“When I am among the trees…
They give off such hints of gladness,
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.”
“And they call me again, ‘It’s simple,’ they say
‘and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.’”
From When I Am Among the Trees
“Are you kidding? That can’t be done. No way,” the construction manager blurted out. Hands on his hips, he shook his head while looking up at our beautiful thirty-plus-foot tall oak. I looked at him as my thoughts hung on “can’t be done.” Oh yeah? Just watch me.
When we moved Moss Inc to Belfast, Maine, my plan was to add onto the existing facility, a large and high enough open inside space to build and set up the growing demand for larger tension fabric exhibits. The oak tree stood right in the middle where the new structure needed to be erected.
Trees have had a role in my life since childhood. I climbed them in Appalachia and used them as refuges and hideaways or sat under them to read in the shade. Or swung on them. I observed the beauty and diversity of their shapes, sizes, texture of trunks, shapes and colors of the leaves, showing the changes of seasons. And I remember the longing for them when my mother moved us to suburban areas that didn’t have any nearby.
My appreciation and knowledge increased with my marriage to Pebble, a dedicated planter and knowledgeable tree lover. During the sixty years living on 180 acres of land in Maine, he has planted over four thousand trees. Pines—White, Scotch, Australian, Norway—along with willows, apples, pears, plums, river birches, a horse chestnut and more.
In addition to his introducing me to the names of trees he had planted, he exposed me to my first acquaintance with the magnificent old live oaks on Cumberland Island, Georgia, and the centuries-old bald cypress in the swamps on his family farm in North Carolina. Canoeing through the swamp, in and around the roots and trunks rising out of the dark water was mysterious and bewitching. Pebble and I share a love of trees. Cutting down a tree is irreverent unless dead, a menace, or for some dire need. We struggle to save any tree if at all possible.
There we were, the contractor and I, looking at a tree that was right in the middle of where I needed to expand my company building. “It’s gotta come down,” he repeated.
“Give me a day to think about it, okay?” I thanked him and went home dejected. The tree, the tree, the tree. My mind was swirling as I made dinner. It’s lived so long, maybe forty years and is still healthy. How can I kill it?I sat and ate in silence, picking at my food.
“All right. Out with it. What happened at work today?” Pebble said, recognizing my look. He had moved several trees during the course of our marriage and the majority lived through the trauma well. Almost in tears, I put down my fork and looked him in the eye.
“What’s the limit to the height of a tree that can be replanted? I really can’t let them cut down my tree.”
“What tree? Who? What are you talking about? Slow down and start at the beginning.”
I told him the problem. “To construct the building where it is needed, the contractor said the old oak has to be cut down. I can’t bear that. I have to move it. Whom do I call?”
“I’ll come tomorrow morning and have a look at it.” Pebble paused and took a sip of wine. “Thirty feet is a challenge, but it is more so because this isn’t the time of year to plant. The chance of it surviving is pretty slim. Are you willing to pay big money and take the chance?” He slid his chair from the table and leaned back. “What does everyone else say about this idea?”
“Most everyone said, ‘Marilyn, it’s just a tree.’”
This tree-moving incident became a big event at Moss Inc. Employees mostly shook their heads and whispered, “What crazy thing is she doing now?” “ She has already put in a workout room and a wellness program.”
“Yeah, and she offers yoga during break times by having a teacher come to Moss.”
“But this is the craziest. Who ever heard of moving a big damn tree?”
I found a man, Harvey, in Waldoboro, Maine who had a front loader and backhoe. He owned a huge lift. On the scheduled day, he arrived with his impressive, massive machines. I was grateful that Pebble was present to give me support and help me keep tabs on the process. When Harvey got out of his truck and trailer that was transporting the dirt mover, he looked up at the tree and said, “I ain’t ever moved a tree before.”
I looked at Pebble in terror. “Oh, my god, what am I doing?” I had hoped Pebble could reassure me but he looked as dubious as I. With stomach churning, fists clinched, and heart knocking fast and loud against my chest, I watched all day and prayed silently. Oh please, Great Spirit of Trees. Please let this maneuver work and may this tree live a long life.
By the time the big yellow’s shovel and backhoe had dug an enormous hole in front of our facility for the tree’s new home, the machine and the operator had attracted a lot of attention. During their breaks and lunchtime, employees gathered around to keep check on the progress. I never knew for certain, but I think a few bets had been initiated.
