One day in late summer Danny came home from school with a very grim face. I knew that he had bad news for me and he indeed said that something terrible happened. Of course, being me, I thought that someone I cared about died. Danny said, “Yes, it’s the beech tree. It is in very bad shape according to our arborist and may need to be cut down.” Paul, had already contacted two more experts to come and do some very intricate and thorough tests, and a few days later they came back with the sad verdict: either erect a four foot fence around the tree in a circle of sixty five feet to ensure that if it collapses no person would get hurt or take it down. That was a grim choice indeed. Our slide, swings and sand box are within this circle and the tree would stand there as the tree in the garden of Eden, beautiful but forbidden to enjoy. No climbing it nor sitting on the stone bench in its shade.
I was devastated, of course. This tree is the most beautiful tree I have ever seen.
It gave so much pleasure to our students and visitors. To be able to climb it became a rite of passage for our young kids who had to be tall enough to gain a foothold on it to get up at all. Later, it became imperative for some to be able to reach the top (not a small feat at seventy or so feet high.) Once, I made a motion in the School Meeting to forbid climbing into the tree because a teenaged student fell from it and hurt herself. Of course I was soundly defeated and the climbing, even to the highest branches, continued for another twenty or so years.
And then at the end of the summer vacation I came on campus and I saw with my own eyes that the end was inevitable and that I actually had known, but denied, that it was coming for a few years. First, a central branch, overnight it seemed, had gotten huge woodpecker holes drilled in it. We took the branch down and the tree seemed OK, but it had lost some of its majesty. Then this summer more enormous branches needed to be cut down. The tree’s formerly luxuriant canopy looked meager and nude in many areas. No arborist needed to tell me that our beloved tree was in bad, bad shape. Surprisingly, seeing the illness of the tree with my own eyes helped me to accept the inevitable; our two hundred year old beech tree had reached the end of its life.
On September 15, 2006, the first Friday of the 39th year of SVS, the tree was cut down. It was a very sad day but also a very uplifting one at the same time. I dreaded this day, because all the adults I’ve spoken to – parents, alumni, friends – had a terrible reaction. They were looking at the past, whereas the children at school were much more philosophical about the tree’s demise. They look at the future: they don’t dwell on the past. They are the future.
While the tree was being felled the whole school was gathered around it at a safe distance. The grief was palpable but so was the knowledge that we are here to stay. That we at SVS carry on no matter what. Not a single student complained, or bemoaned our bad luck. All understood that life is like that and that death is part of it. I for one stood out there all day long and not once had to shoo kids away from the danger zone or tell them that I will bring them up for being disturbing, noisy, rough-housing or whatever. It was amazing to see the maturity of our students. They saw the death of our beloved tree for what it is, part of the cycle of nature. Not as a gloomy metaphor, a sign of trouble for our future or any other maudlin thought. Mark Bell said it best: “I never imagined that the school would outlive the 200 year old tree, but it has!”
At the end of the day when only the stump of the mighty trunk was left standing, a student said to me with a lovely smile, “You know, this tree had the best life.” Indeed it had, and that is the ultimate metaphor for Sudbury Valley: the students here have the best childhood!
The Beech Tree
[ed. Note: This seemed to be the moment to include this article, also by Hanna Greenberg, which appeared many years ago in our Newsletter, and which is part of The Sudbury Valley School Experience.]
On a glorious morning one Fall I “saw” the beech tree for the first time. That seems an amazing statement coming from a person who has been at SVS for so many years – amazing, but true. Like everyone else, I have seen the tree in the Fall when its leaves turn red and are then shed, letting the branches show their magnificent structure throughout the Winter. I have also witnessed a new growth of Spring when the budding leaves give the tree a pink halo and slowly turn to their deep green color. I have also seen generation after generation of little children learn to climb the mighty tree, going higher and higher, sometimes reaching its crown and perching there for hours. But it was only recently that I really “saw” the tree, really understood it. Being an adult, I did not know how to truly experience the tree, until a little girl taught me how. This is what happened.
One day, Naomi, her face beaming, announced to me (like many little ones before her) that she finally was able to climb into the beech tree all by herself. She said that Alison had taught her how, and now she would show me. I went out with her because I wanted to share her joy and because the morning was so brilliant with vivid colors and luxuriant sunlight shimmering in the dew on the red and yellow leaves. Naomi showed me how she climbed and came down, and then told me to follow suit. Now, I had helped scores of children get up and many more to get down when they felt stuck, but I had never attempted to climb the tree myself. Naomi does not take “no” readily, and I knew that if I was to retain her respect for me, I just had to perform for her! She very patiently and clearly showed me, step by step, how to climb up and how to get down, and I did it for the first time ever.
When I got up to the first level I was struck by the beauty of the perch. I am not able to describe the mighty branches, the cozy space or the feelings of awe that overcame me. Suffice it to say that I realized that I had “seen” the tree for the first time. We adults think of ourselves as knowledgeable, and of our children as needing to learn and to be taught, but in this case I’d bet that any kid at SVS would be amazed at our ignorance and insensitivity to the grandeur that is there for us to see and is ignored. Naomi was a good teacher and I will always be grateful for what she taught me.
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