There is an old oak tree that shadows the hillside of my childhood church; there it has stood watching the years that my family has flocked to this white clapboard square: a Civil War in not so dim memory, depressions Great and otherwise, the turn of yet another new millennium. It juts out of that hillside alone, cuts dark lines against a dull sky. It towers in its own way over a lawn that isn’t trimmed regularly enough to suit some people, its wildness mirroring the patch of land in the distance – one that nature reclaimed in brambles and rhododendron from subdivided neighborhoods that encroach over the next few hills. For the last several years, this tree has taken to leaning there – perhaps an inch further every season. It still clings defiantly; reaching each cycle still rebellious leaves and roots in each direction.
Almost as annually, the question is raised as to why we don’t just do away with it. We have our memories of picnics and games played, parked cars kept cool in summer heat and fresh paint drying there in its shadow. We have just had the pictures framed from the anniversary party. Doesn’t our memory of it mean more than this oak, really?
It is out of place.
It defies gravity's pull and patience's expectation.
It grows old.
It threatens to fall.
The inevitable doesn’t need to be delayed.
I have lived now for nearly two years amidst towering things of a different kind. That askew tree symbolizes for me what New York will never capture. In its straight-line grids and steel beams and plotted parks, the wildness of the world is lost, the vitality. Manhattan, this concrete island, beats with an energy that is its own, sure, but it is not the rawness of that tree. There is a strange eccentricity, a delight in something that stands alone – ancient and new – that has battled wind and rain and time with casual indifference. There is an embodied history of change in its strange fortitude that unsays the boundaries of vague pastoral sentiments. A symbol that digs itself deeper, leaf fall that sheds meaning; a towering, a leaning trace that has known me longer than I have known myself but will cast off my presence as it did my great-grandfather, his father before him. It will cast off these words as overwrought, write new poems in fallen branches, whisper that I read too much Thoreau, too much Kephart as a child and new buds will sprout escaping me and my predictable sentimentalities – repetition and difference.
And someday too all that is distinctive and fragile and beautiful about that tree will be erased. My tree will collapse under the weight of its ages, one more winter too much. A hole will be filled in with dirt from elsewhere. Chainsaw cuts will be carted off to sit waiting in piles to become cinders and smoke, ashes to ashes. Memory to dust to warmed bodies to a bright, new spring. That hillside won’t be the same though when it goes, when we tidy up the damage that a century of tenacity finally concedes. Something fresh might just take root there again someday, but there is a truth that will not be lost: that the world will be less for the mystery that was it’s living.