The story is available online at JSTOR, for those with access.
Little-known writer John Keefauver has written some truly unique stories, among them "The Pile of Sand" (1971), "The Great Moveway Jam" (1979) and "The Tree" (1997). These stories are not about single individuals in crisis, but about communities faced with some unusual, even fantastical situation, and it tells of how each community, in all its different facets, deals with their unlikely circumstance. In "The Pile of Sand," a large sand mountain appears one morning on a beach, and despite the incessant tides it refuses to get washed away. In "The Great Moveway Jam," near-future commuters (of 1999) are trapped in a three-month long traffic jam. These stories contain elements of magic realism, are written in a simple, distant and objective tone, and are more like Kafkaesque moral allegories than run-of-the-mill suspense or fantasy stories.
In "The Tree," an old and isolated community is forced to decide the fate of its most personal emblem: the elm tree that for generations has been used to nail death notices onto. The tree is dying, and after much debate, agricultural experts brought in from the outside insist that the tree is dying as a result not of natural disease, but of all the nails lodged into it. The town is therefore faced with a difficult choice: to remove the death notices and try to save the tree, or to continue nailing the notices until the tree finally dies. The townsfolk are split on this: the elders wish to keep the tree as it is, since they have waited all their lives for their names to be nailed onto it, and the notion of outliving the tree is looked upon as tragic. The younger generation is leaning toward removing the nails and the notices, to perhaps try another method of recording deaths, or of abandoning the practice altogether; some extremists believe the tree should simply be put out of its misery. Heated debate resolves nothing, and filled with anxiety the elders begin to die off at an incredible rate in order that their names be nailed to the tree while the issue remains unresolved and the tree is still alive.
I will not give anything more away as far as plot is concerned, but will discuss some thematic considerations, and herein some inadvertent spoilers might rest. What is most interesting is that the basis of the tradition has changed over time, and that the townsfolk appear to be clinging onto something that exists in a form different than that which their ancestors had intended. The tree was originally used for general notices, but later was taken up with solely death notices, names and dates of townsfolk etched onto "two-by-four-inch metal strips" and nailed to the elm. Moreover, many people expressed the uselessness of the tree, citing that in the town cemetery the names are all clear, whereas on the tree some notices are so weather-worn they are illegible, while others, with so little space remaining on the tree, were nailed near the top, invisible to those standing on the ground. Clinging onto this tradition clearly serves only a sentimental purpose, and somehow gives the town elders a kind of purpose in their meagre lives, as having their names on the tree is more important than making of their years something beneficial to others, to their town or even to themselves.
There is little left in this town for old and young. It has been dying for years, we are told; the once common construction has halted and most of the young have moved away, so that the town elders make up the majority of the population. Since the elders are the majority and since they are the ones clinging tightly to tradition, there is little sense that the town will survive this crisis and rebuild itself.
While the initial purpose of nailing notices onto the tree has been lost, elders now claim that the purpose of nailing death notices is for departed townsfolk to be united on something living. The tree is a perfect repository as it grows in the town's centre. Yet as the town dies so does the tree, and so do the notices, as the dates are rusting off the metal strips "the notices were dying too." (p. 87) In essence, it is the memory of this place that is dying. For years the townspeople have resented the encroachment of outsiders, did not approve of the young moving out, and have even talked of building a wall around the town to prevent outsiders coming in to look at their tree. While some were willing to prosper from their tradition, to invite the tourists and build a hotel and souvenir shop, the elders resented the encroachment and blocked the idea. Plans for change have long been suppressed.
In truth, though dying the village has long been dead. Its newspaper has long ago folded while "the twice-a-day train roared right through town, as if the place didn't even exist." (87) What has changed for the community is their awareness of the town's death and of their own inconsequential existence. The perverted notion of tradition that they are grappling with and the constant emphasis on death is only helping to kill the community, and it is only natural that the elm is dying since, as we are told, it was the symbol of the village's life.
Allegorically speaking the story has much in common with some of Kafka's shorter pieces, mostly in that the allegory can point to many different things. The town was overwhelmed with pride, its attitude toward the outside world and toward those wishing to leave forever prevented it from becoming a part of the world as a whole. The community was a victim of hubris. Yet not only pride, tradition can be linked to other abstract concepts, any form of ideology from religion to communism, taken to an extreme level that isolates itself from a world filled with different forms of ideology.
Whatever direction the allegory points it is clear that the story's protagonist, the tree, is a victim here. The village cannot be the victim since it is made up of its people, and the tree was usurped by the people into this perverted symbol for life that gave the townsfolk the tragic hope for an unattainable immortality. There was only so much that the tree could support, and after many generations it could do nothing but die.
The end of the story is obvious, indicating that man in his stubbornness, pride and lack of wisdom will not change, and that in order to preserve ourselves we continue to make victims of our environment. With "The Tree" Keefauver has given us an excellent short story, and it is truly unfortunate that the story, like his other stories, is not more widely read.