Roach: Goodbye, old friend

The past year will be remembered as one of loss.
Tree Stump
Getty Images

The past year will be remembered as one of loss.

The world lost millions to a novel coronavirus. Our nation lost dignity when thugs, spurred on by a seditionist president, stormed the center of our democracy. The Packers lost because someone took the ball from the hands of one of history’s greatest quarterbacks so someone else could kick a field goal.

There was another loss. One that happened in the backyard of our family’s house.

We lost a tree.

A count of its rings reveals that this tree took root sometime around World War I, back when our home was farmland and Madison was not bound by the Beltline and an interstate.

The tree was a magnificent ash. Its limbs wrapped themselves around the back of our home as if to protect our family. I would sit on our back deck, which we remodeled to better observe this tree and others in the woods behind it. It was wonderful to gaze upon. Squirrels made nests and raised their young in its forks. Owls and hawks perched on its highest limbs, looking for a meal. At night its branches framed the full moon. In spring it was the stage from which cardinals sang their songs, announcing the approach of summer.

The tree kept me company as I read countless books in its shade.

There is a word for how I viewed this tree: anthropomorphism, which is the act of attributing human characteristics, emotions and behaviors to nonhuman things. Disney has made billions on this notion with Bambi and Simba. So has the pet industry.

But this is not fantasy. The more we learn about animals and the natural world, the more we discover that our instinct to see them like ourselves is not so far off. Each day, science tells us more about the intelligence of animals. And Yale University researchers have discovered that trees communicate with each other, as the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Overstory” by Richard Powers so beautifully describes.

Scientists recently found a spruce in Sweden that is almost 10,000 years old.

How can a living thing that old not have wisdom to offer us?

No matter what some might think, there is no doubt that this grand ash in our backyard was, for me, a friend.

Two springs ago, bark began to peel from its trunk in an unnatural way. Limbs became brittle and died. Prior to these symptoms we had considered preventive treatment for emerald ash borer, but were told it was a costly hit-or-miss proposition.

So, we gambled. And lost.

Last summer a crew of young guys took a day to bring down what had been growing for nearly a century. I was shocked at how saddened I was by the loss of this grand thing. I mourned its absence as others do the death of a pet.

The empty sky where the ash stood still makes me sad.

But this spring a hearty, young walnut tree that stood for all its life in the shadow of the big ash has worked quickly. In an act that scientists call phototropism, the younger tree, seeking ever more sunshine, is sending its limbs and leaves into the space the older tree once occupied. Already the comforting canopy offered by the ash is being replaced.

As for the sentinel tree, its stump remains. It took time before I could go down and count its rings. It was then that I discovered something wonderful. The stump of this tree I considered a companion now provides a perfect chair from where I can sit and gaze upon the woods below.

Rather than a tombstone, the stump offers an article of remembrance.

A goodbye gift from an old friend.

John Roach, a Madison-based screenwriter and producer, writes this column monthly. Reach him at that says Subscribe with covers of Madison Magazine