Sunday, September 19, 2021

Reflections on an oak tree


If we go by the gospels, Jesus had unhappy encounters with trees. Not just the tree of Calvary, the wooden cross on which he was hung; there was also the fig tree that had no figs, which Jesus, like any hungry traveller, cursed. Later, the fig tree died, and the disciples, who were following the wonder-working rabbi, put down the casualty as another miracle. I don’t think Jesus thought it was a miracle, but he figured it was a good emblem to illustrate a sermon, and so he made it one. Why not?

I have happier experiences with trees than Jesus, and I’m not talking about not having been nailed to a cross. Although I haven’t. Mine are more like those described in Marin Buber’s I – You: the tree is my other, my true you. I can contemplate a world without people and think that this would be very sad, at least for people. But when I imagine a world without trees, I am truly horrified – this would be a planetary injury, a real loss.

Of course, I’m  wised up, taxonomy-wise, and know that “tree” has no validity any more in the scientist’s table of categories. It falls apart at the edges, and isn’t a genera, really. This is all the more grotesque in as much as, historically, it was the form of the tree that inspired Linnaeus’s categorization of living things. The form persists, but the tree has died.

I’m neither a wonder working rabbi nor a scientist. I’m the son of suburban Atlanta, where the foothills of the Appalachians fade into the flat red clay of the Piedmont. An area where bulldozer and chainsaw raked the old stands of forest and the real estate entrepreneurs put in the streets, the sewers, the houses on little patches of property (ranch, colonial, cap cod) sown with grass seed and ornamented with pittis purum, Japanese plum, and pine, a wonderland for the migrating Yankee like my Dad in the 1960s.

Amidst the carnage and new growth, a few trees survived. On my little cul de sac, on the corner lot owned by the C.’s, there was a most impressive white oak, a truly majestic throwback to the past. The C.’s were a tragic family. Everything was going so well, when the 17 year old boy, a high school star, owner of a mustang, all white teeth and promise in the yearbook, was killed in a car crash. The C’s never recovered: divorce, drugs, the house sold. I was friend with the youngest son, M., before the crash. We spent wonderful hours lining up toy soldiers and knocking them down with acorns, abundant in the yard; at other times we shinnied as we could up the tree. Not to the top by any means, but up above the mere yard by enough that if you fell you’d crack your skull or break your leg, surely. M. was the neighborhood wily boy, the scamp, the Dennis the Menace, full of schemes. I wasn’t, but I was a big mouth, so we got along.

So we would get up in the lower branches, among the anttraffic and squirrels. And we’d inch out on the bough, and sit up there, and be filled with Huckleberry Finn bliss!

All of that has passed. I have driven past our former house, and it is a sad place. It burned down once, long after we left. The yard’s untended, the carport still bears traces of the fire, a scattering of trash and broken toys. As for the oak, it is still there. However, it seemed last time I saw it less splendid, shrunken, not the tree I remembered.

I attribute this, however, to my older eyes. They see many things, but they can’t see what they once saw, when I was a kid.


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