It's Only Natural
In the Company of Trees
By Tamia Nelson
April 5, 2005
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
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.
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.
The breeze died away. The jays had flown off, and the squirrel and
chipmunk were nowhere to be seen. In the distance, I could hear the muted
roar of trucks on the state highway, gearing down for the long climb north.
I got up from the ground, brushed off the seat of my pants, and picked up
my ax. The sap on my hands had dried. I squared up to the oak and began my
backswing. A bumblebee buzzed drowsily past my face. I hesitated. The
tendrils of doubt thickened and coalesced. I dropped my arms, letting the
ax fall by my side. My apprenticeship in cabin-building had taken an
unexpected turn, and I'd come to a decision: I'd finish the job using stone
quarried from the field and salvaged lumber and nothing more. My ax would
never touch the oak again.
I was no longer a teen-ager when I found myself in a canoe on a beaver
pond. It was mid-summer. My pack held a camera, a
sketchpad, and several tubes
of watercolor. I'd come to the pond in search of
Nature-with-a-capital-N, and I had plenty of company. A cloud of
mosquitos followed me as I paddled out across the open water. But I had
other companions, too. The weathered skeletons of drowned pines stood watch
over the pond. High in one of these silent sentinels was the nest of an
osprey pair, and below their haphazard jumble of sticks a hairy woodpecker
probed for grubs in the peeling bark. Further away, on the far shore, only
just visible through my
binoculars, swallows flitted in and out from tree holes in a
waterlogged sugar bush, returning again and again with a bounty of
mosquitos for their nestlings.
Halfway across the pond, I stopped paddling and closed my eyes, dozing
fitfully in the hot summer sun. I could hear the swallows' twittering
commentary in the distance. Even the mosquitos seemed suddenly lethargic,
and my mind's eye, ranging fitfully over the interior landscape lying
between wakefulness and sleep, conjured up scenes from the woods around my
home. A tiny mouse stared out from her nest high in a storm-blasted maple,
frozen into immobility by the beam of my flashlight, fearful yet defiant. A
chipmunk called eerily from the hollow heart of an elderly beech tree, and
a black bear slumbered
through an early winter storm in the meager shelter of a toppled
hemlock, covered in drifting snow and oblivious to any passersby.
I drifted closer to the drowned sugar bush. A brusque Cheedeep!
came from somewhere very near me, followed by the sound of wing-beats. I
opened my eyes to see half a dozen angry swallows circling round just above
my head. Muttering my apologies, I backpaddled away, remembering as I did
the four fledgling tree swallows who'd once leapt unhesitatingly into the
air from an old woodpecker hole high in a shattered birch in front of my
window. An autumn storm toppled the birch trunk into the water later in the
same year, but I dragged it ashore. Next spring the rains brought forth
globular masses of yellow "witches' butter" along its length, while birch
seedlings sprouted up all around it. The same autumn gale had brought down
other dead trees, as well, and I left those in the water where they fell.
In years to come they broke the force of countless storm waves and
powerboat wakes, in addition to providing a welcome sunning platform for
turtles and ducks. If the activities of the resident otters were anything
to go by, the fishing improved, too.
Trees grow slowly, and my understanding of them grew apace. Ten summers
ago I returned to the site of my childhood lean-to. My grandfather had just
died, and I took a final evening walk around his land before it changed
hands. The woods, fields, and hills seemed smaller. My lean-to had been
reclaimed by the forest. Only tumbledown sections of wall still stood to
remind me of my efforts, and new soil was already forming where wind-blown
leaves from many autumns had come to rest among the stones. A young oak
thrust up toward the light from this rich humus, and I realized with a
start that the oak I'd scarred with my ax was the little sapling's mother
That old veteran was still standing, too, taller and more imposing than
I remembered it. Alone of all the things around me, it had not diminished.
As I stooped to see the healed wound that was the legacy of my over-eager
blade, a chipmunk challenged me from a vantage point on a lichen-covered
rock. Raising my eyes, I looked toward the eastern hills, their green
summits now crowned with soft gold in the rays of the setting sun. Time for
me to go. I saw an acorn at my feet. It was hollow, and it bore the tiny
toothmarks of some hungry mouse. I picked it up and put it in my pocket,
and then I walked away.
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