We learned last week that our big white pine has blister rust. The disease will gradually choke the life out of it, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. This venerable tree is the largest on our property and it’s part of what defines our romantic sense of ‘Northwoods.’
The idea of taking it down brings a piercing sense of loss and kicks my limbic system into overdrive.
There’s something primal about trees that can tap into deep emotions. Years ago, in a different place, I was devastated when neighbors cut down three trees along our lot line. It took a long time to get past the stab I felt every time I looked in that direction, and the memory of it still makes me wince.
It didn’t matter that they were small trees in a neighborhood forested with oaks. It still hurt.
Our brains process emotional pain in the same region where we process physical pain. The quirky part of emotional pain is that unlike physical pain, which goes away when the source of it disappears, emotional pain keeps on hurting every time we think about it. Unless we put a different spin on it, an emotional blow can remain fresh and raw for a lifetime.
Neuroscience has a term for that spin: reappraisal. It’s easier to manage the feelings around an event if you can see it in a different light. Reinterpret what it means, normalize its occurrence, find a new perspective on it, reorder our values around it.
That’s why it’s so critical for me to manage my thinking around losing the white pine. I don’t want to feel a stab everytime I see sky where once there were feathery boughs. I need to reappraise.
Reinterpreting isn’t an issue in this case; we already know that blister rust doesn’t mean we’re careless tree stewards or that the tree gods are out to get us. Normalizing isn’t hard; losing a tree is part of life in the Northwoods. New perspective is easy, too: we have other beautiful trees and this isn’t our only white pine. And we now get to do something we haven’t done because of that very tree—create a ‘loading zone’ to eliminate schlepping groceries and suitcases up and down our steep drive. From that perspective, it’s easier to see the loss as a gain, and we’re pretty sure our guests will agree.
Reordering values is tougher—preserving our Northwoods landscape is a premium value—but at least we can acknowledge that convenience counts for something, too.
This all sounds like a complicated exercise of the prefrontal cortex, and it is, yet it took mere seconds to occur.
So why didn’t I do the same thing with the neighbors’ trees so long ago? Because I’d never heard of reappraisal and didn’t know that I could alter the ‘truth’ of an event simply by opening my mind to new thinking.
If I had, I might have realized that the neighbors didn’t do this to intentionally insult my sensibilities. I could have acknowledged that altering a backyard landscape is normal behavior, and accepted the idea that it really did make sense to use that area for the kids’ play equipment.
And, for sure, I’d have concluded that the sound of children’s laughter held a higher value than the sight of three modest trees out my kitchen window.
Got a story to tell around reappraisal? Please share it by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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