It's the Plants, Darling

Trees, In Memorium

tree 2

A year has passed, and tonight we will usher in a new one. If there is a tree of life, tonight its trunk gets another ring.

I was recently spending some quiet time in an old cemetery- not a funeral park, but an actual old cemetery – unplanned, diverse, a willy-nilly compilation of headstones and memorial statuary. There was no rolling carpet of lawn, it was all clover and different types of seeded grass, with daffodils and other spring bulbs making an extra early appearance in cool, temperate California.

People plant around these graves on occasion; something to honor the loved one who passed, I imagine. Maybe a favorite shrub, or flower – but more often than not it is trees. Under the canopies of the native oaks and sycamores there live an odd assortment of willows, cedars, junipers, fruit trees, and pines. The pines must have been Christmas trees, I think – or maybe the sentiment of planting an evergreen tree to honor the recently passed explains the large number of conifers planted on the graves.

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These trees of bereavement are planted too close to the trunks of the existing natives, and they shoot up through the broad canopies like exclamation points, or they contort themselves to grow into the places where the branching of the oaks open up – a strange interpretive dance of wood and leaf.

The graves are disturbed by the growth of the trees – the thoughtful, heartfelt planting was probably done through tears, and nobody was thinking that the roots would grow and crack the headstone, or maybe topple it. I imagine the planters were thinking of the spirit of their loved one giving a little bit of themselves to the tree, and the tree will hold their essence in a living, visible form – something that can be seen and touched.

This impulse to plant something important in memory of loved ones moved me – it is the need to see the circle of life manifest in a basic, almost primal way. The act of burial is a magical act – we bury something in soil and it changes, it decomposes and becomes the stuff of new life. We plant our seeds in the ground and they thrill us with their transformation.

I hope the New Year brings the opportunity to garden with joy. And even if things will be planted in memorium, I hope we can all take comfort in the fact that we are gardening in collaboration with something grand, and every time we put something in the ground and wait for its transformation, we are shaking hands with the divine.

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Happy New Year, Gardeners and Ranters! More in 2015!

Posted by on December 30, 2014 at 11:00 pm, in the category It's the Plants, Darling.
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24 responses to “Trees, In Memorium”

  1. Sue Land says:

    Nice!

  2. Garden Rant Garden Rant says:

    Very nice! Happy 2015 to you, Ivette. Susan

  3. Beautifully written, Ivette. I love old cemeteries, too, and in particular the plants that people placed there decades ago. I often wonder their significance – the departed’s favorite scented lilac? favorite tree? I think they’re all lovely and am always so happy to see that no one has taken them down to roll out the boring green carpet…Happy New Year! XO

    • Ivette Soler Ivette Soler says:

      I think time passes a little slower during my cemetery walks, Rebecca – the air feels so still, and the energy is different; weightier, but not heavy somehow. I like to know that others feel it too, and go to these places just to feel closer to our own humanity.
      There was a lilac planted near a gravestone in the cemetery in Ojai (where I was) and it was starting to bud – it must have been planted 50 years ago. And right next to it was a wide grave with a very modern planting of Agave parry truncata and Senecio serpens! It was amazing. Of course we would feel similarly about these spaces, Sweet One! Always brain twins!!!! XOXO

    • A. Marina Fournier says:

      I tend to plant memorial trees or shrubs on my own property. I want to have my ashes mixed in with whatever’s used to make public benches, and have the bench put in a specific place where people would like to sit a spell.

  4. Erika T says:

    lovely, I too love to visit old cemeteries, and hate to see really old ones in disrepair either through neglect or mean spirited pranksters toppling over centuries old headstones that are irreplaceable..

    • Ivette Soler Ivette Soler says:

      You know, Erica, this disrepair doesn’t bother me if it is old – somehow the neglect is a part of the cycle. I was moved on the day of the visit to see a group of three elderly friends, chatting and wandering among the stones, pausing to clean up and weed graves that had become too unkempt. It was beautiful. They didn’t clean too much, they just did the resident an honor. People can be so lovely!

