Swift solace for a storm's loss

The 80-foot hemlock that stood at the northwest corner of our house came down in a brief, strong middle-of-the-night storm toward the end of August. I'd never heard such wind. Lightning flickered continuously as the storm's strange suspirations slammed, flung open, and slammed again every unlatched window and door, sip-sip-sipping like some huge, breathing thing. Shocked out of sleep, alarmed, we never heard the tree fall.

That it missed the house was a blessing. That it fell across the garden, wiping out about-to-bloom Mexican sunflowers and a prized row of Brandywine tomatoes, was not.

But the biggest loss - next year will bring more sunflowers and Brandywines, after all - was the tree itself. One end of the hammock was attached to it, and one of my favorite views, on breaks from gardening, was up into its thick branches. How many more comings and goings of the light it had witnessed than I, on this ridgetop to which we both seemed rooted. If a tree can be a companion, that tree was mine.

It was also my shade. Perhaps the man who built the house we live in positioned it to take advantage of the tree. Or he may have planted the hemlock to shield the house from winter winds and summer sun. It's a chicken-and-egg question I liked to contemplate. Whatever the sequence, tree and house enjoyed a marriage that spanned most of a century. It saddens me to think of the house heading into the new millennium a grass widow.

And we'll surely swelter next summer. A generous swatch of shade is no easy thing to come by on a hilltop. Any replacement tree will begin life downhill from the house. Even a fast-growing species won't cast my office wall (much less our tin roof) into shadow for decades. We face life exposed.

We're not the only ones. The hostas that flourished in the hemlock's shade are blistered, as though shriveled by early frost, after a fortnight's exposure to an unrelenting sun. A carpet of fine, hairlike grass - identical to a patch I combed through my fingers under the sugar maples in my childhood home - has all but disappeared from the side lawn.

In losing the hemlock we've lost something else: the magnet that drew waves of migrating birds each spring and fall. Mornings in May and September, seated on our little deck, we trained binoculars on hemlock branches that seethed with life. Black-and-white warblers spiraled nuthatch-like around trunk and hefty Iimb.

Flashes of ocher, gold, and army-green hinted that chestnut-sided, magnolia, and Canada warblers had settled in to feed and rest by dawn's early light. How many weary travelers that tree played host to, I'll never know.

Not only migrants, but resident flocks - goldfinches, chickadees, titmice, juncos - were drawn to the hemlock's shelter and succor. Thousands of tiny cones - brown ones from last year mixed with this year's green - litter the garden, now that we've hauled away branches and sawed the trunk into chunks. The birds kept us abreast of the cones' ripening, raining down a fine mist of silken sheaths as they harvested kernels.

This litany of losses has been accumulating since the tree came down, unbalanced by any gain. Or so I thought.

It's our warm-weather habit to spend the last half-hour of daylight on the deck, watching the chattering swifts, who summer in our chimney, swoop in and out of our clearing. I see them seldom during the day. But as the western sky colors and finally drains, they dip again and again into the tree-rimmed bowl around our house, then sweep back out, hurtling toward insect-rich sides above the river.

Cigar bodies and boomerang wings silhouetted against the every-evening-different sky, they climb, glide, zoom overhead, skimming pines and river in avid flight. Then, as if to signal the finale - the last wheel and into-chimney drop - a bat appears among them, flapping butterfly wings in erratic, zigzag flight.

There were many young swifts this year. By summer's end, the flock seemed twice its size in spring. By mid-October, though, these ornaments of our evenings will abandon us, winging southward toward winter homes in the mountains of Peru.

For the first few nights after the hemlock's demise, I shunned the deck, unable to bear the empty place, the sky-hole, gape. The hemlock hadn't been uprooted, but had twisted and broken where the trunk forked, 10 feet above ground. It hurt to look at that desolate stump, though we'd decided to leave it in place - partly for woodpeckers, partly as monument.

The first evening of my return to swift watching, I hazarded a look at the new, uncurtained patch of sky. And there, through the lost tree's shadow, flickering in aftershock of memory, the swifts careened in joyous flight. A century's impediment erased, they plied ballooning space, traced trajectories through air that still seemed tree.

Their exuberance and swoop swept even me to open sky and possibility.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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