Like all good trees, it once held a swing. Like all good trees, it was climbed by multiple generations of children daring themselves to be brave. Like all good trees, it offered lush shade in summer. And like all good trees, it could not live forever.
The tree, a white oak, was already over a hundred years old when we moved to the farm. It dominated the front yard of the house into which we moved. The thousands of acorns it dropped each fall fed the squirrels and gave our feet stone bruises well into November. Its branches arced over the dirt road and in its shadow we sat on the tailgates of pickup trucks to pull peanuts off their velvety green vines.
Neighbor farmers parked their own trucks in that cool, breezy spot and leaned on the hoods — fertilizer caps tilted up just a little so as to see each others’ faces — telling tales, speculating on the harvest and holding the world in place.
And, then, one day, one of its limbs, thick and muscled like the arm of some giant pulpwooder, gave in to the wind of a summer storm. Daddy dragged it off. A few years later, a tornado that the National Weather Service never did acknowledge tore off another big limb. Daddy hooked one end of a chain to the John Deere and the other to the limb and dragged it off. And, then, last week, sometime deep in the night when the remnants of Hurricane Nicole swept through Adabelle, the last big limb ripped itself from the trunk and fell to the ground, amazingly missing the house.
Sometimes you just have to admit that there’s nothing left to save, so my brother called a tree man who came out to take a look and confirm what we already knew, that the tree, with nothing but one spindly limb left, had to go. He said he’d be back in a few days.
I long ago stopped being amazed by the breadth of things that can break my heart. The episode of “Little House on the Prairie” about the black child who wasn’t allowed to go to school. The fire that destroyed the original Statesboro High School building on College Street. The softness of my sweet Ginny’s golden fur and the whisper of her last breath as the vet’s thumb pressed the plunger on a hypodermic needle. The long walk down the center aisle following a casket out into the sunshine.
I’ve stopped being amazed, but the heartbreak is always just as raw. And it is now. Now that the tree has fallen.
According to the formula of the International Society of Arborculture, the tree was over 180 years old. It grew from an acorn that fell, was planted, somehow found its way into the dirt before Walt Whitman wrote “Leaves of Grass,” before New Mexico and Arizona were states, before Henry Clay even thought of the Missouri Compromise. Hard to imagine.
The tree man (heretofore to be known to me as “the tree undertaker”) came back. With three or four other men and a bucket truck and saws big enough to scare anybody, he took it down. I wasn’t home at the time, but when I returned I stopped to take a look, take a picture, take stock.
In the center of the stump, around which was scattered sawdust the color of early corn, was a hole. A dark, ragged hole. The heart of the tree had rotted away.
It is always the case that rot begins on the inside. That decay spreads from the center. And that, as I mourn the loss of the tree, I would do well to remember what took it down.