Three years ago we were looking for a farmhouse where we could begin to realize the dream God had planted in our hearts. We imagined a spacious place where friends and neighbors could gather—where peace could grow as surely as summer zinnias. We hoped for a place where those in need of a home could find one with our family and where the weary might come for a day, or even a season, of rest.
On one of the hottest days of the year, we found a redbrick Victorian called Maplehurst.
The maple trees that had inspired the home’s name 135 years before were the first to greet us. Like a welcoming committee of benevolent giants, they lined the long avenue that linked the country road with the front porch. The trees tossed their cool green skirts, but I strained my eyes to peer through their branches, eager to see just how near our nearest human neighbors were. I saw the giant trees, yet I did not see them. They were simply the backdrop for the good things I was sure God would do in this place.
Though Maplehurst is a farmhouse, the farm itself has gone. That first day, we could hear Amish carpenters tapping nails into the last of the new homes being built nearby. The proximity of so many neighbors was a real estate liability, but we saw in it an answer to prayer. Our dream of a farmhouse purposed for community had never made much sense until we saw all those houses planted where corn and wheat had once grown. Obviously, God was bringing us here for the people.
I never once suspected He might be bringing us here for the trees.
I have learned a lot about trees these past three years. We have planted at least a dozen fruit-bearing ones, and a local arborist told us he had never seen a hemlock as tall as the one near our split-rail fence. Yet this place is primarily defined by the silver maples lining both sides of the long driveway and the giant Norway maples nearer to the house.
I have learned that you can tap any variety of maple for syrup, though the aptly named sugar maples do give the highest concentration of sap. I have learned that Norway maples are considered invasive. They cast their helicopter seed far and wide, but their dense canopy makes it difficult for native species to thrive. I have also learned that maples are the fastest growing of the hardwood trees. This may sound like a good thing, but it means that their wood is often weak. The average lifespan of a silver maple is 100 years. The maximum lifespan is 125. Though Norway maples may live longer, they seldom do.
In other words, one of the most important things I have learned is that our trees are dying.
We had lived in the house only a few months when we woke to the tragic sight of a giant maple lying stricken across our lawn. Thanks to high winds and saturated soil, it had come unmoored from its roots as neatly as if a zipper had been pulled.
We knew our trees were big, but we did not know how big until we stood in the shadow of that great, fallen tree. Even sprawled on its side, the trunk was so high above my head that I could not climb it without a great helping heave from my husband.
Our first spring was a stormy one, and the trees seemed to drop bits and pieces of themselves in every breeze. After one fierce 15-minute deluge, we found an enormous limb, nearly one-third of the tree itself, fallen across our driveway. It was shocking to realize how easily our long avenue could become impassable, but it was more stunning to see that the maple’s huge, reaching limb was nearly hollow, rotted out from the inside.
Maple trees do not die the way people do. The older they grow, the more majestic they become, but that majesty is deceptive. Inwardly, they carry their age in rotten wood and hollow hearts. They decay from the inside out.
Trees are not widows and orphans. Trees are not the ministry of the church. Yet in Scripture, trees are praising God—and one day will also sing and clap their hands.
They were a bonus in the real estate agent’s brochure, and I accepted them as a gift from God—until they began to cost a great deal of time and money. The first check I wrote to the owner of a local tree-care company felt inevitable. There are always hidden costs to home ownership. I wrote the second check a little more slowly. But the third lay unsigned on my desk for days. Unlike the others, this check was for tree care rather than cleanup.
The price tag was alarming, but the promise was enticing. If we were willing, this company could prune every one of our aging trees. With knowledge, experience, and a great deal of heavy equipment, they could remove dead wood and too-heavy branches. With fewer limbs (and fewer leaves), our trees might persist, despite their age and weakness, despite the inevitable storms.
But were we willing to pay the price? For trees?
