The Giving Tree

by Donna Schoenkopf

It had become increasingly clear. The cottonwood tree had to be cut down.

Two summers ago I had noticed the tree wasn’t as robust as usual. The dark green leaves that massed all over the tree every spring and summer were definitely fewer and sparser, and those leaves dropped earlier than usual in the fall. And when the hellish summer hit this year, a summer with way over 100 degree heat every single day for three months, the cottonwood began to drop its leaves in June. Within two weeks all the leaves were gone except for a few hardy ones on a large branch that hung over my house.

I went on the Internet and deduced that the problem might be from cottonwood boring beetles. I had seen a few one summer, didn’t know what they were, and thought they were beautiful. I even wanted to send one to my grandson and so I put it in a jar, but after two days it still strained to get out so I let it go.

A fatal mistake.

The Internet told me that those beetles bore into the base of cottonwoods and lay their eggs inside the trunk. When the eggs hatch, the larvae eat the insides of the tree. In fact, they live most of their lives inside the tree, eating, eating, eating. What kills the tree is that the xylem (the water carrying cells in the trunk of the tree) is eaten away until the tree dies of thirst.

It was exactly what was happening to my cottonwood, but I couldn’t accept it. I thought perhaps the drought had caused some sort of dormancy in it, so I watered it every single day, for an hour, by laying the hose on the ground next to it, water going full force. And I poured my special urine fertilizer around it. The single healthy branch sprouted huge deep green leaves, leaves bigger than my hand. Leaves even sprouted on two other small branches up the side of the tree, but only on the healthy side and only a foot or so above the healthy branch. That was exactly what the all-knowing Internet said happened when those beetles were killing it.

The cottonwood tree meant more to me than any other thing on my property, besides my dogs and cats. It was the first friend I made when I walked up the hill of my 13 acres for the first time. For the three years that passed between buying my land and moving to Oklahoma, that tree was in every plan I drew, in every fantasy I had about my house. I imagined it as the shade in my summer.

But it turned out to be much more. It was also the favorite place for every kind of bird in the area. Woodpeckers loved it. Crimson cardinals sat on its branches. Chickadees hopped around its base. A few times a beautiful blue indigo visited it. One magical afternoon dozens of hummingbirds, all iridescent and lovely, flitted through the branches.

The cats loved it, too, and scampered up into it every day, escaping Diego the Dog or trying to snag a bird, or to just take in the view.

It made a bower over the deck, an honest-to-God bower. I put my table and chairs under it and sat there almost every morning as I drank my coffee. It was pure heaven. It was my dear friend.

But now the weight of that last living branch was actually tipping the tree ever so slightly more and more toward my house and I thought of the fierce Oklahoma winds which would topple it onto the roof right over my bed, probably while I was sleeping.

Something had to be done. I had to cut it down.

I decided to wait until September 25, a Sunday, when my dear old friends, The Cell, would be here. They were coming to our 50th high school reunion. We would cut the tree down together.

I wrote them all and told them about my plan. “Please wear suitable clothes for tree cutting,” I wrote. “We will make it a ceremony of some sort.”

I asked Neighbor Orval if I could borrow his chain saw. I told him that John, who lived in Alaska, knew about chain saws and cutting down trees, and had, in fact, cut down 150 of them on the piece of land he owned next to his house so he could build a new house. Orval said yes, and added that anyone who lived in Alaska must know how to cut down a tree and how to treat a chain saw. He said he would have it oiled and gassed up and would bring it over before the tree-cutting day.

So I had a chain saw. Now I needed a rope. I bought a 100-foot-long nylon one from Lowe’s, and that was that. Pretty simple as far as tools go.

I looked at the lay of the land. The cottonwood was on the very top of the hill, about 10 feet from my house. Because I had watered it faithfully every day, the side of the hill was verdant and even had a three-foot-tall ash sapling growing directly in the path of the cottonwood when it fell. We could finesse it and either make the cut in another place or use the rope to pull it in the right direction.

