Small Rituals for Enormous Things

Storm season here in the midsouth has been especially devastating and tragic this year. This morning I read there are more storms on the way, but today, and yesterday, were lovely days.

Often I wonder what to write on this blog with so much destruction and chaos going on in this world. The compulsion is still here to write. This morning I woke up thinking about the calm between storms. And the importance of rituals when disasters, or even small upsets, happen. My most common ritualistic gesture is to touch whatever pendant I’m wearing and try to stay grounded. I’m here now, and mostly okay. I most often wear a turtle, a heart, and various stones as necklaces. It’s a small gesture that draws no attention but calms me.

After the tornado in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, and before the ones that hit practically every where in the Mid-South, I went outside to discover that the magnolia tree that lived next door to me was being cut down. They’d already removed half of it by the time I saw what was going on.

My driveway was blocked by the tree removal truck.

Normally the sky would be blocked by the extended limbs of the magnolia. The light is different now. They were a quick and efficient tree service. By the end of the day, the tree was gone. I wished I’d taken more pictures of it, especially the root structure, and the V-split where the tree divided into huge trunks.

A limb had fallen from the tree during a winter ice storm and did some damage to the apartment building next door. But it wasn’t an unhealthy tree. If it had been better maintained, and pruned back, it probably would have lived decades longer. I estimate it was somewhere between 100 and 200 years old.

One of the things I love about magnolias (I love everything about them) is that their branches dip low, so even from my wheelchair I can commune with it. Their leaves are evergreen, a deep smooth green, with fuzzy backs, so they are a tactile pleasure. Pods are intriguing, flowers are fragrant and stunning. Here are some random shots I’ve taken from my wheelchair.

At the end of the day, the tree was no more than a stump.

I figured the stump would be like a marker for the tree. It’s roots might live, and when the world becomes a forest again, then it’d come back to life.

The next day the stump was gone.

A friend offered to do a more formal ritual with me, to mark the loss of the tree. So we did.

We made a wreath and in the center placed a little vase of azaleas and a hawk feaather.
My son gave me some glow in the dark Kodama, Japanese tree spirits, and I put them on the magnolia trunk

We gave thanks for all the beauty the tree had given us, for the shade, for the home it made for many creatures that nested and lived in its bounty. We talked about the lives of trees, of the blessing of urban trees.

Kathleen helped with all the parts of the ritual I couldn’t manage. She, too, had enjoyed it’s shade and seeing the birds that nested in its strong long arms.

We tried to count tree rings and marveled at what must have taken place in the city around it as it grew and grew.

I understand that dangerous trees must be removed, and that a city block isn’t a forest. There’s just something in me that aches when a favorite tree is lost. I spend a lot of time walking/wheeling around the city, since I don’t drive. Certain trees, plants and even houses and buildings, become touchstones, a map of things that are a relief from the dangers of traffic, potholes, and the constant alertness I have to maintain to stay safe as I travel.

I can’t imagine the fear and heartbreak tornadoes and other natural disasters do to people’s souls. Things are lost never to return. Our powerlessness is shown over and over, in small and enormous ways.

By the time we finished our little ritual for the tree, the wind had blown the wreath in different directions, the vase of flowers had fallen.

A few days later, coming home from the store in my wheelchair, I found the hawk feather stuck on the boards of the path to my ramp. I took it back home, put in a vase, and will keep as a little symbol of immortality, whatever that means.

Magnolia Pod by Joy Murray 2017
Magnolia Blossom by Joy Murray

So much has happened since this tree was cut a week ago. So many are out there in the aftermath of the storms working to save lives and rebuild shelte. We keep them in our hearts. If you want to read about the Rolling Fork tornado, here’s and excellent article by Willy Bearden, who grew up there:

I find solace in nature, and in art. It’s a good time of year for planting rituals, and for watching what was deadened by winter come back to life. I hope everyone stays safe out there.

I Buried My Blues and a Forest Grew by Joy Murray
From a sketchbook in 2012


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8 thoughts on “Small Rituals for Enormous Things

  1. What a lovely post, Joy. I’m so sorry that the tree was cut down due to neglect and I love hearing about how you honored its existence. A few years ago, the city of Hillsboro, Oregon decided to widen Jackson School Road, one of the roads that connect Hwy 26 to downtown Hillsboro. It was lined with a beautiful assortment of shade trees in residential and church yards and I always enjoyed the drive to my studio which is in downtown Hillsboro. Even though the road seemed adequate for the traffic it received, the city stuck to its plan to widen and upgrade the road. This process lasted 2 years and required cutting down over 300 hundred trees including a couple of grand old maples next to a church yard. They promised to replant more trees around Hillsboro but not all of the trees would be replanted on Jackson School Road.

    Progress of some sort continues in Hillsboro, farmland has transitioned to technology companies, high rise steel monstrosities replace turn of the century historical buildings. Perhaps the trade-offs will be worth it, but I worry about the pace of “progress” and the impact on livability and ecosystems.

    I’d like to send you a gift. I don’t do PayPal because they take a whopping chunk out of my gifts to artists whom I want to support. Please send me your address so that I can contribute to your wonderful writing and art work.
    Pat Krishnamurthy
    Ps You can see the artwork I made to honor the Jackson School Road trees by visiting my website. The work, entitled “Epitaph” is in my Botanical series.

    1. Thank you for the kind comments about my post. I know development happens, but it saddens me when so many trees must be sacrificed for progress. As we learn more about ecosystems, I hope we can find a gentler way to construct cities and businesses. Portland seems to do a lot more than many cities to keep the city from expanding into rural and forested areas, still, we don’t seem to have a way of protecting what I think is vital to our ecosystem from the lure of profit making businesses. I enjoyed looking at your work at, and urge any readers out there to visit your site and see your artwork. I love the layers of Epitaph, the bark pattern and the use of gold. Thanks for your support and I’ll send an email with my mailing address.

  2. Hi Joy,

    You must have missed my email address change a year ago. It is changed to

    I love your story about the magnolia tree and your ritual. A similar thing happened to me about 20 years ago. A neighbor chopped down a huge spruce tree that I loved looking at, leaving the space it took barren and empty. I cried all day. The neighbor told me the spruce tree had thousands and thousands of spiders in it as if that were a bad thing.

    I wanted to ask you if you have read The Overstory by Richard powers. And also, Finding the Mother Tree hi Suzanne Simard. Both books are wonderful and are about our love and need for trees.



    1. I hadn’t even thought of all the insect and arachnid life a tree supports. I’m sure thousands of spiders seem scary to the average person, but I can only think of all the mosquitoes and flies they would have eaten. If there’s a real problem with the spiders (if they are toxic to humans), they can be managed by other means, I think. I read Overstory by Richard Powers and found it very depressing, in spite of the beautiful language and description of both human spirit and the spirit of trees. I watched Suzanne Simard’s TED talk. I have a book called a Tree A Day, which has a short essay on a tree or a work of art inspired by trees for each day. It’s a lovely way to begin or end the day. I hope all is well with you and you continue to be a good friend to trees and forests.

      1. You may need to resubscribe to the blog with your new email. I’m going to put together a personal email list for those who don’t want to subscribe but still want to read it, if you’d rather I put you on that.

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