Under the Tulip Poplar Tree
by Jarad Johnson
Today, similarly to when Julie spoke about burying a small chicken, I am reminiscing on the death of my pets.
I have always been an animal lover, and we have always, always had a houseful of cats – and the occasional dog – all of them rescues. When I was born, my mom had a Yorkie named Chappea. When I was crawling around on the floor, he would take hold of my diaper with his teeth and drag me back to him if I got too far away. I had a cat named Jewel, whom I loved dearly; when he was very old, he went off into the meadow next to my house to die. There was a dog named Princess, hit by a car, and a cat named Gigi who died of old age. I’m very much a cat person, and I could (and would, given the opportunity) take the time to tell you about all those precious little felines, but I’m afraid I don’t have room on this page and I’m sure you have a life you need to be getting on with. I get on better with old dogs than puppies, but consequently that means I have to watch more of my animals die All of these animals were special to me, as are the ones who are with me now.
You’re probably wondering at this point, where, exactly, I’m going with this. I was on a walk today and passing a house I saw three cats sitting outside, staring at me, as cats do. There was a tuxedo cat, a gray cat, and another I couldn’t quite see. Those two, however, caught my attention, because they looked exactly like two cats my mother and I had buried under the tulip poplar tree many years ago. I felt as though I were seeing their ghosts, looking at me from the afterlife. I nearly stopped in my tracks, and had there not been a car behind me, perhaps I would have.
Seeing those cats got me thinking about all the animals my mother and I interred under that tree. I remember it very well. It was at the very back of the yard, at a more secluded, less trafficked part of the property. As trees go, it had a great structure. Tulip poplars are tall and straight, yet still leafy and protective. Of course, there were all kinds of birds and squirrels making their home in it. It was extremely tall and very old. Every spring, wild grape hyacinths bloomed under it. The bees were always buzzing there around that time of year. Still, because of its use as a graveyard for beloved pets, it was always a sad place.
I never questioned why they were buried. I know some people dispose of their animal’s bodies in different ways, like having the vet do it if they have to be put down or having them cremated, but I always found this a little heartless. I have a deep and abiding respect for the natural world, and my pets are important to me. I liked having a place where I could go and remember them and hope that they knew in their own ways how valuable our time together was. Of course, maybe some of them were in it for cuddles and treats, but still, who’s not? Animals know when you love them and care for them.
When we buried a companion under the tulip poplar tree, we had to dig deeper than you’d think to keep them from being dug up, and we’d put rocks or bricks on top of the dirt where they were to prevent dogs or other predators and scavengers from getting at them. These bits of stone and mortar also served as a kind of marker. I recently buried a young rabbit (under a magnolia tree at our new place) and again I put bricks over the spot.
We’ve since moved away from our tulip poplar, but I hope the new owners took care of that tree. They probably don’t know that it’s a small pet cemetery, but I hope it’s still standing, watching over all the animals we buried there.
It seems strange to me, in a way, that a tulip poplar tree has come to represent the cycle of life and death, the inevitability of it, the sorrow, the peculiar beauty of remembrance. I like the idea of a natural burial, as my cats and dogs had, of being placed in the ground unadorned and chemically unaltered, returning to the earth to feed the roots of a tree. I find a depth of solace in the idea. Maybe one day I too will be buried under a tulip poplar tree.
Jarad is the co-administrator and writer for Sacred Chickens, attends college at MTSU, loves tea and coffee, and tries to spend every spare second reading. He recently developed an interest (some might say obsession) with gardening. Jarad is an English major with a concentration in literature. Bless his heart! Let's all light a candle for him and send him happy thoughts!