Elizabeth Rush On How To Live During An Apocalypse

What Our Beech Tree Teaches Us About the Possibility of the Future

Guest Essay by Elizabeth Rush

A few falls ago, a friend forwarded us a real estate listing. Though we were not really in the market, we looked. The big orange bungalow was nice, but it was the beech tree that cast a spell. The enormous trunk looked like the leg of an old elephant. On the day we toured the house, thousands of hard, spiny burrs enclosing beech nuts blanketed the side yard. That, we were told, was a mast year, the beech seeding in exceptional quantities — which, of course, I took as a sign.

I was at that moment 10 weeks pregnant. We did not yet know if it would stay. We had not yet heard its heartbeat. Nor had we heard of beech leaf disease, a poorly understood malady spreading across North America at a surreal rate, rapidly killing both mature trees and saplings.

My husband walked toward the massive tree while I picked up a casing and clutched it in my closed fist, humbled by the way its nuts guarantee both the beech’s continuation and the continuation of so many creatures in the neighborhood: the squirrels and pileated woodpeckers, the chipmunks and blue jays. I’m almost envious of the tree — the way its reproduction doesn’t, like ours, seem to trip the wire we’ve tied to existential threat, doesn’t make one wonder about how much carbon its offspring will combust and how that combustion will come home to roost. Mostly, I admire its generosity, its wordless willingness to care for what is not in any immediate sense its own.

Three months later, we have closed on the house and are moving in. Two months after that, we are among the lucky who can stay home as a pandemic rearranges the threads of everyday life. We unpack boxes, attend birth classes on Zoom, build raised garden beds, hold on as time pulls in even tighter around these transforming bodies. We invite an arborist to the house. He is the one who tells us about the newly discovered blight, that it causes beech leaves to turn leathery and branches to wither. He tells us that it can kill a big tree like ours in less than 10 years. There is no cure, he says.

Soon I must somehow allow a child to pass through me, into the light. I both do and don’t know how to do this labor. I call my doula and tell her my left leg hurts. “Put it up on something,” she advises. “Lean into the discomfort.” I walk over to the beech. Put my foot up on its roots and place my palm on its trunk.

My family and this tree, we are entwined.

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