On New Year’s Day, just when it seems all joy has fled the world, we recover from the previous night’s festivities by taking down the Christmas tree. Our kids quietly put away the ornaments, and then we drag the disrobed tree outside while everyone else on our block is still asleep. We tie the poor carcass to the top of my wife’s car and begin our painfully slow pilgrimage, holding our breath, afraid to stop at the stop sign on Belmont for fear the tree will go flying off.

Finally we pull up to the city’s tree recycling dump at Clark Park, and if by then my sense of magic is gone, there is something inexplicable about this enormous pyramid of discarded timber — all different sizes and shapes, all in various states of decay — that restores it. I stand and stare at the way each individual tree — some still lush green, others spangled with silvery tinsel, others with bare limbs — disappears into this overwhelming pile of intertwined branches, an otherworldly sculpture created by Chicagoans in an unspoken New Year’s ritual, the beginning of something unexpected and new.