Topping the Soul

My father and I argue about trees. 

I once had a beautiful red maple in my front yard. My husband and I envisioned it natural and towering, shading our bedroom from the fierce summer sun. When it was planted my oldest son hid secret notes in the hole to be buried among the roots. It was to become a totem, the quintessential tree that finished our family. 

A few years after planting, it was nearly as tall as our house with a proud stature reaching toward heaven. My oldest hid in the tree, jumping down to startle his young brothers. The twins brought out stools so they could reach the lower branches to climb. One spring day, my father scheduled a tree trimming for his home and offered to pay for ours as well. He stated our maple should be thinned out, and finding it hard to stand against his logic, I consented. Perhaps it was a bit unruly, I told myself. 

Two days later I stood in the driveway with my 3 young boys and watched a stranger butcher my tree, shame it into a kind of suburban submission. My dad beamed with the results and I felt nauseated and powerless. How could I stand and watch a stranger mutilate my majestic tree? 

My father believes plants should be trained and restrained. Trees are pruned to a shape suggestive of a lollipop, landscaping is cut, counted and contained. But my heart believes nature is best in its wild form, undomesticated and unrestrained. Our cypress shrubs bear feathery untrimmed stems. A border of lime-colored moss grows into our shade grass. Annual seeds are tossed by my boys and the flowers grow in uneven rows. There is a wisdom to the wildness of nature and, over time, it refines and perfects itself.

But us humans—we can prune and shape and restrain the dignity right out of a living thing. 

And, I think, that’s what happened to me. As a young girl, I was trained and contained. I learned that to be wild and free was dangerous. Ideas and actions could be deadly, but emotions were the most dangerous of all. Anger of any type would lead to a wildfire of breathtaking proportions. It would surely consume me and the living things nearby. So I came to believe I must extinguish the first sign of a flame, even if it meant burying the smoldering embers in my own flesh.

There are consequences to limiting wild things. Our souls are a vast landscape of wild and unkempt parts: strong trees of grandeur, idiosyncratic flowers dotting canyons, red thorny vines and soft grasses marking the time of each season. Pruning is a part of maturation. But there is a foolish pruning that cuts back too much life, slowly killing the entire plant. At times we prune out of self-deception: “If I just pull this and cut that, everything will be good, everything will be okay, safe.” 

A topped tree is easy to recognize. Its canopy is hacked back in an effort to restrain growth. Its central leader, its guiding spirit, is amputated. Rather than finding the way forward, new growth shoots out recklessly on all sides. The tree loses its agency, and therefore its direction. 

As the chainsaw bit into living wood, I unknowingly felt the injury of my own soul. Since childhood I tried to contain my anger, to prune it out of myself. I lost my agency in the process. It was only after half a lifetime, at the brink of desperation, that I let anger speak. Gradually, I made room for its voice. And I found it did not bring the danger I had feared. Rather, it brought my humanity. There is truth to be found amongst the wild flames. Perhaps anger and our wild emotions don’t first come to destroy, but to speak. 

In a world where codependency is mistaken for love, anger is sometimes the one voice speaking for our own needs. Had I not stopped burying my own heart, my body would still be burning. And the first spark was made by self-betrayal.

Our inner parts form an emotional ecosystem. If I over-prune or assign them to cramped spaces, I will lose part of my life. So, I have learned to leave things a bit wild, to stretch out into the expanse God gave me. He made room for fire and wild living things. And so I grant this inner ecosystem space, and I watch, and examine, to see what it reveals.

Jen Hutson is a writer, reader, and lover of nature, rituals, the church calendar, and taxidermy. Jen and her three redheaded boys host a natural history museum in their home to teach others about the wonder of God and his creation. Her writing explores trauma, nature, and the methodologies of education. She loves spending time with her people and community in conversation and creation.