I hugged my tree. It had no idea (I think) what I was up to.

stretching the rope

The day finally came. Orval had brought over the chain saw the day before, neatly buttoned into its carryall case along with a container of gas and oil mixture. He told me it was the best chain saw made. By the look in his eye I could tell he had done a proud man’s job of prepping it for the job.

The heat wave had abated. The sky was blue. The arrival of the guys and their wonderful wives began in midmorning. Bill and Judy were first. Then John and Sandy and Nancy arrived. Here came Larry and Mike and Priscilla, and then Sequita, my first friend in Shawnee those many years ago when I was 15 and lonely beyond lonely, drove up. And Sharon, another dear friend from those long-ago days. Nelda and Mick arrived in their convertible, top down, and Don and Jenny, fresh from the airport. My, oh my. What a fine group.

John and Larry checked out the barbeque. They would be putting the finishing touches on the Cuban pork and cooking the black beans later in the afternoon.

I brought out the chain saw and showed it to John. He looked it over and nodded approvingly.

I had already put a ladder under the tree so that whoever was going up it would have at least a little help in getting up in the branches to tie the rope.

John immediately strode out to the ladder and instantly was in the tree. All six feet seven inches of him, with the rope coiled around his arm. Up he went. Then higher. I started getting scared. He was stepping on dead branches as he hoisted himself upward. His wife Sandy was a little unsure, too, and we both yelled up womanly words about being careful and watching out for dead branches and not killing himself.

He didn’t even bother to respond.

He tied one end of the rope to a place pretty high up and lowered himself back down to the ground. By now everyone was outside looking on. Mike got us pulling the rope down the hill slightly to the left of the sapling. We all pulled it until its full length was uncoiled. I couldn’t have bought a better length.

God. It was actually happening. And it was happening fast.

I ran up the hill and put my arms around the cottonwood for the last time. I went inside and put “Our House” by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young on the CD player and opened the sliding glass doors so the music would float down the hill, and then ran down the hill to get to my place on the rope line.

tree coming down   tree coming down   tree coming down

John pulled on the cord of the chain saw, and it came to life in his hands. We watched as he put it to the trunk of the tree and began to cut to the heart of it. But as he started the second cut, the tree started tipping toward the house. The heavy weight of the living branch, all full of water as cottonwoods are, was causing the whole tree to lean precariously. We could feel the rope tensing up in the wrong direction and we began to pull harder. I was starting to worry that the rope would snap and decapitate us. But we kept on pulling and we could feel the direction of the falling tree stop, shift, and then, slowly and then with more speed, that tall, beautiful being, that friend of mine, that beautiful cottonwood tree began falling exactly where it was meant to fall.

Craaaaaaaaaaaccckkkk! It came down. Widespread branches covering a good part of the hill.

It completely missed the sapling.

John immediately began cutting the branches off, and Mike and some of the rest of us began hauling them off the side of the hill to a spot near Diego the Dog’s grave. John cut the stump until it was smooth and clean and the perfect height for sitting, just like the Giving Tree. (And when you look straight down at that stump, it’s the perfect image of somebody’s butt. Even down to the crack.)

It was done. I was strangely unemotional about the tree being gone. Some of the men rolled/carried the trunk to the edge of the hill as a bench. Adrenaline was high.

But a little while later, as I stood on the deck next to where the cottonwood had been and felt the sun pounding down on my head, I felt the loss. Deeply. It was gone.

John started putting the chain saw back into its carrying case and said, “Orval had that saw sharpened and oiled perfectly. It was just perfect.” I had known it would be.

moving the trunk     making the bench

The rest of the day was spent eating and drinking and telling stories and being in each others’ company until finally the last of our band of merry men and women got into their cars and drove back to their other lives.

I went outside and stood and looking at the fallen tree. It seemed so small now. Not at all the giant it was before.

For several days, and into more than a week, I thought about the tree lying on the lip of the hill. It wouldn’t do as a bench. It was too slender. I wanted it to be in my life, though, and it occurred to me that it would make beautiful steppingstones.

