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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

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 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.

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 tree.

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.

Copyright 2005 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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