Once there was a tree planted by a gardener in a fertile sunlit meadow. Its tender roots embraced the rich earth and drew their nourishment from the hidden places. Tiny leaves stretched and unfolded, clothing themselves in fresh garments of green. Young branches grew strong as they lifted their arms to the sun and the rain, and the tree grew tall and graceful under the gardener’s kindly care. Robins made their nests among its leafy branches. Red squirrels chased one other about its sturdy trunk and made their home in its hollows. Butterflies, pausing for a moment in flight, bejeweled its limbs with their shy glory.
In time, as the gardener’s children grew old enough, they came to play beneath the tree in the fair meadow. Happy secrets were told there, swings were made, blankets and picnics found their way to its grassy shade, and small boys’ legs could be seen dangling from its golden branches on warm summer days. The gardener, tending his roses nearby, was often called away from his work to share the children’s wonder over a fuzzy caterpillar or a nest of speckled eggs.
Thus, the cheerful seasons passed, and the tree grew strong and beautiful, its well-knit roots reaching deep into the good earth.
Years came and went. The gardener grew old and died, and his sons buried him on a hill amid his beloved flowers. And, although they loved their father, the children considered themselves too grown up now for such things as romps in meadows or gathering scarlet leaves. They were men, and men have such important thoughts to think. They went to and fro in the world, to and fro, wearing suits and spectacles and thinking important thoughts. The tree, alas, was soon forgotten.
Without their watchful care, twisted branches began to grow and the tree’s foliage became withered and riddled with pestilence. Ugly shapes marred its perfect simplicity and the once beautiful tree could scarcely be recognized. Butterflies no longer floated into its arms, and no one came to play beneath its shade.
The spirit of the gardener groaned within him, and his cry could be heard in the wind’s wailing.
In time, a new generation inherited the earth. It was the gardener’s grandchildren who now came to look after the tree that stood in the sunlit meadow.
The first grandson stood before the old man’s tree. He walked round it slowly, taking in its bent and barren limbs. “It is neither very good nor very bad,” said he, “and so I shall do nothing.” He sat down against its trunk, resting his head upon his hands, and there he fell asleep. As he slumbered, the branches cast black shadows upon his face. Passersby whispered behind their hands, “See how he and the tree are one. Hideous, unsightly things they are.” And truly, even the animals of the forest skirted the tree, for it held not out its arms for the weary squirrel or robin. The young man awoke in a while and wandered away, but the mark of decay and indifference were stamped plainly upon his features.
The spirit of the gardener was troubled within him, and his sorrow could be felt in the gray clouds that shrouded the quiet meadow.
After a time, the second grandson stood before the tree, eyes narrowed, his head cocked to one side. The gnarled branches and tangled vines were unsightly to him, and he spat upon the ground. “There is no worth here,” he said. “I will begin again.” So he took a seed from the tree and planted it in the earth some steps away. He cared for it and watered it, and it grew. “It is better than the old,” he boasted, and he pointed out to passersby his new tree. “The old ones knew nothing of trees,” said he. “But I – I am a man of wisdom. You see how my tree grows, while the other is bent and useless.” And he scoffed at his grandfather’s planting.
But as the new tree grew, its branches formed themselves into twisted and stunted shapes, for it was rooted in bitterness and pride. Thus, neither the old nor the new flourished. Unwilling to humble himself, the young man folded his arms and sat down scowling beneath the poor shade of his own disfigured tree.
The spirit of the gardener mourned within him for the tree and for the child, and his tears could be felt in the rain.
After a time, the third young man ventured into the meadow and stood before his grandfather’s tree. “Is this the glorious tree of our parents’ childhood tales?” asked he. “See how the branches are deformed and ugly. See the curling brown of the leaves. See the deadness in the limbs.” And he began to sharpen this axe on a rock. Soon was heard the splitting of the rotten limbs of the old tree. The grandson heaved the axe over and over, and it bit into the wood, decayed and hollow. Withered branches fell to the ground at his feet, and the sun shone brightly through the leaves once more. Stepping back, the young man mopped his brow.
“It will do,” he said, and he walked round the tree, surveying it from every angle. “But for that limb yonder, it would be a wondrous thing.” And his sharp axe bit into the wood once again. But this time, it pained the tree, for this branch was healthy and strong, albeit not to the young man’s liking. And as it fell to the ground, even passerby fled for their lives. “This one,” said the grandson, eyeing another bough, “is not of a shape to suit me.” It, too, fell, as did another and another, and the young man muttered to himself: “It is good to be particular about one’s own tree lest it grow in ways one cannot abide.” The unmerciful axe struck again and again until the tree was naked and shivering. Then last of all, the boy fell upon his own blade and was killed.
The spirit of the gardener was aroused within him, and his protests could be heard in the cracking of the lightning in the darkening sky.
Seasons passed, day and night and day, and a year was gone. The tree still stood, but it was a poor and ragged thing, neglected and alone. Buds still bloomed, but it had not the heart to spread its boughs wide nor to sink its roots deep. The memories of unworthiness, of sharp words and searing loss, were too fresh, and the tree drew into itself for protection. It was a lonely time.
Finally, the fourth and last young man stood before his grandfather’s tree, still and quiet in the grassy meadow. The tree bowed its head in shame at its own wounded limbs and shuddered as tender hands touched the scars of all that had gone before. What would be the verdict this time? Surely only a blow was needed to bring it down to the dust. The tree waited, not daring to raise its longing eyes.
But the young man was quiet, and he seemed to be listening to the wind as it passed through the branches.
Presently he filled a bucket with water from a river that ran nearly and poured it carefully over the ground beneath the tree. “There is hope,” said he.
Day by day, with tender care, the young man tended the bruised and shaken tree. He fertilized its roots and gently repaired the broken places. Dead leaves were plucked and lifeless limbs were carefully trimmed away. New strength slowly seeped into its trunk and young buds once more unfurled their delicate greens. Timidly at first, then with growing trust, the tree looked to this fourth child for nurture and healing. Branches that were weak became mighty. New foliage burst into glory and, as in the long ago, the tree lifted graceful arms to the sun and the rain. Sturdy roots once more pulsed with sustenance from the rich earth and its hidden streams. Birds returned to make their nests, and squirrels gathered nuts to store in the hollow places.
“It is good,” said the young man. And he blessed the sky and the ground. Then he beckoned to his own children who waited shyly at the edge of the meadow, and they ran into his arms. Childish laughter and games rang out as the little ones climbed the strong branches and chased each other in the sweet summer grass. Picnics were made, confidences exchanged, and the animals again dwelt in safety under the tree’s tender protection.
No more were the sounds of mourning heard in the rain or the clouds or the darkened sky. No longer did the wind bear the cries of sorrow.
For the spirit of grace, once living in the gardener and now at home in the heart of this last child, had brought peace and healing to the earth once more.