The sycamore has always been my favorite tree. The sycamore as in species. All sycamores. Its branches spread wide and fill the space around it, not in an intrusive or demanding way like the guy on the plane who commandeers the armrest before takeoff with nary an intention of relinquishing even the smallest sliver to you or anyone else, but in a inclusive, generous way, stretching and curving and bending in order to embrace, to draw in. Its leaves are the perfect color of green. They are broad and soft, big enough to use as fans on sultry summer afternoons if only they weren’t so limp. They dangle from the branches and flirt with the wind, whistling in a soft alto accompanied by the light percussion of limbs rattling against each other. The bark may be my favorite thing about sycamores. I was a young child when I saw my first piece of it loosed from the tree, all silvery gray and thin as a potato chip. It made me think of papyrus and I wondered if I could write on it. One look at the trunk from which it had fallen, however, brought on a wave of sadness I’d not lived long enough to understand. The splotches from which the bark had fallen leaving slick and unprotected skin looked like a healed-over wound, a scar left as a reminder of the wholeness that was no more. The sycamore has always been my favorite tree. The sycamore as in the one in my parents’ backyard.
The one planted not long after we arrived on the farm, growing quickly, joyfully even to fill up the sky. It created shade for the long hot summers, drew a breeze from somewhere beyond the flat fields that surrounded the house. Its limbs grew in perfect proportion to the legs of the children that would one day climb it, invisible among the swaying leaves. It stood guard over the flower bed Mama planted and weeded and watered every spring and summer until the disease that would ultimately take her made gardening a pleasure of the past. And all of this is why I am grieving. Grieving a loss I didn’t even know we’d experienced until one day last week when Owen and I were walking up the road and noticed way too much sunshine pouring through the spaces between the pecan trees and the fig tree and the gardenia bush. It took a moment or two of staring to even see it – the sycamore tree stretching up and up just as it always has, but naked. Not a leaf anywhere. Daddy hadn’t noticed it either. We stood at the kitchen window and stared out at the skeleton, its graceful outline revealing its own kind of beauty. “Must’ve been hit by lightning,” he said in a tone I don’t hear often from a man who has spent his life acknowledging without sentimentality the life cycle of plants and animals. And people. He shook his head as I recited the wonders of this my favorite tree of favorite trees. “You’ll have to cut it down,” I muttered begrudgingly. “If it fell, it would take out the whole house.” “Yeh.” It was only then that I noticed the flush of green at the base of the trunk, a thicket of thin limbs leafed out in an explosion of sycamore leaves. “Look!” I pointed. “Some of it is still alive.” Somehow, despite the indefensible assault of lightning, some part of the heart of the tree had survived and was, even now, struggling to live, to recreate itself. From where I write, I can see it, still towering over the other trees, its bare branches looking for all the world like upstretched arms, reaching ever toward the sky. It may not succeed. But it is trying. The sycamore has always been my favorite tree. Still is. Especially now.