To make a tree, begin with a straight line, vertical. On each side of the straight line add additional straight lines, shorter, at an angle. These are limbs. To the limbs add more straight lines, shorter still. These are branches. Continue in this manner until your tree is finished.
It is not difficult to master, this skill. It is, in fact, a near-universal one. Long before a child learns how to put together a particular combination of lines and squiggles to make his or her name, that child knows how to draw a tree. Soft fingers curl around a crayon, a Sharpie, a pencil fat as an over-ripe stalk of asparagus. A head bends low over paper. Any child can draw a tree.
I don't ordinarily think a lot about trees when I am within sight of the ocean. Trees belong to the land, my anchor. The ocean belongs only to itself, my compass. But tonight is different. Tonight I find myself hovering between the two.
I am on the north end of Jekyll Island. The moon is an eyelash away from full, though it is a little hard to tell. A veil of gauzy clouds makes it look as though someone has taken an eraser to its edges. The dusk is heavy with dampness from the day's rain, threatening to make it the evening’s. Along the dunes, the seagrass trembles in the slightest of breezes.
I am standing under a cluster of live oak trees. Stretching my neck to look up into the canopy they form over the wide green lawn, I notice that the trees — the ones whose very name distinguishes them from the ones I learned how to draw — every last one of them, have grown not straight and tall toward the sky, but curved in the direction of the ocean.
This is not a characteristic of the species. There are thousands of live oaks all over the South growing upright and unbent, like yardsticks and arrows and 2x4s. Planted somewhere else, the acorns that eventually became guardians of this island would have done the same. But they were planted here — by bird or man or God, who knows — where, from the moment the first tiny twig cracked the soil, the wind created by the ocean has pushed and pushed and pushed against the will that would grow them straight.
It is still light enough for me to see the way the branches curl around and around, back and forth, stretching up and out toward the ocean like words written in Arabic. I am both anxious and curious in my ignorance of what they say.
I've been here before, on this exact spot. I can see and hear and smell and taste all that I saw and heard and smelled and tasted. I can feel what I felt. I stand very still and I am back in that other time. There is another full moon; children are laughing; I am wearing a black and white dress; the breeze is pulling at my hair pinned up off my neck.
I take a deep breath and return to the present as the translation of the trees’ message moves through me like an electrical current: For hundreds of years we have felt the wind. For hundreds of years we have borne its force. For hundreds of years we have yielded to its strength, but we have never given in.
Across the way the waves slap at the shore and the needle of the compass quivers in delight.