Our oak stands vigil at the corner where the lane turns down the gravel drive to our home. Note that ‘oak’ is singular. Our home is surrounded by trees: maples, beeches, pines, cottonwoods, black walnut, hemlocks, wild cherry, and a host of others. Trees within a species generally gather together in small groves, but the oak stands alone. I believe this is the lone oak on the property.
This is a magnificent tree perhaps four feet in diameter and was one of the attributes that drew us to this piece of land. When we moved in, the oak was infested with poison ivy vines, several of which were as thick as your fist, their poisonous leaves twisting and choking more than 20 feet up into the lowest branches. This wonderful tree, strangled by poison ivy, was an icon for the whole property; this land was a beautiful part of God’s creation hidden beneath a tangle of prolonged neglect. I spent more than a year carefully removing the vines and ensuring they did not grow back. I am extremely allergic to poison ivy and have no trouble believing that this is one of the species that arrived after The Fall (Gen 3: 17-18). The southwestern side of the trunk still displays scars from those awful vines.
I could not see all of the beauty of this tree or the rest of the property, but Beth could. She has a rare gift for seeing through clutter and ugliness and for being able to discover and uncover the beauty hidden beneath. No one has benefitted from this gift more than I. This gift was never more obvious than with the purchase of our home. Sadly, this parcel of land was suffering from years of abuse. I am still amazed, astounded, and appreciative of her vision to see through the terrible clutter of overgrown trees, a rusty trampoline in the front yard, a 40 foot gash three feet deep that cut across the front yard starting from… nowhere. And ending….nowhere. Indescribable. Unsettling. Frightening.
Beth kept telling me “This could be so beautiful!” I kept thinking “I’m so scared and I think maybe she’s crazy.” But we bought it and with her remarkable vision, her ability and willingness to discover and uncover beauty where there appeared to be none, this land has been truly transformed. Our home is situated on five acres that is a real-life example of The New Creation in progress. This has deepened my understanding of the role we must play in the new creation. We are not to be passive and to wait. We have work to do (James 2: 14-26).
All of this work revealed a beautiful feature of this tree that we now call ‘The Mary Oak.’ The Mary Oak bears the image of an angel. Beth first saw the angel during a time of great trouble. Looking out our kitchen window late one night she saw, quite clearly, the image of an angel projected onto this tree, illuminated and revealed by the up-lighting at the base. The Angel looks down towards our home, ever vigilant, ensuring no evil spirits can enter.
I have loved and worked with plants nearly my whole life, but my close encounters with trees is relatively new. Alongside my interactions with The Mary Oak and the maples, JRR Tolkien’s writings and renderings of trees have enhanced my understanding of these majestic species.
I finally mustered the courage to read The Silmarillionby Tolkien (well, OK, mostof The Silmarillion!). I don’t think Tolkien would like this characterization, but for me, The Silmarillionis a bit like The Old Testament of his legendarium while The Lord of the Ringsis The New Testament. Parts of it are heartachingly beautiful while other parts are incomprehensible, at least to me. But it provides the necessary background to understand The Lord of the Ringsjust as we must understand the Old Testament in order to properly live the New.
As is true of many things, Tolkien’s rendering of trees is awe inspiring and trees play a central role in the entirety of The Lord of the Rings. In The Silmarillion,I learned about The Two Trees of Valinorand the central role they play in the entire backstory just as we now have The Mary Oak playing a central role of our story.
Of one of the Two Trees of Valinor, Tolkien writes “The other (tree) bore leaves of a young green like the new-opened beech; their edges were of glittering gold. Flowers swung upon her branches in clusters of yellow flame, formed each from the blossom of that tree there came forth warmth and a great light. The tree was called Laurelin, and Mailnalda, and Culurien, and many names in song beside”*
‘Laurelin’ the other was called, but in Our Song she is called The Mary Oak. Perhaps more beautifully and a bit more poetically, she is La Maria Quercus.
The Mary Oak neighbors the primary maple grove where I tap. I walked by her every day I collected sap, aware of her presence and thankful for her guardianship. She helps me appreciate the maples even more; I am better able to see that they are not pieces of wood to be drilled into to extract liquid for my selfish purposes. The maples are a beautiful part of God’s creation that offer me the opportunity to share their pure, sweet water coursing up towards the heavens. With just a bit of boiling, the sap gives the gift of syrup.
As tapping season was winding down, the song ‘Copperline’ by James Taylor came on the radio. I had never really listened to the words closely, but one particular line caught my ear “The sap rises and the angels sigh, down in Copperline.”
If I listen carefully, when the wind is just right, I too can hear the angels sighing.
The syrup we make through this process is not something I do; the syrup is a Gift from God, made from His waters of creation, purified through the mystical workings of His trees, sweetened with sugar made from the rays of His sun, and finished over His gift of fire. When I enjoy the syrup, I thank God for His wonderful, truly wonderful, creation.
A creation so beautiful, even the angels sigh.
—Dr. Bob Buehler
*Adapted from The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien