Thursday July 8, 2021
Walter has some friends. Who don’t know each other. There might be half a dozen people, maybe even up to a dozen. Or maybe just me and one other. But none of them know who the rest are.
Not even Walter himself. Because he’s dead.
(Note: I’ve changed Walter’s name as I have no way of getting permission from his family to tell this story.)
Earlier this spring, a friend and I were coming down a steep trail on a local mountain. As we came around a huge boulder, we suddenly realized there was a woman on the far side of it. Sitting with her back against the boulder. Sobbing.
To one side of her there was a small green tree. A pretty little tree, but not what I would consider a native pine, spruce, or aspen. It looked more like the decorative evergreens that florists use for contrast in a pot of blossoms.
A small white sash hung around the tree: “This tree planted for our son Walter.”
I squatted down at her eye level. “Your son?” I asked.
She nodded. “He was just 33.”
“I can’t get over it,” she said.
M<y friend and I shared a glance. “You never will,” I said, sadly, and explained, “We’ve both lost sons too.”
A few more moments of silence together. Then we left her to grieve alone, with her son’s memorial tree.
Every time I’ve taken that trail since, I’ve poured some of my water bottle onto the ground around that little tree. It has been a long dry spring and a very hot summer. The tree will need help to survive. So I also built a ring of rocks around the tree, to retain more of the water – if and when it ever rains.
But I’m not the only one who cares.
Someone carried a four-litre jug of water 1000 feet up the hill, and left it, for watering the tree if it looks dry.
Someone else brought a second jug.
Someone else left a note: “Tree watered June 27.”
Amazingly, in this blistering hot summer, the unlikely little tree seems to be surviving. It has gained height, and has filled out.
I don’t know, I can’t know, if Walter’s tree will survive the “heat dome” we have been living under.
But watering that tree still matters, even if it succumbs to heat and drought.
There’s no reason why strangers should care about that tree. I doubt if any of them ever knew Walter personally. Certainly, I didn’t.
Watering Walter’s tree is just an act of kindness. And not some “random act” – lugging a full jug of water up that slope has to be intentional.
Watering a tree that may not make it anyway, for a person we don’t know, may not make much sense. But still, I think it’s valuable.
Because every act sets up other acts. On the negative side, an act of greed incites another act of greed. An act of hate tills the soil for another act of hate.
If one act of kindness fosters another act of kindness, then, no matter how insignificant that act, watering Walter’s tree will honour his memory in ways his mother couldn’t have imagined.
Copyright © 2021 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups, and links from other blogs, welcomed; all other rights reserved.
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David Ollier Weber, from Pacerville, California, spoke for many other letter writers when he asked, “I'm curious as to what caused this sudden urge to light out for the territory. Has she ever done anything like this before?”
JT: Yes, she has, twice. Once when the vineyard above us fired off air cannon to drive off the magpies and starlings feasting on their ripe grapes. And once when a couple of trail motorcycles came down the forest path we were following. Both times, obviously something brand new for her. What might have frightened her at the dog park, I don’t know.
David offered his own suggestions: “Our standard poodle, Shadow, will sometimes get a burr under her saddle and suddenly work it off by galloping back and forth in the fenced portion of our olive farm in California's Sierra foothills. She'll run alongside the car for a half-mile on our dirt road -- I've clocked her at 15 mph -- and she'll take off after deer, squirrels, turkeys and jackrabbits when walking off leash. But I'd be very surprised if she were to roll under two gates to get out of a dog park, even though she usually finds them and the other dogs in them beneath her station.
“Could Pippin have licked or inhaled something? Drugs discarded in the dog park, or in another dog' s poop? Got a foxtail up her nose or in her ear? But what does a human know about canine whims? Or what to expect in human behavior? Fortunately you experienced the good side -- incidentally solidifying my generally warm opinion of Canadians. Glad your companion is safely back, with some invigorating exercise under her... er, collar.”
Laurna Tallman shared her own experience: “I know how you feel. We never let our smallest terrier, Muffin, into the large fenced yard because she will find a squeezeway out. Sunny, who can climb a fence 10 feet tall, also escapes. But he barks and defends his territory by standing his ground on a mound just outside of the fence. Muffin takes off running and she can run like the wind. Just as her grandsire came running into our lives years ago. We could not discover where he’d come from although we posted notices and phoned vets and spread the word about the stray who had found us.”
Laurna described Muffin’s last escape: “Muffin knows nothing about traffic or not chasing cars. No hope of my finding her on foot. I drove a half mile to the bridge, stopping every few yards and turning off the engine and calling her in the hope of finding her location by the movement of the tall grasses in the fields. My efforts were useless. Muffin is the only one of our dogs my husband loves. She sleeps at our feet on the bed. With his heart condition, I feared this loss would have dreadful consequences. ‘She’ll come back,’ he predicted. A few hours later, she reappeared on the back deck panting like mad and smelling like a swamp.
“Pets are a great blessing, especially to those living in isolating circumstances. I am so glad you had the help you needed to get your Pippin back again.”
Bob Rollwagen: “My experience in life is that most people help when they can or understand, and maybe don’t help when they are uncertain about what to do, feel they may cause a bigger issue or are threatened by what they see. All this is a good thing.”
Betty Robbins expressed the feelings of several other letter writers: “My heart was beating faster and faster as I read about Pippin's foray into the great wide world of scary traffic. I am also very thankful that the drivers were observant, empathetic, and so helpful.”
Thanks to all of you for writing. Pippin has been quite well behaved since then.
I use this paraphrase of Psalm 24 year after year.
1 Turning and turning, our pale blue globe
burns bright in the blackness of eternity.
The Earth is the Lord's, and all that is in it --
All life embodied in the only home we know.
2 God created life in the oceans,
and nourishes it with nutrients from the mountains.
3 Trace the course of a river to its source;
Stand among the mountains and marvel.
Who would dare defile this paradise?
6 So seek the Lord in high and holy places;
7 Let the vast valleys throw open their arms;
Let the summits stand tall in pride,
For this is the home of the Lord!
8 With all the glory of the universe to choose from,
With all of creation quivering in expectation,
The Lord of life picked this planet as home.
9 So throw open your valleys, O earth!
Spread wide your plains to welcome the Lord!
10 For the Lord of all creation lives here.
You can find paraphrases of most of the psalms in the Revised Common Lectionary in my book Everyday Psalmsavailable from Wood Lake Publishing, email@example.com.
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ALVA WOOD’S ARCHIVE
I have acquired (don’t ask how) the complete archive of the late Alva Wood’s collection of satiric and sometimes wildly funny columns about a mythical village’s misadventures. I’ve put them on my website: http://quixotic.ca/Alva-Wood-Archive. You’re welcome to browse. No charge. (Although maybe if I charged a fee, more people would find the archive worth visiting.)