A Tree Grows in the Gutter

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Some twelve feet above the ground, in a gutter attached to my neighbor’s roof, a maple tree struggles to grow. In early spring, I first notice the green of the sapling peeking above the gutter’s metal confines. Its single verdant leaf is in stark contrast to the shallow metal container from which it springs so high above earth, its roots never contacting a single gram of the soil below.

The gutter, having not been cleaned for many years, moonlights as a lofted planter, a trough, a wholly unintentional vessel holding rich, alluvial soil in which life manages to flourish. Mere inches from the sapling, the downspout, clogged long ago, acts as a dam, collecting every leaf, nut, or branch the sloping roof above can tender, until the decomposed material creates a phony and shallow habitat.

I watch throughout spring as the maple slowly inches above the walls of its unlikely vessel, spreading forth new branches and leaves. It reaches up, despite its unforgiving environment. The maple eventually achieves a height of two feet before the gentleness of spring is replaced by summer’s heat and intolerance. It wreaks havoc on the plant. This is survival of the fittest. The soil in which it grows is no more than three inches deep. Yet, here, a few short months ago, a seed first fell, or was washed down from the roof, thus establishing contact with enough dirt to send forth a root. Here, in that shallow depth, with nothing substantive to reach into, the nesting tree begins to succumb to summer’s drought and the direct baking of the gutter and the soil within it. The gutter’s gentle inhabitant withers to the brink of death. The brown curling along the leaves’ outer fringes is the first hint that things are not well. Leaves droop, wither completely, and eventually fall. All that is left is a vertical twig, a skeleton of a young hope that, had it found its place in living, breathing earth, might have grown to be a monolith, bountiful in color, a merciful shade-giver, legendary.

Annually, this same maple tries to recreate its life in the very same gutter. Every year it fails. The rain comes too little, too late, causing it to die yet another small death. Every year I watch the tree’s straining, hoping for its survival and success, knowing that its improbable setting will eventually stunt its growth, inhibit its wild nature, and exact again destruction. The small deaths keep coming. But, blessedly, so too does the spring, and though every life may not be saved, the living and the dead are the skeletal reminders of frailty, abundance, and hope as we peek above the temporary confines of this shallow earth.

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Eric Peters, affectionately called "Pappy" by those who love him, is the grand old curmudgeon of the Rabbit Room. But his small stature and often quiet presence belie a giant talent. He's a songwriter of the first order, and a catalogue of great records bears witness to it. His last album, Birds of Relocation, blew minds and found its way onto “year’s best” lists all over the country. When he's not painting, trolling bookstores, or dabbling in photography, he's touring the country in support of his latest record, Far Side of the Sea.


8 Comments

  1. Loren Warnemuende

    This reminded me of certain seeds sown in rocky soil…until I read your final paragraph. Beautiful food for chewing. Thank you, Eric!

  2. April Pickle

    Beautifully and courageously said.
    In reading this, I found myself really wanting to transplant the tree. But it’s not my gutter and not my tree, and I’d probably kill it anyway.

  3. gin

    Made me think of the children born to poverty and need and how they struggle to grow and become what God has planned for them. Unfortunatly I see too many “whithering” under the strain.

  4. Peter B

    Wow. I have a feeling I’m supposed to apply this in several ways — but without yet knowing how.

  5. Tom Murphy

    Eric, there is a song in this post. The Spirit was heavy when you wrote this, huh?

    As an image bearer, the Lord has given us the insight and the ability to cultivate the groaning creation. To speak words of healing and actively love without recompense. To lift the struggling life in the gutter to transplant into fertile stream side riparian buffers that, in turn, will help to restore shalom to their surroundings (consider the fish from the below link).

    http://www.treevitalize.net/RiparianBuffer.aspx

    Although we are likely to tear at the roots of the struggling tree and might even kill it in the process, we are called to “Go” to those trees so that fish may swim in the shade. Grace multiplies Grace. We are the vessels through which God delivers His Grace…He us, to the trees, and to the fish.

    All of creation has entered into the suffering to make the Word of God fully known (Col 1:24-27)…

  6. Abby Pickle

    I see all these pieces
    Passing with the rise and fall
    Of the air in my chest
    Creation moves
    In waves
    Of ebb and flow
    Birth and death
    And the places between
    Are waking and sleeping
    Lift and rest
    And I wonder
    If the ripples of history
    And the motion of living
    Look from a distance
    Like light waves graphed

  7. Tom Murphy

    Well said Abby!

    I have been meditating lately on how Col 1:24-27 says that a Christian suffering’s purpose is to make the word of God fully known (v.25) – even our gutter dwelling days…

    The ebb and flow, rise and fall of our lives give testimony to the glory of God. The Hebrews were enamored with the idea of God as revealed by His characteristic of being “the Light”…

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