“The trees have haircuts!” she said, her eyes wide with amazement.  I looked over the wall and yes they had.  Trees and shrubs had been clipped into a variety of shapes: cones, cylinders, wedges, lollipops.  They just stood there, looking ridiculous.  One felt more ashamed for the trees than for the shrubs: trees were the adults in the garden, and it is embarrassing to see adults treated like children.  They stood motionless, constrained; they had none of that easy movement that normal trees have in the wind; they looked like artefacts.  “What are they for?” she asked.  The question confirmed that they looked like artefacts: no one would ask such a question about a normal tree.

“Imagine the mind of the person who would do that to a tree!” she said.  We imagined it.  At first we thought it must be a very complicated one, but in a moment we agreed that it was a mind far simpler than the normal.  There is practically no limit to the number of shapes that trees can take, but here was a gardener who had lacerated that abundance down to five or six. 

For relief we look at the others, the trees that escaped.  How well they keep themselves!  More: they stand like great and lesser heroes, assuring us of some noble triumph far above our heads.  Their full majesty appeared to us in contrast to the desecration of the others.  How vulnerable trees are!  How easy it is to love them: they are splendid beings, rapt in silence, and yet totally vulnerable, because they are alive.  They show us, in some way, the heart of existence.

And how well they hold their secret!  Their roots search deeply into the earth, a world of darkness, stillness and silence; no one has ever seen all their roots, no one is capable of following their infinite search.  And how discreetly they reveal the secret!  They raise their powerful bodies and intricate arms into the sky, intertwining the world below with the world above, giving form and meaning to what is formless: the darkness underground, too terrible to contemplate, they transform, without destroying it, into a hundred colours and shades; the rigidity of the earth they soften into an easy motion; its silence they interpret into music with the wind.  When we come to die we can say: I have seen wonderful trees, in every season. 

A simple man, used to raking leaves, went too far and grieved the living with the dead.  Failing to hear the yearning voices of the earth he cut their throats with a shears.  Mechanical order and regularity are for the dead alone.  There is a living order too, but it is different, as a tree is different from an artefact.  When we model our minds and lives on the machine we make ourselves enemies of every living thing. 

More ancient than technology, more ancient even than philosophy, trees looked down on dinosaurs, they were present at the birth of our race, they are our oldest neighbours.  They know something wondrous about God, and they carry the weight of our religious aspiration: the oak of Mamre, the Bodhi tree, the Cross of Christ. 

A stricken tree is strangely like a badly used human being...

Or like a wounded God, mocked and pierced and left to die.  

Donagh O'Shea

These are brief articles, one per month,
on a wide variety of topics concerning the living of the Christian life.