There is a tree in my yard that died a while back. (Can you guess which one it is?) It is largely stripped of its bark, long ago lost all its branches, and so stands bare and denuded even in the most glorious spring. While in the winter it can pretend to blend in with the starkness all around, in the summer it stands apart, a skeleton amid the fleshy forest.
What to do with it is the question. I must admit, we have been tempted to take it down, to remove what some see as an eyesore in the vibrant woods of new growth, with herds of deer, squirrels, foxes, hawks and more. For the most part, only laziness and procrastination have saved that tree. But in Tom Wessels’ lovely book, Reading the Forested Landscape, I learned about the value of what are called standing snags.
Wessels is a consummate teacher. After years of leading people through the forested landscape of New England, and showing them how to read a place’s history through the telltale signs of the woods, he gathered together in this book a series of virtual walks that offers the reader the second best thing to being with him.
As chance would have it, a year after I bought the book, I had the privilege of accompanying Tom on a walk through the woods at a retreat in the mountains of New England. What he could see, what he could learn, from a mound, a stump, a crack in bark, a rock outcropping, was nothing short of amazing. He is a Sherlock Holmes of the woods. How much richer the world would look to us all if we could see the way he sees.
He tries to give us some of his vision in his book. It was there that I learned that standing snags should not be seen as the end of a tree’s existence, should not be disposed of to make room for others, but are yet another part of a tree’s life-giving life-cycle. Snags provide homes and shelter for birds and small animals, easier and more accessible food sources for woodpeckers and nuthatches, useful perches and outlooks for all who desire.
Depending on how you look at them, snags have a beauty all their own. Stripped of their bark, their inner wood is exposed, revealing the qualities and textures that were, of necessity, covered over during their active lives. In death, through these snags, the full strength and nature of a tree can be revealed. Why it looked the way it did, why it leaned or bent or knotted when and where it did, can now be shown.
A fitting metaphor, it seems, for people. The snag is akin to our legacy, the life-giving remnants of our well-lived lives. If we are lucky, we are able to enjoy robust years, full of growth and splendor and vitality. If things go well, in our lifetimes we will seed and experience many adventures, anchor a community, refuel its resources, offer it shelter and safety, be held close and cherished by those around us.
But if we are luckier still, even after we die, our gifts will not cease. Like the snag, we can leave a life-giving legacy. For some of us, it may be through our wealth; for others, through our songs, our inventions, our discoveries, our words. It may be through our stories, our laughter, our recipes, or our kindness. And in death, perhaps, the reasons for why we were the way we were, and the impulses for why we acted the way we did, will be able to be seen a bit more clearly, and if necessary, compassionately.
That, in a way, is what a yahrzeit is, the annual remembrance of a loved one’s life marked on the anniversary of their death. It is the celebration of their snag, their remnant and memory that continue to stand in our presence, giving us shelter and comfort, the reminder of all their many gifts, a better understanding of who they really were.
I will leave the snag standing in our yard, adorning our woods, blessing our home.