The Old Ash Tree, J.T. McKinney

The Old Ash Tree

2018/2020
chamber orchestra
(fl.cl.bn – gtr.hp. – strings)
duration: 06:35

The ash tree plays a significant role in Celtic mythology; often seen as the central column of the Tree of Life. Sometimes referred to as the World Tree, the ash was believed to be a bridge between worlds — a cosmic axis running through Annwn (the lower world), Abred (this world), and Gwynvid (the upper world) until disappearing finally into Ceugant (eternity).

When arborists came in May 2017 to remove the ash trees that had been infested with emerald ash borer, I tried to carry on with my work, but it was impossible to deny the irreversible changes taking place outside. I was overcome with a heavy, inexpressible sadness. A bittersweet tune in my head, I sat at the piano and wrote it down. With uncharacteristic finality, I wrote “The Old Ash Tree” at the top.

When exploring the theme further — turning it over and over, adding layers, expanding themes — something unexpected happened: the metaphor behind it expanded beyond the ash tree to encompass my own family tree.

My paternal grandfather was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease around 1997 when he was in his early sixties. The news was hard to bear, and — having already witnessed the disease overtake many of his siblings — there was not a lot of hope for the future.

Witnessing his slow descent into the barrenness of this disease has been painful. I’ve seen genuine fear in his eyes as he describes losing himself, getting lost in the woods — a place he’s always known like the back of his hand. His mind oscillates unpredictably between present and past. He no longer remembers me.

The Old Ash Tree for chamber orchestra (electronic rendering); © 2020 J.T. McKinney

The Old Ash Tree is dedicated to my grandfather, Bryant McKinney. In it, I hope to capture his strength, the beauty of the humble life he’s led, and his role as a central axis in my family, the main branch in our tree of life. I wanted to portray the gentle bravery and stubbornness in his fight against a disease that steals his mind inch by inch, day by day.

Similar to a rondo, I’ve woven a central theme throughout. Each time that theme returns, it’s a reminder that Alzheimer’s may silence our loved ones, but it doesn’t erase them.

Writing this work meant simultaneously confronting and sharing my grief. It isn’t a mournful piece, but I personally find hope, joy, and pain speaking very clearly in specific lines. The coda was the most challenging moment. Our lives don’t end with neat and tidy cadences, so it didn’t seem fitting for this piece to do that either. Instead, the central theme slowly retreats, weightlessly drifting off into the light.

Now when I visit the stump of the oldest ash tree, I sense the space the immense tree occupied. Its roots remain, still holding earth in place. The rings of its life, now on display, are weathered the color of stone. When a breeze stirs the slowly encroaching understory, I look up to see the opening it left behind in the canopy. Sun streams down, warming the forest floor. New saplings are slowly emerging.

Chamber ensemble version (without strings) premiered 17 August 2018 at the Oliver Art Center, Frankfort, MI: Manitou Winds.