We usually don’t pay much attention to the plants that share our living space. Maybe we should. After all, they have lives, too.
Our Ficus was awarded an Honorable Mention for Fiction in its issue of publication. It was published in the on-line magazine The Green Silk Journal in October, 2008.
They are sometimes known as Chinese banyan trees, but most people call them by their scientific name, Ficus benjamina. They are common houseplants, for they grow well in pots and indoors. They have a straight trunk with many leaves on slender, drooping branches, presenting a delicate silhouette and offering a patch of breezy shade when grown outside.
One was growing in the indoor atrium of our house when we moved in. It was energized by the sun piercing the huge skylight above and nourished by Mother Earth who cradled its roots below. If trees could be happy, this one must have been absolutely joyful. It had grown to touch the skylight fourteen feet above and spread wide to shade most of the floor below. One of my first tasks after we were settled in our house was to prune back the Ficus so that our other houseplants could see the skylight.
I never fed that tree and rarely watered it. Nevertheless, it was ecstatic in its growth, and I had to prune it back two or three times each year. In the process of pruning, I shaped it and controlled the direction of its growth. It became more and more beautiful over the years. Its delicate foliage offered a lacy veil before the white intensity of the skylight. The other houseplants adjusted to its dappled shade. Some climbing plants ascended its trunk, wrapping their tendrils in seeming affection around its smooth bark. Our atrium was a happy place for plants.
As in the life of many homeowners, we came upon the time to remodel (eventually becoming several times). I moved the houseplants, all in pots, outside to give the workmen more room and to keep the plants safe from inadvertent damage. The Ficus, however, rooted in the ground as it was, couldn’t be moved. It pained me to do it but I pruned it back severely so its branches were well away from the walls, allowing the workmen room to work. To look at it was like looking at a raven-haired beauty whose mane of curls and waves flowed about her shoulders, and who was then given a buzz cut.
Although but a whisper of its former presence, the tree still stood with a stateliness that helped to cheer me. I knew that in a few months it would look even more ravishing than before. It would have bright green new growth, giving it the appearance of an enthusiastic youngster, but with the strength of a mature tree. It would once again be the official greeter for those entering the front door and radiate its enthusiasm for life to the rest of us. But for now, it would rest. The workmen covered it with clear plastic and set about their task.
In a few short weeks, the remodeling was completed. The clear plastic covering the tree was now thick with a coat of dried plaster drops and fine sawdust. The workmen removed the plastic carefully so as to not damage the tree. The tree stood just as stately as before.
But it was not the same as before. On its leaves and branches were fuzzy spots of white, grey, and black. Mold. It was diseased. We called in an expert. “Health hazard to the household inhabitants,” he said. “Must be removed,” he said. “No cure.”
There was a heavy lump in my chest. I stood back and looked at the tree. Surrounded by the clean barren-ness of newly-painted walls and with the houseplants still outside, it appeared lonely in the glare of the skylight. Its scant branches seemed feeble now, and its color was gone. A few short weeks ago this tree shared its vitality with the household, but now it was sick and had to be removed. There were no alternatives, and the deed had to be done soon because of the health hazard. I could rationalize what I needed to do, but found no joy or satisfaction in it.
There is no humane way to euthanize a tree. There is no cocktail of drugs that can be injected to peacefully usher in its final sleep. There is no blend of exotic gases whose sweet fragrance will be its last farewell. Euthanizing a tree is a brutal enterprise.
“Farewell,” I said softly to the tree. “Thank you for all you have given us.” Then I sawed off its branches and cut its trunk in pieces down to a stump. I dug to its roots, severed the main ones from the stump, and pulled the last clinging remnants from the breast of the one Mother who nurtures us all. Unceremoniously, I piled the arboreal remains in the street for the city crews to take away.
Our atrium is full of bright light now. We haven’t replaced the tree, choosing to have only smaller plants and to keep them in pots so as not to suffer such a loss again. No tree dominates the welcome for visitors or provides a lacy silhouette against the skylight. The potted houseplants have responded to the new light regime with exuberant growth, offering their own enthusiastic welcome with a cacophony of greens and forms. But it’s not the same.
The city transformed our Ficus into compost and used it among its many plantings. So it’s still out there, in a way, perhaps encouraging another young tree to meet life as it did, with enthusiasm and good cheer.