  5. Joe Schmitt says:

    Thank you so much, Ivette, for such a lovely and thought provoking piece. The real monuments, of course, are the trees. I’ve never seen headstones or monuments gain a millimeter from the nourishment of their owners, though split and tumbled they might just some day do so.
    Some years ago a hundred year old, badly rotted silver maple, rightly so, was marked for removal from in front of my house. With no wires or other large trees in the way, I got the city forester to agree to replace it with a bur oak, a signature species of the great oak openings of our Wisconsin prairie. Arriving home one day I discovered a slender sapling nicely installed, a healthy little hornbeam, all wrapped and braced. Fine choice as an understory tree, but in this spot destined to be no more than a little lollipop, and hardly a match for the large houses in this historic neighborhood. Turns out the forester was on paternity leave (progressive place, Madison), our agreement hadn’t been recorded, and the crew just did what city crews do. So, I called them – they called him – he called me – he called them – they came back – hornbeam came out – bur oak went in.
    That’s my tree, and as of tonight I have decided that’s where my ashes will go (no rush). I can’t thank you enough for helping me get that little detail out of the way.

  6. Linnea Borealis says:

    Thanks Ivette! My father and two grand mothers rest in a graveyard in Sweden which is more like a forest: Lots of mature old trees (mostly evergreen, this being Sweden) on a hillside, overlooking a lake. It is so peaceful and calm and transcendent.

    Here in the U.S. Northeast, I recently visited a church where they had a memorial service called ‘Rosemary for Remembrance’, where one was encouraged to take in the scent of rosemary while walking a labyrinth, praying or meditating over the loved ones we’ve lost.

    Both settings seem very appropriate for commemorating our departed loved ones.

    • Ivette Soler Ivette Soler says:

      Isn’t that lovely Linnea? I think plants are transporting, and hit us in a deeper place. There is a reason we mark important life events with flowers. The sprig of rosemary is so meaningful, thank you for sharing that with me. I’m going to incorporate it into my yearly ritual.

    • A. Marina Fournier says:

      Hmm…a rosemary labyrinth would be lovely to build, if only I had the land. I must suggest it to a couple of organizations likely to build labyrinths.

      Linnea, did the church have a lot of rosemary about, or were you given sprigs of it to take with you through the labyrinth?

      • Linnea Borealis says:

        In this case, the labyrinth is a rosetta pattern in the stone floor, and you can bring a twig of rosemary along as you walk.

        A rosemary labyrinth would be magical!

  7. Helen B. says:

    I’ve purchased plants to mark deaths and even bad diagnoses. There’s something about adding to your plant family that makes these events sting less. Most recently I bought a beautiful pink petunia when we found out our cat Mushroom had cancer. For some reason, getting a plant was the best way to mark this event. Poor sweet kitty, she didn’t have long to live but how I love to see that plant now — and it doesn’t make me sad at all.

  8. Rae Schraver says:

    Thank you Ivette for such a wonderful piece. Your last thought, stating that “we are gardening in collaboration with something grand…we are shaking hands with the divine” is so perfectly said. I love it!

  9. Nell says:

    In Memoriam, with an A.

    But who’s counting?

  10. Allen Bush says:

    Tree-filled cemeteries are a reflection of life and death. A walk through Louisville’s park-like Cave Hill Cemetery is always joyful. There are so many beautiful old trees and an old, nearly 200 year old male Gingko always stops me dead in my tracks. Thanks for this beautifully written piece, Ivette.

  11. Lori Hawkins says:

    Beautiful article. I too sometimes have walked through old cemeteries and wondered about the plantings there. I know there is some lore on the use of evergreens, as well as Dogwoods, and that is why they abound at the parks. What a sacred project, as you so perfectly said ‘shaking hands with the divine.’ Thanks for sharing Ivette!

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