Saint Paul’s Church in Helena has recently dedicated their new church home after many years of work and fundraising for this ambitious building project. Years ago I served on the building planning committee, when we had to make the difficult decision to cut down the old birch tree near Susanna’s Place because it was in the way. We could have sited the church building a little differently, or designed it to fit around the birch, but we knew the tree was diseased and dying anyway … it’s life was close to an end and we’d be damaging the root zone so much that the weakened tree would not survive construction.
The birch was infested with birch borers — beetles and larvae. These are the same insects that are killing birch trees all over Helena and other parts of the west. When a birch or aspen is infected with borers, the tree starts dying from the top down and many people don’t notice their beautiful trees are slowly dying because they don’t look at the top branches. By the time we notice the problem, it’s often too late to save the tree. The borers are always present in our ecosystem. But when trees such as birch or aspen are stressed by many years of drought, they cannot flush out the borer larvae with a healthy flow of sap. That allows the borers to set up housekeeping and do their damage to the trees. Montana has had 8 years of severe drought. Our town’s birch trees are in grave danger unless we get more rain or water them adequately.
I write this to give you some background into why the old birch was removed when church construction began. Many church members were saddened by it’s demise. The decision to cut the birch was made easier when we thought of planking up the wood from the tree and using it in the new church building. Tim Carney has had the birch wood drying and aging in his shop for about two years. He recently finished making a beautiful table for St. Paul’s which will be used to hold the book of memorials in the new lobby.
Have you ever heard of the idea of the Wounded Healer?” Who would you turn to in a time of crisis when you need true empathy? I turn to those I know have experienced something like what I am faced with. Someone who has grappled with — and survived — the difficulties of life. Someone who is, who has been, wounded themselves. Wounded by cancer, aids, depression, alcoholism, societal prejudice, a broken heart or the loss of a loved one. A therapist who has suffered from depression knows the way depression feels — and not just from book learning. A healer who has suffered from crippling arthritis might have the greatest empathy for a patient’s struggle with pain. Recovering alcoholics are often the best folks to come to the aid of fellow alcoholics. They know the game. They know the wounds. Someone who has lost a child may be able to give the greatest comfort to parents of a stillborn baby.
So what does this have to do with a birch tree and a table?
As he worked on the table, Tim realized that he was working not only with wood planks, but also with the spirit of the diseased birch tree … and he intuitively used a poetic metaphor of how being wounded, being frail, being damaged and making mistakes can make us beautiful. And strong. It’s not the only way to transform yourself — but it is one way.
At first glance, the wood planks appeared ordinary, nothing to write home about. In fact, the wood was punky and full of rot. Tim wasn’t even sure he could salvage enough from the entire tree to make one small table. One night he came home from the shop full of excitement telling me the wood turned out to be beautiful — and it was most beautiful where the tree had been “hurt” by the insects and fungus. He chose the birch planks with care, noticing where the tree had been tunneled by borers. In those weak spots, fungus had invaded, giving the wood grain a rich, dark gleam. If not for the damage, these birch wood planks would be unremarkable.
Tim had found a way to create something of great beauty from an old tree’s wounds and “ugly” parts. If we don’t die from our illnesses … we are often made stronger … and in some ways, more beautiful. We come back to our lives and our communities filled with a renewed sense of the preciousness of life. Our spirits have more depth, more dimension. We have gone through the fire, through sickness and trouble … we have come through to the other side where our wholeness contains our wounds, our “ugly” parts, our shadow selves.
Once there was a venerable birch tree that caused much agony when a community had to choose: whether to save it or cut it. This old tree has come full circle and is back “home” with a message of hope, beauty and acceptance. It will stand in the church lobby supporting the names of those who have died, along with the names of those left behind. Like the wounded tree transformed by love and skill and vision into an object of usefulness and beauty, our own flaws can be transformed into empathy and compassion and solidarity.
written by Maureen Shaughnessy