feet deep through the snow and into the earth. The contours of The Maple were changed, and when spring came, only a fraction of it burst forth into glorious leaf.

As the Spring rains fell, and more winds and storms lashed about the land, we were forced to accept that the tree was in deep distress. We acknowledged that the future held only the ignominy of collapse for The Maple we so adored. The prospect of seeing living lumber dwindle into morbidity, slowly bleeding and breaking, was more than we could bear. It creaked, and tried stubbornly to resist the vast forces of the gales. The sap-dry side grew more brittle. The strength that comes from bowing to the wind transformed suddenly into a delicate frailty.

It became a point of honour that we would not allow the Maple to end its days without dignity. We prepared a merciful ending, a single, certain blow. We called for sawblades big enough, and prepared for euthanasia. We apologized to it, for imposing our human assessment of its tree needs. It stood stoic; relinquishing the decision-making to us. I spent the tree's last days celebrating all the changes it had seen. I began to think of The Maple as a female entity, I started to call it She and Her. I thought about all the comforts that She had offered us, meanwhile assuring Her that the stage She was entering would be useful, caring and much appreciated.

I ran my fingers along the scars where decades of snowplough blades had mangled Her bark. I envisioned the children whose bicycles had leaned there, who had swung in Her branches. My mind groped back to the first Europeans who might have known Her. Courageous families, who had left all they knew, behind them in France. Had they had a chance to say goodbye to this tree, before being expelled from the land where they had planned their future? I wondered whether this tree had been chosen for tapping. Had children of the Mi'kmaq Nation tasted the maple sweetness of Her syrup? Had they played in Her youthful shade?

I watched as flocks of starlings spiraled out from within Her, and I wondered where they would go. Was this tree a landmark on their journey? Would they be lost without Her, as I would be, driving in and seeing an emptiness where She belonged? I found I could not estimate how many thousands of birds had paused for rest among Her cooling leaves. We left a tall stump, a reminder of Her own self as a memorial to Her majesty.

Over the next few weeks, the massive shards were further fragmented. Cord after cord of firewood was junked and split and stacked closer to the house. From a cylinder of solid wood, grew an edifice of warming wood, triangle edges neatly knit together in a solid wall. The slow and rhythmic thunk of the splitter and the axe were louder; unexpectedly we had to learn to live in a new soundstage. The Maple's leaves had insulated us, had bounced our own words back away from the road. Her absence was now palpable; a winter's worth of firewood did not soften the incredible loss that we felt.

Throughout the next winter, in the silence that the groaning tree had emptied, we warmed ourselves. We celebrated all the years of sunlight that She had absorbed, had alchemied into a small and glowing sun for us. We thanked Her every day, as we cremated Her remains, and warmed ourselves in Her radiance.

We miss Her. We miss Her crackling leaves as they fell in the approaches of winter. We miss Her royal height, and the drifts that She created in the snow, like wakes behind a boat. We miss the sight of Her sculptured limbs weighted down by frozen rains, springing back to step-dance in the breeze, the grey skies Her monumental stage. We miss Her swelling buds in spring, forecasting the birth of a new year. We remember Her, too. We remember where the heat was sourced. We greet Her memorial as we pass each day. We know that in sharing our love for Her, not even the flames in the air-tight stove can oblige Her to stop existing. She will give warmth to our memories; She will remain forever in our hearts.


Jo LeathJo Leath is a writer, activist and counsellor, living at Down To Earth Farm on the south side of North Mountain, which encloses the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia, Canada. Her household includes her life partner of eight years, one Border Collie, and 26 laying hens. She hopes to be able to earn her living without leaving the property.

E-mail Jo at branjo@auracom.com


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