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The tree stumps around campus

<h6>José Pablo Fernández García / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
José Pablo Fernández García / The Daily Princetonian

On the last day of April, I was rudely awakened by the noise outside my window. Assuming it was from the museum construction, I tossed in my bed and attempted to capture a few more precious minutes of sleep. Having failed in this attempt, however, I soon walked over to my window only to discover that the noise — the banging and humming, the occasional cracks and deep thuds — was not from the raising of a new museum but from the razing of the tree right in front of my dorm.

I’m not sure why this tree was cut down. It didn’t seem to be blocking or inconveniencing museum construction. Maybe the makeshift driveway needed to be further expanded. Maybe the tree was already dead, slowly drying out, increasingly at risk of crashing over. Or maybe it got sick and leaving it standing would further the reach of one of the arboreal maladies ravaging our wild forests and city street liners alike.

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Whatever the reason for felling this tree, I was disappointed to see its branches gently lowered by a crane in sections, in preparation for the trunk’s own removal. My disappointment was amplified on that Saturday morning because it was the fourth tree I’ve seen disappear in a similar manner these last few weeks.

There was the tree in the corner of McCosh courtyard closest to the entry five archway; its stump has already been removed. One of the few mornings I was early for my Italian class, I discovered a hollowed-out, freshly-cut stump by the northeast corner of East Pyne. The next stump I found behind Nassau Hall, to the east of the faculty room; it was marked with flags and spray paint, seemingly indicating where to be careful with excavation. (Immediately after I drafted this essay, I found a fresh patch of dirt resting where this stump previously sat.)

I started taking pictures of these stumps. Their many rings recording their age mesmerized me. I saw and captured these stumps bathed in their own sawdust, like the dramatized blood splatters on crime shows, almost. And on these stumps remained evidence of the very act that brought the last of the trunks down: miniature steppes where different swipes of a saw did not perfectly align.

Maybe this is all an overreaction. Other than the immediate frustration provoked by the loss of shade provided by the tree that shielded my un-air-conditioned room, I’ve struggled to pinpoint what has moved me so much each time I’ve stumbled upon a newly-created stump.

Each stump has brought me back to the two river birch trees that once stood in front of my home in Ohio. These two trees, each splitting into three separate trunks just above the ground, stood already tall when my family moved into the house in 2004. They kept growing until shortly before Thanksgiving 2019.

Their growth brought their demise: sprawling roots threatened the foundation and sprawling branches offered various vermin too-easy access to the roof. Still, I argued with my mom in favor of keeping the trees. But however much I liked the shade they provided my room at home, my mom won the argument (as a mother does), and the trees came down while the stumps and roots came up.

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But now, I think my pro-shade argument was more a pretense than a strongly-held belief. What really upheaves my mind and heart is the way a cut-down tree toys with our sense of permanence.

Most trees are supposed to outlive us, or at least surpass a human life span. They can reach for the sky long before any one of us sets foot in their shade, and the same trees may not tumble down to the ground until long after all we know is already buried underneath. Moreover, the trees that do fall naturally often do so in exceptional ways — violent gusts of wind, scorching wildfires, explosive lightning, and so on.

Trees, to me, are one of those things that a residual childhood naiveté believes to be permanent. I think four-year-old me crystalized and internalized some idea that those two now-gone river birches would always be a part of my Ohio home. So much of this campus stood as it does today, from its old halls to its even older trees, long before I knew any of it existed. Part of me maybe found some comfort in knowing or believing certain things would not change — or in an expectation to that effect at the very least.

But perhaps this is all a realization one makes in the passage to adulthood. The comfort of childhood permanence, of a seemingly static environment, is simply a safeguard until one is mature enough to grapple with a world churning.

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When this safeguard fails — when a tree is cut down — it is a moment in which the hug of permanence and familiarity is rudely interrupted. Life is cut short, in the many-layered sense of this phrase.

There are things in life, people too, one might wish always to be able to return to, to rely on. I think each tree stump I have found has been a small reminder that this wish is not always fulfilled — often, it’s fulfilled less so the more one lives.

For now, I am simply waiting for the remaining stumps to be uprooted themselves. And maybe I can also wait for new saplings to take their places. For a new tree to be planted. For a new comforting permanence to take root.

José Pablo Fernández García is a junior from Loveland, Ohio, and Head Prospect Editor at the ‘Prince.’ He can be reached at jpgarcia@princeton.edu. Shortly before this essay’s publication, he was again rudely woken up, now by the sounds of the tree stump outside my dorm being removed.

Self essays at The Prospect give our writers and guest contributors the opportunity to share their perspectives. This essay reflects the views and lived experiences of the author. If you would like to submit a Self essay, contact us at prospect@dailyprincetonian.com.

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