With acknowledgement to author Shel Silverstein who gave us the classic children’s book, The Giving Tree, I use the title here to consider two “giving trees” which are reaching an end of sharing their extraordinary gifts. And while my musings here are premature- neither of the two are yet completely gone- I cannot help but reflect on their importance, their meaning and their impacts, not only upon me, but on the world in which live.
Northeastern Iowa, where I live, is home to many emblems of rugged survival. The high river bluffs of the driftless region, the forest cover overlaying the limestone beds of ancient geologic formation, and the burr oak trees of those woodlands, all stand as watchmen against the march of time and evolution. The oaks, in particular, with their gnarly limbs and diminutive acorns, are omnipresent here, bookmarks of an earlier age, a time before settlements and agriculture and highways. I have come to deeply admire them, for both their arboreal beauty as well as their symbolism of a time that was somehow better.
The oak at the north end of the college campus here has enjoyed its own history and prominence. It has graced a hillside there since the very earliest days of the school, likely gaining no notice in its fledgling years as first a shoot and then little more than a sapling. But as the burr oaks are wont to do, it survived. It stood by as settlers migrated to this area to farm and as educators traveled here to teach and preach. It withstood the winds and the winters of the Oneota Valley, and the inexorable march of settlement and development of the territory. It became a visible boundary of the college, a sentinel to the people and histories that emerged from that place. And it continued to grow.
Over time, the oak commanded attention, as an imposing tower at the north end. A building was built in its shadow. A road passed under its limbs. Students sat beneath it, considering the deepest questions of our lives, while contemplating the directions of their own. In more recent years, an entire native grass savannah and rain garden became cultivated around it, to show it off, call attention to its prairie heritage and to reclaim a piece of what once was: a prairie oak savannah. It steadied us, was a visual touchstone to certainty and continuity, and embodied a needed constancy.
Last year, in the bloom of Spring, nearly half of the burr oak failed to leaf out. Arborists attempted some treatments, but with no effect. The tree was reaching the end of its service and accompaniment. Last week, the tree was taken down.
There remains a wide space in the savannah where the tree’s umbrella once shielded deer and fox, birds and learners alike. A stump remains for now, chronicling the 125 year life of what was a fixture of the prairie. For now, I can still walk to the base and sit upon what remains. The world may not notice its absence. But I do.
Concurrent with the loss of a great tree is the impending departure of a colleague in Nicaragua. Ligia Gutierrez will end her consulting role with Winds of Peace Foundation in March, not so much in retirement as in opening herself to the next possibilities in a world which she has so richly served already.
Ligia has served as consultant for Winds of Peace, particularly with regard to the circumstances of the Indigenous people of Nicaragua, as well as working with women’s groups in helping them to discover their collective and individual voices. To state here that she will be missed is an absurdity, because it does not begin to tell the story of this remarkable individual.
She is a child of the revolution, a committed and activist member of the Sandinista vision of a country free of the dictatorship and inequality that had fouled the country’s circumstances for generations. She is a psychologist by training, a philosopher in practice, a teacher of holistic and cooperative living that extends far beyond social norms and legal statutes. Her work is defined by the closeness of the relationships she creates: she is a mother to the youth, an intimate friend to the women, a friendly-but-persistent agitator within a still-machismo culture, a persistent prospector for equal rights and respect, both within the law and within the heart. For me personally, she has been a Nica mentor, providing context and perspective that has helped me better understand the history and culture in which the Foundation works. She is a student of physical and spiritual health. She is a friend.
Ligia is also the source of one of my greatest frustrations in my Nica experiences: I have never been able to speak with her without the voice of a translator. We have never been able to exchange thoughts and ideas directly with one another, thereby greatly reducing the interactions which might have educated me in untold ways. My regret over this is a palpable wound that does not heal.
Like the burr oak on the prairie, Ligia has given of herself over a lifetime of service to ideas and others beyond herself. Though small in physical stature, she is a powerhouse. She is one of those rare individuals of the universe, seeing both the complexity and the beauty of the whole and striving to manifest it. That personality, that persona, is what draws the rest of us toward her, for our own sakes.
And like the burr oak, the seeds which she has planted- ideas, self-regard, respect, justice- will far outlive her active service. Hers is a testament that branches across generations and shelters the hopes of those in need of wisdom and love. And like a strong oak suddenly gone, her absence will leave both a gaping space and a magnificent legacy.
The removal of the burr oak tree did not elicit notice even in the local newspaper. Ligia’s retirement will not be the stuff of international news or perhaps even local notice. Their respective “graduations” are but the latest examples of the ongoing stream of life. But they are to be missed. The beauty, the lessons, the lives that they modeled are gifts for which I will be always grateful….