I called Neighbor Jim and asked him if he could be hired to cut the cottonwood into steppingstones. “No, no, I’ll do it without pay,” he said. We had our usual argument about how I had to pay because I could never repay him any other way. What was I going to do? Fix his car? Okay, okay. Yes, he would.

A couple of days later he came over and we talked about it being a softwood tree that would disintegrate before long. He said, “You wanted a bench, didn’t you?” Yes, I did. “Well, I could make it into a bench,” and he described what he would do to make it suitable. I agreed that that would be the thing to do.

He sawed off the portion that was too slender. He asked me where I wanted the bench. That was hard to answer. There was already the Giving Tree stump, the last part of the tree still standing. Maybe the bench should be next to the stump in an L shape. Kind of like a permanent sitting area for humans. So I marked the place where the bench should go. He dug two holes there in that damnable hard clay with his pickaxe while I shoveled out the loose dirt. He cut two chunks off the trunk without measuring and fitted those two thick pieces into the holes he had dug, driving them further into the dirt with a sledge hammer. He cut two notches in the trunk of the tree the width of those chunks. Only once did he have to re-cut a smidgeon more. We lifted the notched trunk onto the two stumps. It fit perfectly. He shoved a couple of small pieces into a crack as shims. It was level. It was solid. It was simple. It was beautiful.

We both sat on it and smiled.

He packed up his stuff and drove off and I looked at it all day, through the sliding glass doors as I walked through the house.

And now, every morning I sit on that bench or on the stump as I drink my coffee.

I wonder if it feels me there.

on the bench
Donna Schoenkopf recently retired from teaching at 61st Street School in South Central Los Angeles, and has moved back to Oklahoma, where she spent her teens.


Your life and stories always warm my heart. You are a wonderful soul and I love you!

2011-10-12 by Margo

Thanks for sharing this touching story.

2011-10-12 by Rosalyn

In Kansas City, MO, we lived on an old homestead that had a cottonwood tree that took 3 tall people holding hands to hug it. A tree historian told us it was the largest and oldest one he had seen in the area. I loved that tree. I was always afraid it would fall down..but,so far as I know, it is still there. We also had huge oaks and walnut trees that gave the property a wonderful cozy feeling. Before we moved out of the country the oak trees started falling down after dry summers and very wet and cold winters. I think we lost about 4 absolutely huge oaks in a couple of months. The place wasn’t the same anymore as my dear trees had turned into fire wood. You can see the gardens and trees as they used to be at our website if you wish in the tab titled “An Inner City Sanctuary” The climate is changing no matter what some people would like to believe and with it our trees will pay the price. It is time for us to hug the ones we have and care for the new ones that will eventually fill their spaces.

2011-10-12 by Jeanita

Great article.  I am taking the liberty to send it to my son Steve who has a house and 2.5 acres on the only undeveloped strip of land left in Kansas City, KS.  He has put some of his land in tillage and has built a big fire pit where he and his sons cook food, listen to the brook and tell stories.  They spend a lot of time on their land caring for trees on their beautiful lot, while their two labs Shirley and Molly and huntress-cat Umma roam freely.  One of my poems at PN relates to a Cherokee legend about the cycling of trees.  Blessings, Hermana….

2011-10-12 by Father Clark Shackelford

Wow, that was most enjoyable.  You have a knack !  Keep sending.  I enjoy.  Plan to be in Shawnee in November….

2011-10-12 by SoCalEddie

My darling little Cottonwood….What a touching, vivid memorial to an old, dear friend. Beautiful, Donna.
  We never did hear about your thanksgiving/christmas plans…...... Yes, and…..........
    In my IMPROV class we learn to end everything with “yes, and…....”
    Cottonwood Boring Beetles.  Yes, and?........

2011-10-12 by carole shakely

God Bless the Tree.  And yes, it’s spirit is still near.  What a wonderful way to honor it and keep it in your life as a bench.  Giving tree, indeed.  Wonder if you’ll get a “volunteer” tree to grow near enough to replace the cottonwood.  Around and around it goes.

2011-10-13 by Ann Calhoun

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