As I write, three men in my front yard are revving their chainsaws and hacking my great American Elm to pieces. I say “my” front yard and "my" elm, but this sudden destruction is a stark reminder that I do not own the place that I live. Yesterday afternoon my landlord was sitting in the yard and when I stepped outside he told me he was thinking about cutting the tree down. Last night he taped a note to the front door saying I should move my car by morning. When I first moved here five years ago I almost chose a different apartment complex, but I decided against it when that landlord told me he was thinking about cutting down the only tree on that property because “those things are a maintenance nightmare.” Which is to say, I suppose, that they require maintenance at all.
I’ve been the author of several botanical tragedies, myself. I used to possess a variety of houseplants, none of which I am savvy enough to name, and none of which I was savvy enough to keep alive, save for one tomato-sized cactus that seems to require no watering. I occasionally watered the others, and once during a rainstorm I even loaded them all up in a little red wagon and took them for a walk around the neighborhood. While they lasted, each made my apartment a little more like something to tend, something to care for. This is a task at the deepest core of human responsibility. Eden was not only a place to enjoy as God planted it; it was a place to cultivate.
Outdoors I planted the gnarly stalk of a young Tropicana rosebush, which would have been the sweetest-smelling shrub on the block had it been given time to grow. But when my mother visited and saw a black, featureless twig coming out of the ground, she presumed it dead and uprooted it. Later when I was visiting her, she loaded my trunk with a section of the shrubbery that surrounds her house so I could bring it back and put it in the rose’s place. It wouldn’t flower and it wouldn't be fragrant, but at least maybe it would be something green to look at. It turned brown within weeks. I didn’t plant it deep enough and I didn’t water it often enough, and it withered and died before I even tried to save it.
But something surprising came from that shrub. Through the tangle of brittle stems and leaves that had settled into the color of a faded paper lunchsack, one dark green thread of life worked its way up and out into the sunlight. Then it sprouted a few leaves of its own. And now two or three other stems have grown up to join it. “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse…” and thus Our Lord has made himself known to me, even in the midst of my failure as a gardener.
The hired hands are finishing their job now, and they have done all they can to ensure no second such miracle takes place on this property. My roommate and I both nailed letters to the tree last night pleading with our landlord to leave it be. His appealed to the beauty of the thing. Mine appealed to its effect on property value. As it happened, neither note mattered because our landlord himself did not come to the sacrifice until all the limbs had been severed. He didn’t really tell us why it needed to go; yesterday he only muttered something about sticks on the roof and how it had only been "this big around" when he bought the place and he didn't expect it would have become this much of a problem. In prior years, the overhanging branches were trimmed, and the tree stayed clear of both the roof and our cars. None of us had ever said a word of complaint about it.
Cultivating, it seems, is difficult work. Which is to say, I suppose, that it is work at all.