The Ugliest Trees in the World

Twenty years ago, my friend Doug admonished me. “You always speak in superlatives—slowest, meanest, hottest.” He didn’t follow up with any reason why I shouldn’t, so here we are today, the ugliest trees in the world. They sit just outside my neighborhood. Across rural route 116 bordering the Gettysburg Lutheran Seminary. Seven of them line the road. Gnarled trunks reaching up into stubby half-amputated fingers—fat and short, stretching towards God, praying for a merciful death. A million sticks—pencil-thin branches—halo the trees, sprouting out in all directions from the deadish wood of last year’s growth. I suppose it may look nice when spring comes, bright green bushes of fresh, young leaves. But right now, it portrays desolation.

I woke up to the expected headline today. CNN: Russia Invades Ukraine—simple, direct. I didn’t need to look, I already knew—like you know you have cancer as soon as the doctor says “Hmmm, that doesn’t look right.” And we’re on to the next chapter of the thoroughly effed-up 2020s. A decade destined to be the worst of the modern era. Pandemic, riots, autocracy, censorship; now, a new war in Europe.

When I became an adult in 1980, I registered for the draft. Only eight years prior, people my age were still called up. They stepped out of their life as they knew it, and went to train for the next war. The war that didn’t arrive for eighteen more years. Vietnam, not even a decade done, was not in my consciousness. Korea, portrayed weekly on my favorite TV show MASH, struck me as a story from another era. When I thought about war, I thought about World War II. My steady diet of war movies from the sixties and seventies and Hogan’s Heroes reruns solidified my belief that real wars happen in Europe.

Hardly anyone attends the Gettysburg Lutheran Seminary any more. When I moved here seventeen years ago, enrollment was maxed, the parking lots brimmed, the clothes lines overflowed with drying laundry. Five years ago, they stopped charging tuition, it’s free. But the school is three quarters empty; it looks abandoned. I guess religion is a dying field. As we drove by the Seminary’s ugly trees this morning, I asked Eli, “Why don’t they just don’t cut those trees down.” Yes, I’m the adult, he should be asking me that question, but he was driving. This gave him an air of authority.

“Maybe they can’t afford it.” He’s an astute kid.

As an adult, my most enduring WWII image comes from the book Slaughterhouse Five. Kurt Vonnegut describes a band of war prisoners (he was one of them) emerging from a mercifully spared basement room into the remnants of firebombed Dresden, Germany—a real-life event that killed almost twice as many people as the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Nothing remained. In my mind’s eye, I envision ottoman sized chunks of blown-up buildings and burned and mangled tree trunks. That’s what war looks like to me.

I drive past those ugly trees at least twice a day and probably up to eight times on a hectic Saturday afternoon. I never focused on them before. They look like death, or in the final throes of life, just prior to death—the death-knell, if you will. They look burned up and bombed out. Death was on my mind this morning. My father gave me a call, as he does pretty much every time something astonishing happens in the world. “The TV news reminds me of the war reels we used to watch at the movie theater when I was a kid.” He referred to the way people got visual news before television was common in most households. “This looks just like the bombing of London.“

I wonder about Putin’s aggression, his end-game. I don’t understand his motivation, and what he hopes to achieve. He sees himself as a macho-man, and such men like to flex their muscles and show off, but this show is murdering innocent people and upending the delicate world balance. I can’t guess how this will end. It’s one more event to be added to the extensive list of recent happenings that I don’t fully understand.

Already, it’s turned into an us versus them American political standoff—that happened before the first bomb dropped—so you can add that to my list of confusion as well. {Edit 2/25/22} But the most baffling part of the whole episode is it looks like Putin will get away with it.

16 thoughts on “The Ugliest Trees in the World

  1. I read an article recently that kinda explained why Putin would do this

    It’s not a rational thing, but when has politics ever been rational? The entire world has completely lost it. But it’s not the first time, and hopefully it won’t be the end of humanity.

    There’s nothing I can do about the big things, so I try to stay focused on the small things I *can* affect.

