Oct 16 2012
Trees have been symbols of life for as long as humans have sought meaning in the world around them. Even dead trees can nurture and shelter. It took me a surprisingly long time to learn this simple lesson, though it wasn’t for want of opportunity. Most of my days have been spent in the company of trees, from the maples and elms that shaded the village streets outside my childhood home to the forested foothills that surround me today. It would be easy for me to take trees for granted, I suppose. But I can’t. There’s just too much magic in them.
The tap root of my fascination with trees runs deep. Many years ago, when I was a teenager exploring the rolling acres around my grandparents’ farm, I set out to make a lean-to. I thought this would be a good way to practice the skills I’d use in building a wilderness log cabin later on. And the farm was ideal for my purposes. Its fields, long idle, were now returning to woodland. Crumbling drystone walls surrounded former pastures, and it was near one of these that I found the perfect spot. A section of wall—miraculously intact, despite frost-heaves and hunters intent on traveling the shortest distance between two rabbits—would serve as the back wall of my lean-to. Felled pines would frame and sheath the roof and sides.
One thing was missing: a sill for the lean-to’s open face. But as luck would have it, a solitary oak stood nearby. I’d found my sill. So I set out on a warm fall morning with a hearty lunch in my pack and a sharp felling ax in hand. Though I’d never cut down such a large tree before, I knew exactly what to do. I’d make a wedge-shaped undercut first, to direct the fall, then hew a backcut to send the oak crashing to earth. When I reached the old pasture, I wasted no time. My first downward, slanting blow startled a red squirrel into violent complaint. Then a blue jay screeched an alarm. Soon, however, both lapsed into silence. Now the only sounds to be heard were the thud of my ax and the rasp of my increasingly labored breathing.
I hadn’t yet learned to let the ax do the work, you see. In minutes my shirt was soaked with sweat, and I was near exhaustion. But my undercut still stopped well short of the oak’s heartwood. I flopped down in the shade of the tree I was struggling to fell, opened my pack, and took a long pull from my canteen. Then I leaned back against the massive trunk and looked up. The oak’s lobed leaves, dried and curled by the first frosts, rattled in a freshening breeze. The red squirrel reappeared high above me, ratcheting up and down a near-vertical limb, his tail trembling in silent indignation. My breath came more slowly now, but gray tendrils of doubt invaded my thoughts like wisps of autumn mist. I looked around me. I saw pines and hawthorns, spruce and maples—but no other oaks. My fingers traced the angular outline of the interrupted undercut. They came back damp with sap.
A chipmunk popped into view on the stone wall, his cheeks swollen with acorns. Without warning, the red squirrel rocketed past my ear and set off in hot pursuit. I pulled an apple from my rucksack and sat back to watch the show. The jay returned to scold me. Soon others joined him. I finished my apple and tossed the core away. It landed in a circle of soft deer droppings, not far from a solitary coyote scat. Squirrel. Jay. Chipmunk. Deer. Coyote. The oak gave something to each one—food in season, shelter from winter’s cold or summer’s heat, a watch-tower, a refuge, or a nursery. It slowly dawned on me that this big tree, whose heartwood I was trying so hard to cleave, lay close to the heart of a whole community of life… Read more…
- “What Good is a Dead Tree!”
- “In the Company of Trees”
- “The Lively World of Dead Trees”
- “The Noble Beech”
- “The Fragrant Fir”
- “The Hardy Tamarack”
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