Independence Day in Ipswich was many things. It was a day for taking a break, or catching up. Yet its bright colors and loud popping sounds, its firework skies and marching band day, were also about paying attention.
In the morning, our town — like most communities, I imagine, in America on this special holiday — flashed with flags, buntings, and ribbons in red, blue and white. A community parade passed by our street with band, children on bikes or in wagons or walking, costumed historical figures, antique cars, home-made floats, a pony cart, safety vehicles with lights flashing, scout troops, clubs, and businesses in uniform, all traveling the route from school to town hall. Each group paused before the festive judge’s stand, but the framework was inclusive and egalitarian, so everyone had a great time participating, and each child and adult, even occasional dogs in costumes, had a chance to be noticed, appreciated, and applauded by bystanders along the way.
Along the 4th of July parade route, people stopped to read poems and salute the mighty elm tree at the intersection of County and East Street. It is being dismantled by the town, its overhanging limbs already amputated, since it has died. In response, local poets have written words, and Mary Oliver’s tender When I Am Among the Trees, is also hung from the tree trunk by a purple ribbon. Understand, of course, that American Elms were an iconic shape on our landscape, and were decimated by a disease during the last century. Ours was a rare survivor, much-loved and revered. An informal service is scheduled for early next week to honor its presence and passing.
During the day, many people made time for long walks and boating, for beach and backyard cookouts, or yes, for working at the office or in the garden, using the valuable chance to catch up on deadlines and chores. By the end of all the bustle and business of the day, many of us had a chance to gather with family and friends.
In the evening, we didn’t have formal fireworks in town, though booms and blasts, sparkles and whoops let us know that many neighborhoods managed their own private parties. Instead nature provided its own display: lightning split the sky in branching and terrible beauty, while thunder rolled louder than any explosions. We sat in the backyard, bonfire burning, embers flying upward, marshmallows melting, and watched the heavens light up. We didn’t need clandestine supplies from across the state line, or even a pops concert with thumping music, to stir our hearts.
Our own world, on Independence Day, moved us over and over. Reminded us that liberty has a sacred beginning in the hearts and minds of people. We are the sum of something more than just individual lives, whether we feel kinship through ideas or dreams or communities or faiths or natural settings. Our patriotic parade, which paused to pay homage to a beloved tree, was a reminder of this bond. From the barren arch of elm branches that survived a devastating illness for many decades, to the might of the summer storm in the skies overhead, we are connected to something bigger than ourselves.
I borrowed a little inspirational book called The Things Trees Know by Douglas Wood. It talks about lessons we can learn from trees like the elm at the end of East and County. A paraphrase from one of my favorite parts of this little book was that like trees, we grow “ … from the inside out.” And I will close with the poem by Mary Oliver. It was the first text hung by a ribbon to the trunk of the elm, fluttering like a pale leaf on a great tree that cannot burst out green and living anymore. It reminds us to pay attention to the passing of this mighty life from our landscape, and to honor the possibilities within our own lives, too.
When I Am Among the Trees
When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness,
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.
Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.
And they call 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.”
~ Mary Oliver ~