You know that old trees just grow stronger
Old rivers grow wilder every dayó(John Prine)
It was here before Christopher Columbus first glimpsed the coastline of the Taino homeland, which he would call Hispanolia. Probably no more than a single tree among many, maybe big around as my ankle or leg.
Natural selection must have favored it, for it survived and prospered, grew tall and wide. A live oak, like those Napoleon coveted and cut for his warships by the thousands. Like that which Evangeline wept beneath. They dot the landscape of the South. One, among many.
I played and explored and brushed down quarter horses beneath it, but thatís recent history. If you consider its lifespan as minutes past midnight on a clock, Iíve only been around it since 12:59:20 or so. But when Desoto came, it was already a century old, and by the time Bienville made war with the Chitimachas, it was twice that age.
My grandfather spent a lot of time around it, but that was only natural. He was just the latest. Generations of my family had meals under it, napped beneath it. Old men and probably women smoked corncob pipes and let blue smoke waft into its green leaves and gray moss. Children climbed in it, maybe built tree houses in from old scrap lumber they found floating in Bayou Teche just a few dozen yards away.
Its canopy provided much-needed shade. In recent years, where two limbs met and sort of melded together, a hive of bees buzzed busily, far above my head. When I was a kid, I chased crickets to fish with around its roots and trunk.
It is, in short, a member of the family. It was here before my non-indigenous forebears. It burst the shell of an acorn, sent out a taproot and shoot, and my Chitimacha ancestors somehow never trampled it; no deer ate the tender first few inches of it. Somehow, it survived right there at what was the central village of the entire nation.
A month or two ago, I noticed a split. The tree divided asymmetrically about twelve feet up. A split began there, and I was worried. Two-thirds of its bulk is on one side, with long branches thick as the bed of my truck that reach out toward the road. I began consulting sources on what to do to reinforce it.
It wouldnít have mattered. Its heart was gone. It had apparently suffered long and lost its memory, its will. My grandfather used to spend a lot of time around it, and he could step behind it and I couldnít find him again. I think I know where he went now. Into that great oak treeís heart. Into that space of darkness now exposed to the sun. When it was sealed and dark and believed in, it probably held entire valleys and rivers and mountain ranges. Broken, most of its bulk lying now on the ground, the void in its heart could still have encapsulated a horse.
It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon menís hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air that emanates from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit. (Robert Louis Stevenson)
Five hundred years, maybe even six. I wonder when the death began. A bit of water settling high above in a depression at the fork of its trunk, eating away at the wood over time. Decades? At least. Maybe a century. I wonder, what magic existed in its grain, what spirits dwelt in that dark cavity within. Every year it made a growth ring. Throughout that year, as it formed, it took in sunlight and fingertip touches and the soft brush of a birdís feather and the scurry of insects. It took in resonance and vibration as it grew that ring and, as winter came, and the ring was complete, it was encapsulated by the one that grew next. Five hundred or more of them. It is a history book. A chronicle of half an eon.
Itís just a tree.
Some of you are thinking that. I know you are. Itís okay. I know thatís what the modern world has made us think. Itís just a tree. But I also know better. It was more than that. Its roots drank the blood of the earth Ė that potent power Ė its leaves inhaled the air and soaked in the glow of the sun. It is still alive, and maybe that part of it still standing will survive another century or more, but I doubt it. The decay in its heart went to its bones, I think. I was going to be married under it one day. I was going to be buried under it one day further along. But itís far more than just a tree. Itís a family member. Itís a legacy and a kindred spirit.
At some point soon, Iíll have to go out and cut it back, but all Iíll be able to do is cut the smallest branches away. Its massive bulk will, for awhile at least, become part of the landscape, because thereíll be no moving it. It will persist, at least for a time. It didnít grow so long and stand so tall and wide to simply fade away into memory so swiftly.