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Karma and cutting down a favorite tree

The beloved red maple outside Nancy Shohet West’s kitchen window — after it was cut down.Nancy Shohet West for The Boston Globe

It’s part of our family, I always said about the tall red maple with the spreading branches just outside our kitchen window.

I believed it had a spirit and a soul, and that it watched over our household. I imagined the tree benevolently protecting the families that had lived in this house before us as well, going back decades. My Facebook posts included photos of the tree as often as my kids: its leaves changing color, its branches laced with the first snow, its silhouette against a blue sky or under a full moon.

But when my husband’s physical therapist suggested that he swim daily to alleviate a chronic arthritic condition, we began discussing the possibility of installing a therapy pool. And after examining all the relevant zoning restrictions, we realized that the only place we could construct a small addition to enclose the pool was perilously close to the tree.

“Maybe there’s a way to build around it,” my husband reassured me. “We can get advice on how to design the construction to do the least harm to the tree.”


We called a local arborist to come assess the situation. I knew him to be a man deeply committed to the preservation of trees, someone whose professional and personal perspective alike honored the importance of their existence. I was apologetic when he showed up, certain he would say that the sacred presence of a tree held precedence over a singular human’s need for orthopedic therapy.

So I was surprised when the arborist advised us to cut it down. “It’s already too close to the house,” he said. “It’s not likely to last there much longer anyway, and soon the limbs will start falling onto your roof.”

He explained that in indigenous settings, red maples grow in clustered forest groves close to other trees. As a solitary tree in the midst of a wide, grassy lawn, without competition for sunlight or water, our maple had grown both taller and broader than it was meant to. And, our arborist said, it was only about 20 years old, not a part of this landscape spanning generations, as I had imagined.


But as the day of the planned tree removal approached, I kept thinking: What if I’m right? What if the red maple really does contain the spirit of our household? What if pulling it down invokes a curse on us?

On the other hand, what about my husband’s right to pursue relief from his chronic arthritis? If the pool could help him to live a more pain-free existence, what right did I have to give priority to the presence of the tree?

In the end, it happened unceremoniously, with no ritualistic observance of the tree’s demise. I said goodbye to the red maple and left the house for an appointment; when I came back, it had been reduced to long pieces of trunk lying horizontally on the grass surrounded by piles of branches.

A few things have gone wrong since the tree came down. My son’s bid for funding for a summer internship was rejected. The contractor’s estimate for the pool installation came in much higher than we anticipated. A friend told me she is about to start cancer treatments.

The tree was exacting its karmic revenge on us, I imagined.

But then I reminded myself that plenty of things continued to go in our favor, too. Moreover, bad news had reached us with its usual frequency in the months before we even considered taking the tree down. That’s not karma, I reminded myself; it’s just life, when you’re part of a family and a network of friends and a community.


The morning after the tree came down, I observed how much more sunlight was pouring through the kitchen windows, absent the branches. At dusk, a family of deer emerged from the woods to nibble on the boughs that lay piled on our lawn, their buds now deliciously within reach. Out on the back steps after dark, I noticed how many stars I could see with my newly unobstructed view of the sky.

So was I wrong about the tree containing karma and benevolence? Was it just a tree that had grown too large in an inconvenient spot? Or was I right, and had our decision to remove it been imperialistic and self-serving?

And then it occurred to me that we’d felled the tree, not excavated it. There’s still the remnant of a stump in our yard — and below that stump, I know, are living roots that will continue to thrive in the soil. What remains of the tree will continue to grow. Maybe it will continue to bless occupants of this house with good karma, long after my family and I are gone.

Ultimately, maybe this yard belongs to the tree more than to us. Someday, perhaps a long time from now, a new tree will grow here. And if it does, I hope someone like me is here to honor it.


Nancy Shohet West can be reached at nancyswest@gmail.com.