+ Literary Series
Trees Talk Slowly
Walking down the old railway bed on the bluff above the prairie, I’ll
sometimes come upon a tall tree that has fallen across the path
and become wedged at a random angle onto other trees lining the upside
of the opposing hill. The triangulation appears sturdy like architecture
and precarious like an accident. Sometimes I push against them to see
if they are jammed tightly into the neighboring trees or if, like a pick-up-stick,
they might roll away or towards me. In either case, it always gives me
a tiny chill to walk beneath their massive reach.
Only two times over the last decade since moving to the country,
I heard a tree fall in the woods near my house. It is one thing to hear
an owl hoot, a pack of coyotes wail or crickets obsess; they exist on
an earthly plane tantamount to mine, their lives more tenuous, like mine.
Even hearing a rabbit scream from the clutches of hawk talons is something
I can understand, something I can grasp as predictable, albeit alarming.
But I think of trees as having the potential to stand forever and hearing
a tree fall in the dead of night feels monumental, indomitable, even
tragic. I stood upright when I heard the first one fall, as if in allegiance,
my heart pounding. Something that signifies permanence to me revealed
a weighty fragility—the tree cracked, listed and
thunderously crashed, headlong, taking the branches of its stalwart,
soldiering brethren down with it. When the three hit the earth,
I could have sworn the porch under my feet shuddered.
It’s childish thinking—trees don’t fall down, parents
don’t fall down, bombs don’t fall down. But when I watch
the tallest trees bending with the weight of blizzard snow and raging
thunderstorms, when I see them swaying with spring buds and summer foliage
aloft, when I lean against them or stand beneath the comforting umbrella
of their strong arms, I imagine they embody the notion of forever. Never
was that notion more clearly illustrated, than when traveling along the
West Coast two years go, driving through the Avenue of the Giants. There
is no way to put into words the grandeur and ancient elegance of those
towering redwood trees—and the epic force of those that have fallen.
Upstream, enormous spongy cottonwood trees lie like half-submerged
leviathans where Pine Creek meets the Cannon River. When I view them
from the bluff’s edge, I’m not sure one won’t suddenly
rise up like a breaching whale, spewing silt, wet moss and clicking insects
from a rotten knothole. The heavily shaded slough is a gaping, feculent
mouth humming with an abundance of all things thriving on death and decay.
There is a seductively sweet odor on its cool, moist breath. I’m
attracted to it. It smells like cosmic soup, like the beginning of things,
even though I know it signifies an end. If I stay long enough, I might
witness the entire floor gently undulate as a unified organism or even
witness the sum of its myriad parts crawling over and around each other
like an earnest army of anarchists. Whether my eyes deceive me or not,
I feel it moving—I can feel it moving under my own skin.
The tree I am leaning against is stretching acrobatically over
the slough below. It feels so sturdy to me, but its roots are slowly
disengaging from the soil and rock it sprung from. It is impossible
to tell if it's preparing to jump or hardening its grip. Perhaps it performs
both acts simultaneously in a theatre of exchange: the pathos of
life and death swapping roles while the plot remains endlessly the same.