    Wait til Spring and look at the trees again. See if a different season alters your perception. Everything is dark in winter…


      • I don’t know… I think there’ll be a lot of posturing but that the EU, UK & US will let him have Ukraine… like they did Crimea.
        Biden won’t put us into another war… he hated Afghanistan from the early days. I don’t think EU really wanna fight either.

        My younger brother had to register for the draft in 89 when he turned 18. I remember being flabbergasted that it was still a thing. I didn’t remember any of the guys I was in high school with mentioning it. Maybe because they were mostly college bound🤷🏼‍♀️

        I’m surprised kids are talking about it now.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Man, it seems off that the world would sit and watch while Putin took over a country, but he’d probably be proud to be the next one to detonate a nuke. An era of lawless countries?


        • We’re there already to some extent. There’s “shady” stuff happening in other countries… Belarus is one, my brain is refusing to give me the others & I’m too lazy to Google, but you know… the military coup in the Asian country with the president jailed, lots of countries running things “their” way. Maybe everyone doesn’t *want* democracy 🤷🏼‍♀️ I think most people just wanna live in peace and feed their families.

          Liked by 1 person

        • You seem to have a good grasp on geopolitical news. For me it’s too big a topic, I can’t get my arms around it. I look at things that *seem* wrong and scratch my head. I agree with you, Putin is going to get away with this, which will embolden him to take the next country, then the next.

          Liked by 1 person

        • He might take some of the smaller ones that none of us can remember the names of, but if he tries for any of the NATO nations, there WILL be war. I think he’ll be happy enough to rule by proxy with the other countries. He didn’t like Ukraine siding with “Western” influence. He’s still a Soviet at heart.

          I gather odd facts and info like a magpie. Trying to make sense of it, or recall details often escapes me, but thanks for making feel smart and savvy for a minute!😂😂

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Still trying to figure out what to make of the whole thing, besides confusion and horror. No one wants to fight but I can’t see the sanctions working. I know Ukraine sounds like it’s a far off land, but it’s really not. Heard someone hypothesize Poland is next. Poland is part of the EU. It’s too close to an assault on western ideals and I do think it will escalate to outside physical intervention at some point.

    As for the US, actually never thought I’d see the day when the commie-hating, anti-socialism folk would cheer on Russia. Because of something Trump and a Fox commentator said. Does anyone think for themselves anymore? *sticks finger in the air* Which way does the wind blow?

    Liked by 1 person

    • My mother in law actually immigrated to the US from Ukraine after WW2 so it doesn’t feel so far off to me. Sophie’s been wearing a necklace with the flag symbol for about a month in solidarity. You know I’m a serial pessimist, so take it with a grain of salt, but I don’t know why Putin would stop if he isn’t getting any pushback.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. the 2020s certainly have gotten off to a bad start; let’s hope it can only get better from here.

    I am also confused why Americans are not 100% on the same side on this issue.

    I hope this conflict in the Ukraine is over soon.


  4. I was reading a bio of President Zelinsky. Apparently he’s been teased a lot by the Twitters for being short — 5′ 7″ to be exact. Right now I’d say he’s a small guy with big balls. He’s risking himself by refusing to leave. Putin stays in his life of luxury and risks nothing of himself.


  5. I agree with Brian – I am in awe of President Zelinsky. Any one of our presidents would be in hiding. I know this is days later but I don’t think this will go much further. Shutting down the Russian air space is really going to limit things. I guess I am hopeful that it doesn’t go much further.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree, no one even knew where Bush was for two days after 9/11. I think Zelinsky will be standing there with a shot gun when the Russian troops come banging on his front door. The news over the past couple of days has improved dramatically. I’m happy to see Europe and America move forward with the SWIFT action, and the resistance in Ukraine is remarkable… BUT, Belarus and nuclear weapons. Hopefully Putin is sane enough not to escalate this further — I’m not convinced. Glad to see you here,

      Liked by 1 person

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