After denuding the trunk, the men left to denude others, and for a time the tree stood blighted, trying to raise its stunted arms, a creature clubbed mute, only its sudden voicelessness making us realize it had been speaking all along.
This passage, from the middle of Chapter Four, describes the Parks Department's standard procedure for dealing with a tree that has caught Dutch Elm Disease. Throughout Chapter Four, the boys hear saws, as the officials mutilate infected trees in an attempt to prevent the disease from spreading. Only later will they return to uproot the stump. Nonetheless, by novel's end, the combined effects of beetles and saws will result in the loss of all the neighborhood's trees. This destruction of the suburb's physical environment mirrors its less tangible disintegration, which the boys feel began with the Lisbon deaths. Furthermore, the rapid spread of the elm epidemic echoes the neighborhood's fears about suicide, which thanks to Dr. Hornicker is popularly discussed in the language of infectious disease. The Parks Department's two-stage treatment—blighting followed by eventual uprooting—suggests the Lisbon sisters' two-stage death, strict confinement to the house followed nine months by suicide. Both the girls, and the trees, are taken for granted by the boys until they are suddenly removed by forces beyond the boys' control.
Thus, the boys' sorrow at the tree suddenly "clubbed mute" mirrors their greater despair at the Lisbon girls' untimely deaths. The novel continually dwells upon what is missing, lamenting unknown details, lost time, and the inaccessible girls. Indeed, the boys' larger project of piecing together the Lisbon girls' story is not portrayed as constructive, but rather as an attempt to patch up the gaping hole that has appeared in their lives. The novel begins against a background of absence, and continually plays upon the desire to fill in the pieces. Blind to the present as it happened, the boys must reconstruct their past by means of the unseen, the invisible, and the forgotten, signs which—like the tree's silence in this passage—serve to witness the immensity of what has been lost.