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.