The next day, the delicate work began. Harvey had brought the huge lift on his trailer. One of my employees volunteered to climb the tree to tie ropes. As the enormous root bundle was picked up and slowly carried to the new hole, I was a nervous wreck. Cars had stopped along Route 1 in Belfast to watch the spectacle.
What a day that was. The lift successfully placed the tree, tall and straight, in the hole with the help from employees. Gary, the employee in the lift, secured the ropes at points intended to hold it in the wind until its roots reached and grabbed hold, clinging to the earth. Harvey lifted the big shovel with piles of dirt and carefully dumped them around the tree, gently patting down the dirt with the back of the shovel. I shook his hand and gave him a check. “Good luck to you and your tree,” he said as he climbed into the truck.
It seemed so quiet after he left. As the crowd dissipated, I was left alone to apologize to the tree for the trauma, trying to reassure it that it would live. Then I got an idea. Eleanor, our seventy-two year old receptionist, was sitting at her front desk.,I made my request, thanked her, and started to walk quickly down the corridor to my office. As I went by Ginny, my secretary, popped out of her office. “Marilyn. I left your messages on your desk. One sounds urgent.”
“Thanks, Ginny,” I knew who it was from. Wayne was an exhibit designer who was recently hired by Giltspur, one of the largest exhibit houses. The design he had hired us to make was beautiful, full of curves and elegance. The exhibit industry designers had no training or experience in Tension Fabric Technology. They were accustomed to rigid building materials that limited their designs to straight lines, squares and rectangles, making it difficult to have an exhibit that stood out at a trade show. But once they saw how fabric could give them unusual shapes, curves, interior lighting and volume at less cost, along with easier installation and storage, they were attracted to us. Even so, they were nervous nellies to be putting their jobs at stake with Moss Inc, the new game in town. And, for god’s sake, the company was run by a woman!
As I reached for the phone to call and reassure Wayne his design was being built on time and that I would send him photos throughout, I heard Eleanor’s voice on the loud speaker. “Attention. Attention. Marilyn has asked us all to come outside in ten minutes. Meet at the front of the building. Thank you.”
At this point, I wasn’t certain my employees would understand, but in my intuitive style, I felt confident something good would come of it. Questioning, confused and uncomfortable looking faces met me as I walked outside where over one hundred employees stood. It was highly unusual to take an unscheduled break in the middle of a busy time when we had deadlines to meet.
“Sorry to disrupt your work. This won’t take long,” I said, and motioned for them to spread out in a circle around the tree. “It needs all the help it can get.” A few groans and rolling eyes from the men in the metal workshop. This was mostly done in jest and respect as these men had been with me a long time and usually dismissed my crazy requests. Gradually they had come to learn some had merit, and certainly no harm.
“Okay. This tree has experienced a great deal of trauma. Everyone says it has a slim margin to survive,” I said. A few nods in agreement. “So, I would like us to prove to the experts they are wrong. With our care and love, and of course a lot of daily watering, we can nourish it a long life. An occasional pat as we come to work each day would help. Let’s hold hands and close the circle. Think the most positive thoughts for the tree and send love.” Slowly each employee took the hand on either side of her or him.
“Eleanor has written a poem for the tree.” She handed me the penciled handwritten page and I read it aloud. I noticed I wasn’t the only one with damp eyes. As we all filed back into the building, I saw a few employees stop and give the tree a pat. The next day, the local paper wrote about Marilyn Moss moving a thirty-foot tree and included a photo.
That was more than twenty years ago. Recently, I had an appointment in Belfast.
As I was returning to Camden, I couldn’t resist slowing down and turning into the driveway of the former Moss Inc building. It was abandoned with a prominent For Sale sign on the lawn by Route 1. Weeds were growing where we had had a well-maintained flower garden and were protruding in cracks in the concrete walkway. The tree that we moved caught my eye. I was excited it was still there but wanted to see if it was healthy. After parking the car, I got out and stood there for a couple minutes, looking at the vacated, lifeless building. A shiver shot through my body. I walked over to the tree. Here was life. I placed my hand on the tree and a cascade of thoughts swept through me as I remembered that day and the emotions I had experienced in those thirty years of running the company. Sadness. Longing. Loyalty. Perseverance. Caring. Love. Disbelief. Doubt. Pride.
But at this point of my life, saving the tree was the most precious. The employees had taken pride in this as well. It received a lot of pats over the years. Years later, Ginny told me that when an employee couldn’t find Marilyn, there would be a laugh and “betcha’ she’s out there kissing her tree.”
Another favorite quote is from Wandering: Notes and Sketches by Hermann Hesse:
Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them,
whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth.
They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach,
undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.