Monday, March 09, 2009

Requiem for an old tree


It feels like the death of an old family friend, one we've visited with and admired for more than three decades.

It was an old pine pine tree, thick at its base and twisting into the sky above a Blue Ridge hillside. You can see it off in the middle distance in the photo to the left.

I've always guessed it was a white pine, but the fact is I don't know. But its gnarled trunk and huge lower limbs always captured my imagination, and for a while we thought of putting a cabin there so we could look at its rugged presence among the oak, maple, beech and locust trees that populate our part of Belcher Mountain. As part-time Virginians, we'd be obliged to give the house a name, of course, and we thought of Twisted Pine.

When they were little our children swung from big vines that draped down off a nearby oak, the one at the left of the picture, reprising the roles of Tarzan and Jane and the jungle. We built campfires in its shadow and often spent lazy evenings watching as the old pine turned to black against the evening sky as the sun sank below the ridge.

A few years ago we realized this old tree was mortal like all the rest of us. A huge limb that had grown out of the trunk perhaps six feet off the ground gave way one summer; I tried to block it up to keep it in place but it settled a little more each season. The greenery was gone from its lower limbs, but way up yonder at the top the pine needles still looked bright green, if thinner each succeeding year.

Six years ago a contractor named Buford Wood dropped by to talk about building plans. We stood in the forest looking at the majesty of the place, when Buford surprised me. "I had forgotten how pretty these woods were," he said. You've been back here before, I asked? He looked at me and said, "I grew up here. We lived in that old house down there in the field," he said, pointed to a slowly collapsing farmhouse over close to the road. "My daddy had a sawmill back here and we timbered all these woods when I was a boy. I shot my first shotgun right over there," he said, waving vaguely toward the old pine.

In winter you can still see the remnants of the logging roads Buford's daddy cut through these hills, crossing the steep slopes. Most of them are filled with mature trees, but when the leaves are down you can see where they went. When the trees bud out in May and fully revive in early June it's hard to see 100 feet sometimes. The old traces of Buford Woods' family's sawmill go away for another season or two, reappearing each Thanksgiving.

Buford died a couple of years ago. He came home from work not feeling well one evening, lay down and went away. He was a big man with a lot of admirers, and I've tried to keep his woods cleaned up, hauling away the deadfalls that were too far gone for firewood and cutting up the solid stuff for the wood stove.

In January, walking with friends though the snowy woods, I took a photograph of the old pine, huddled against the cold. I didn't know it would be the last time I'd ever see it standing.

In late February there was a big snow storm and howling winds, and another March 2, and it was a while before we got back up into the hills. I think it happened sometime during those storms. Saturday afternoon, an unusually warm day, I was hauling away broken limbs and other debris when I realized there was a hole against the sky. The old pine had snapped off just above its base. A closer look showed why: Insects had gotten into the tree, probably long ago -- carpenter ants would be my guess -- and had so weakened the tree that it's a wonder to me that it had stood all this time. There wasn't much left that would have helped the tree continue to stand.

It's on the ground now, one more old tree that fought gravity's force for a long time, and finally succumbed. The tree lies in a southeasterly direction, and from that I conclude that a strong prevailing wind from the northwest overcame its resistance.

I haven't been able to bring myself to start cleaning it up yet. I'm hoping there will be some solid pieces in its upper trunk that I might be able to save, perhaps getting a few pieces of small furniture out of its heart. But for now there are good memories about a tough old tree we once regarded as part of our natural landscape. We'll not forget.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Well stated, Jack. We should all aspire to be as well-remembered ast the old pine tree, Buford, and all those who were there before them...but we need to first be as stalwart and upright as the old pine tree and Buford before we deserve the memories.

Anonymous said...

Not many writers could hold my attention with the tale of a now-departed old pine tree. But, by golly, Mr. Betts did it. Well done, Jack, well done.

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