When Great Trees Fall: An Invitation to Write

I was recently on a writing retreat in which this poem was given to us for reflection and consideration as we started writing. The poem seemed to offer a certain solace in moments of grief, a refuge if you will, a place to rest, holding the promise that the death of a beloved person often leaves an important legacy of lessons, instructions on how to live or wisdom. When the lessons come from their heart, the words offer us comfort and strength.


When Great Trees Fall

When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down in tall grasses,
and even elephants lumber after safety.
When great trees fall in forests,
small things recoil into silence,
their senses eroded beyond fear.

When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
see with a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
examines, gnaws on kind words unsaid,
promised walks never taken.

Great souls die and our reality,
bound to them, takes leave of us.
Our souls, dependent upon their nurture,
now shrink, wizened.
Our minds, formed and informed by their radiance,
fall away.
We are not so much maddened
as reduced to the unutterable ignorance
of dark, cold caves.

And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always irregularly.
Spaces fill with a kind of soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never to be the same,
whisper to us.
They existed.  They existed.
We can be.
Be and be better.
For they existed.

—Maya Angelou


Invitation to Reflect/Write 

  • Consider some of the “great trees” you have known who have died and left behind them an important legacy.
  • What lasting words of theirs can you recall?  Or what about their life made your life better?
  • Write about ways that your life has been shaped by their life and their death.


“When Great Trees Fall,” from I Shall Not Be Moved, published by Random House. Copyright © 1990.

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