Living Life With ‘Grace And Elegant Treeness’

Ruth Kamps - Waukesha, Wisconsin
As heard on Morning Edition, August 15, 2005
Ruth Kamps
Photo by Nubar Alexanian

After being transplanted from a vibrant city life to the isolation of a small town, retired school teacher Ruth Kamps found solace in nature and inspiration in the pine tree growing outside her kitchen window.

Age Group: 65+
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Sitting on our small deck, knitting and resting old legs, I am entertained by my spiritual sister, an equally old pine tree. She is very tall, probably 40 feet or so, and is at least as old as I am. She leans a bit; so do I. In her care are many birds that I watch with pleasure. They love and fight and nest in the tree. At Christmas time, pairs of cardinals decorate her limbs.

She is still green, covering lots of old brown branches, like my gray hair covering the black. We both soak in the sun and the air and are trying our best to live lightly in our worlds. One day in the not-too-distant future she will fall and fertilize the earth, as I will do. It’s a consoling thought. We have children and grandchildren that give us the continuation of life. A bit of the divine in the tree and me. Yes, that’s close to what I believe.

My husband, John, and I moved to the country from a suburb and a traditional church nearly 40 years ago. Our property is on the Kettle Moraine of Wisconsin. It slopes sharply down to a stream that glows red with the setting sun. When my parents came to visit after our move, my father said I would not be happy here; I was a city girl. He was right in the beginning. I was too busy, too poor, and very lonely.

When my mother died, I was pregnant and needed her. I went to the church to be quiet and cry. The church was locked and the priest was standing outside. He knew me but did not unlock the church. I don’t know why, but it was a nail in the coffin of my traditional beliefs. We had nine family-related deaths in one year. I learned to watch the red setting sun and was calmed, soothed and grateful, at least for a moment. I began to like digging in the dirt instead of cursing each weed. Cutting the evil buckthorn in the woods became a spiritual experience. I started to spend Sunday morning in the woods. Was I losing long-held beliefs or simply changing them?

I found an answer while traveling. I was asked if I were religious, while standing at the rail of a cruise ship with a fellow traveler on the Yangtze River. I said I was not but that I was spiritual. I was asked to explain. I talked about my sister tree. A cab driver in Rome said that one must live in a place a long time to appreciate its beauty. Is 40 years enough? Taking frequent trips to the brashness of Chicago to see children and grandchildren always energized me. It still does, but I miss the woods.

I have lost most of my traditional heaven-and-hell beliefs, finding them used conveniently by good people. There is a bit of the divine in the trees and the creatures who reside there. A little wren attacks a large red-bellied woodpecker who is pecking too close to his nest. I am filled with admiration. The transition is complete.

There are those who want to give my life more importance than the tree, but I don’t believe them. They think there is a special place for me somewhere for eternity, but I don’t believe them. I believe my tree and all other living things believe and feel in their particular living ways. I want to work on being as good a human as I am able, just as my tree does her job with grace and elegant treeness.

Ruth Kamps is a retired elementary school teacher in rural Waukesha County, Wisconsin. In 1967, she and her husband moved into the house that was his childhood home. When not admiring her pine tree from her deck or out her kitchen window, Kamps is an avid knitter and reader.

Independently produced for NPR by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with John Gregory and Viki Merrick.