Trees are not widows and orphans. Trees are not the ministry of the church. Yet in Scripture, trees are praising God (Ps. 148:9)—and one day will also sing and clap their hands (Ps. 96:12; Isa. 55:12). I have long wondered at this. Surely the trees cannot know that their days are numbered. They cannot know that one day their home, this earth, “will wear out like a garment” (Isa. 51:6).
For the first time in my life, I began to consider the value of a tree. Certainly, they are the lungs of the earth. Without the oxygen they release, we couldn’t sing God’s praises, either. They appear throughout the narrative arc of the Bible. Adam and Eve sinned beneath the heavy-laden branches of a fruit tree. A felled tree held our Lord as He died. One day, God will make His home with us, and we will live within the shelter of a marvelous healing tree (Revelation 22:2).
It was only after I became intimately acquainted with bark and roots and leaves that I realized the biblical trees had always been paper-thin in my mind. Mere metaphors. Even the fig tree cursed by Jesus was nothing more than an insubstantial object lesson. But despite the flimsiness of the paper check on my desk, I was not being asked to pay metaphorical money. The cash we might spend on these old trees was cold and hard, and I could think of a dozen more “spiritual” ways it might be used. Even leaving that aspect aside, I could more easily justify making a deposit in my children’s meager college savings accounts than spending one more penny on these hollow trees.
But I wrote the third check. I wrote it though I had not resolved my doubts. I wrote it only because I decided that if the cattle on a thousand hills belong to our God, then surely there is enough for orphans and trees. But it was only after the pruning was finished that I began to comprehend what God was asking of us and why.
The “limbing up” of our trees took two full days and a large team of hard-hatted men. By early evening on the second day, we had three enormous piles of fresh mulch for the garden, but we had something more, too.
As the last truck rolled down the drive, my husband and I stood side by side on the front porch. Where an impenetrable green curtain had rippled in the breeze, our eyes now traveled the full length of the avenue. The day before, it had looked like a long, dark tunnel. Now it was like a soaring cathedral of light. With their heavy lower limbs removed, our trees appeared to touch the sky. Silvery green leaves met above the driveway in a vast, delicate arch.
“I had no idea they were so tall,” Jon whispered.
“They look as if they are singing for joy,” I answered.
Two years have passed since that day, and we have not lost another tree.
Nations rage. Neighbors squabble. Even maple trees will not stand forever. Why, then, do they sing? And why should we join their chorus?
This earth often looks like a patched and faded garment, just as Isaiah predicted. Nations rage. Neighbors squabble. My zinnias are stricken with mildew. Even these maple trees will not stand forever, no matter how well I care for them. Why, then, do they sing? And why should we join their chorus?
I had had no vision for how beautiful our old trees could be. With my eyes clouded by dollar signs, I’d thought only of their aging wood and drooping limbs. If it had been possible, I might have tossed them in the garbage can the way I dispose of a pair of ragged old jeans.
In Romans 1:20, Paul reminds us that all the invisible attributes of God are made visible in creation. Though our trees had been planted by men, they were created by God to reflect His glory. Even I could see that now. And I had been invited to participate in the glory, called to cultivate and care for these towering blessings. I had thought the amount on that third check such a high price to pay, but now it did not seem nearly enough.
I had come to Maplehurst with a heart to care for people, but God wanted more from me. More for me. He wanted to bring me into a community, not only with people, but also with all of creation. Maple trees and zinnias, blue skies and starlight. Incredible gifts like these should never become mere backdrop.
We sing with the trees because death and decay met their defeat in an empty tomb. We sing because Isaiah also spoke of a new earth that would “endure” (Isa. 66:22). I don’t know exactly when or how that forever earth will come to be, but I feel sure that I have glimpsed it. I see it in every strong, young red maple planted where an old, decaying silver maple once grew. I see it when neighbors gather together beneath a cathedral arch of restored trees. And I begin to suspect that in so many ways, and with our participation, this earth is being remade from the inside out.
As are we.
Photography by Gene Smirnov