(the opening two pages of a chapter
"Why Do I Love These People?")
This will sound like a
fable, but every bit of it is true.
It starts with a story about a
remarkable tree, an American elm with a lush green crown that spreads over
60 feet across. Its trunk is now about twelve feet in circumference, so
the tree is surely over a hundred years old, perhaps much more.
This elm is next to a barn, at
the bottom of a hill, beside a cherry orchard, on 47 acres of a family
farm. This farm is three miles outside a town named Beulah, near the
northwestern tip of Michigans lower peninsula. Beulah is so tiny that
it says Welcome to Beulah on both sides of the sign.
Back in the 1950s, the family
that owned this farm kept its cattle bull chained to this elm. All day
long, the bull would pace around the tree, dragging his chain with him.
The iron chain scraped a trench in the bark that circled the trunk three
feet off the ground. Over the years, the trench deepened into a gash.
Then the family sold the farm.
They took their bull, but left its chain, cutting the next-to-last link
such that what remained resembled a stub necklace, a chain loop now nearly
embedded into the bark, with a single link dangling down.
For a few years, the farm was
dormant. Then a family arrived. Two grandparents, their adult son-in-law,
and his two boys, one eleven years old, the other only four. The
four-year-old boy found the elm right away, and he felt a kinship for this
grand old being, with its horrific scar and its curious dangling link. By
then the bark had started to grow back, and it nearly met itself as it
reached over the iron links. This boy, too, had a scar. His mother and his
sister had recently been killed by a drunk driver.
The next year, the boys wound
got deeper. His father remarried and moved away, taking his older son with
him, but not the boy. There were reasons offered, but none that made any
sense to the boy, who simply understood that his father and stepmother did
not want him. The boy remained on the farm to be raised by his maternal
grandparents. He rarely saw his father again. But his grandfather was
loving and playful, and the boy glommed on to the old man.
The next years put the great elm
in jeopardy. Dutch Elm Disease, a fungus carried from tree to tree by
beetles, proceeded to wipe out nearly all elms in its spreading path
through North America in the 1960s and 1970s. The county was terrified,
because these American elms were ubiquitously used for shade. Surveyors
were sent out to forecast the likely damage. The elms lining the road up
to the farm, a road made of tar and woodchips, died quickly. The
grandfather figured the old great elm would be next. There was no way the
tree could last, between the encroaching fungus and that chain belt
strangling its trunk. He considered doing the safe thing, which was to
pull it out and chop it up before it became diseased and fell onto the
barn in a storm.
But the grandfather could not
bring himself to uproot the elm. He and the boy had spent so much time in
its shade, the darn thing felt like a family member. So he let nature take
its course. Miraculously, the tree did not wither. Year after year, it
continued to bloom great cathedral-like canopies. Nobody could conceive
how this was possible. Word of this elm traveled throughout Michigan, and
plant pathologists and horticulturalists from Michigan State University
were dispatched to examine the curiosity. The boy was ten by then. He well
remembers the crew from the university that came out that summer. They
were not sure what to conclude. By then the tree had thickened, and its
bark had completely grown over the chain; the descending lip of bark
turned out as it met the ascending lip, creating a fat seam the boy could
run his finger along. The chain inside was as rusty as a shipwreck, its
single dangle now partly immersed. The university crew had only one theory
to offer. Somehow, this scar, this chain which for years everyone
thought was going to kill the tree instead had saved the trees
life. They suggested that by absorbing so much iron from the chain, the
tree had become immune.
To the boy, this offered a
powerful metaphor. Perhaps his scar was not going to kill him, either.
Perhaps someday, when everyone expected it to destroy him, it might save
With the grandfathers
extensive encouragement, the boy studied magic tricks, and in public he
adopted the persona of a performer. This hid the pain of his loss. Then,
one April day when the boy was seventeen, the grandfather went down to the
barn beside the elm and shot himself. Nobody ever asked the boy about
this, and the boy did not want to talk about it. That was the way it was
handled back then, in that part of the country. The boys scar was just
another notch deeper. It was miracle enough to stay alive. He carried on
with his grandmother and their inspiring elm.
Today, the elm dwarfs the barn.
The chain is completely covered with bark, and may even have decomposed
inside, though the scar is still there.
picnic bench in front of the trunk gives some sense of proportion.