In Memoriam to a Sycamore Tree

-- By Kathy Carroll

Sycamore Islander, November 2002

Long before the Civil War, a bolt of lightning or a flood, perhaps, bowed the tree onto its side. Year by year, the sturdy trunk stretched farther and farther -- more than 100 yards -- out over the river just above Sycamore Island. A branch grew up from the trunk and became like a second trunk, bending toward the western sky.

It was a wonder tree. Sometime, generations ago, someone thought of putting a rope around the giant branch and a little ladder from the river to the trunk. Voila! A tree swing! Pure joy for scores of kids and hardy adults! From the first warm days of spring until the last of Indian summer I loved hearing their exuberant shouts as they splashed into the water in all manner of ways.

Several times even I, old enough to be a grandmother, inched my way across that long expanse, toes clutching mottled bark, gripped the rope with fear and trembling, and felt that rush of adrenalin when I’d swing out with all my might. Then I’d let go (letting go is an important step to remember) fly through the air, and drop into the warm, enveloping water, as the splattering drops sparkled in the sun like fireworks.... Ecstasy!

My daughter, Becca, loved the tree. It was her favorite spot for out-of-town visitors. Before she would take them to see the Capitol or the Smithsonian, she took them to the tree swing for the best entertainment around. How amazing! Just a few miles outside of the nation’s Capitol, you could go back in time to the days of Huck Finn, where kids would slow down enough to groove on an old tree, a swing and a swimming hole instead of video games and MTV. It is so rare these days for kids to get beyond their scheduled indoor lives to even know what it is to enjoy free time outside.

There’s a theory, the Biophilia Hypothesis, that to be fully human, we must learn to connect with nature. According to this theory, just as there is a critical time for a child to learn speech, there is a critical time for children to bond with the natural world. That disconnect so many people have from nature may account for many of our modern ills. I wonder how many kids found that connection through the Sycamore tree swing?

I spent my childhood in our home next to Lock Eight, enmeshed in the colors, sounds and smells of the seasons of the river and the trees around it. I plied the canal in my own little boat that could only stay afloat with a passenger under 60 pounds or so. I spent my days wild and free exploring islands and swinging on tree vines. When I was ten, though, my childhood ended as my family and I were forced from our home in the wild by governmental decree. We were condemned to civilized lives surrounded by concrete and little squares of mown grass.

Well, now chalk up another point for “civilization” and disconnection -- for the power of litigation against wildness and beauty. From what I understand, a girl was hurt, her mother sued or threatened to sue the Park Service. On September 10th, the Park Service in turn, chopped down the Sycamore tree. I don’t know who made the decision, but was like putting the tree to sleep because it bit the girl. (I’m sure it was the last thing the girl would have wanted –to punish the tree and everyone who enjoyed it. She was there because she loved the tree.) The ground looks like it’s covered with sycamore soldiers lying dead on a battlefield or a huge butchered corpse whose arms, legs and head were strewn haphazardly -- this, where a few weeks ago our wonder of the world proudly stood.

When I found out about the tree, it was almost like losing my home all over again, like lancing an old, slightly infected, wound. Only now my children and many others are suffering with that desolate, wrenching wound in their hearts, too. I think that is what hurts the worst.

Up until recently, whenever I needed to regain a sense of inner peace, I would imagine my husband, Steve, and me gliding in our canoe along the river right up by the tree swing on our way to the main channel, the sun shining and the water shimmering. I want to keep that feeling of peace and I want my family, our children and their friends, and all the kids to still love and enjoy the river even though the thrill of the tree swing is gone.

Our tree has already begun to sprout some babies, suckers who will use the powerhouse of nutrients available from the mother stump to grow like wildfire next spring. It was a bit of a comfort to me to see new life sprouting from all that death and destruction. Who knows? Maybe a lightning bolt or a flood will bow one of them on its side. Perhaps one day, our children’s children’s children’s children will know a tree like the one we lost.

Kathy Carroll writes: My son Jon Michael has been living abroad for the last few years. Whenever he would visit home, he’d spend more time making pilgrimages to the Sycamore tree than he did with us. Here is a poem he e-mailed when he heard about the death of his favorite tree:

Love for Our Fallen Brother
-- by Jon Michael Carroll

love for our fallen brother
u know few things make me cry holmes
a couple years back they would’ve seen a torment of destruction throughout
the streets and up in all those fuzzies beats
but now we that much stronger
touching hearts on the daily
soul rebels kid
we’re always there
in flight at the peak of the swing out
and we could hope to grow up strong
root deep in the earth arms bear hugging the skies
dancing in the soft breeze and hard wind
in the ten million shades of pink and purple
of a summer sunset...
he estado en un braso del arbol sycamore
cantando le al rio
cantando por amor

Kathy and Steve Carroll have been members since 1997. They would like to receive writings – photos, art, etc. to make up a book – just for all of us – in memory of the tree. When their son Jon Michael gets back from Europe he wants to make a sculpture of one of the pieces of wood that are lying around from the tree and leave it there, where the tree used to be.