For years, two dead pine trees have stood sentinel over the pond behind my house. The foliage long gone, all of the branches broken off, they have been simply two charred poles silhouetted against the blue sky. I don't know exactly when they were killed, but killed is what they were. Struck by lightning, they gave up all greenness, but not their spot in the soil.
I've used the trees to navigate my way back to the house after wandering in the woods. I've used them to navigate my faults while wandering around trying to figure out a complicated answer to a complicated question. They simply stood there, still and stalwart, as though working to remind me of something I couldn't remember.
A week or so ago, on one of the first afternoons that held a hint of fall, lured outside by a slightly cooler breeze and the angled light of late afternoon, I took a walk and, before realizing what I was seeing, came up on one of the dead trees, now fallen, shattered into pieces of various sizes and scattered across the path, soft and porous, spongy like Styrofoam. I stopped short and stared at the flattened skeleton, already dissolving into the earth.
My best guess is that the tree fell in the hurricane a few weeks ago. The wind was certainly stiff enough to have leveled my old friend. But it is also possible that a breeze far less significant forced the topple. There is no way to know.
I resumed my walk, moving slower than before, shuffling my feet just a little through the pusley and clover and nettle growing along the edge of the field, my mood suddenly sour. It took me a minute to realize why I had moved from lighthearted to sullen, why stumbling across the remains of the tree had left me pouty and vexed.
It is my nature to notice, to observe with curiosity, to watch attentively and, in the watching, attribute meaning. The beauty, the tenderness, the fragility of life demands – in my personal ethos – that we bear witness, that we remember, that we not forget. As the poet Maxine Kumin said, “It is important to act as is bearing witness matters.” The sight of the fallen tree was, then, an accusation, an undeniable charge that I had not paid attention. It had fallen without witness and it was grief that halted my steps, that forced a gasp from my chest.
I turned around and headed back, forced to pass again the fallen tree. “If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it still make a sound?” I considered the well-worn koan as I trudged ahead and found myself gritting my teeth and rolling my eyes at the revelation of the narcissism that made me think, if only for a moment, that I was the only worthy observer of these acres.
Just because I didn’t see or hear the tree’s fall does not mean it was unwitnessed. The gopher tortoise whose wide undulating tracks cross my own, the white-tailed deer whose tip-toes flit through the underbrush, the crow and the robin and the sparrow that balance themselves in the tall branches of the sycamore, they all are witnesses to the ecology of this place. They are all, in their own ways, rememberers.
Stepping carefully around the tree’s resting place, I can see that it has fallen toward the east, almost as though it knows something of human ways. Perhaps it does. Or, perhaps, they are the ways not just of humans, but of all who live and die and bear witness to the same.