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Poetry Prose and Other Words

by Ken Ingham

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A Tree Fell Between Us

It was on our thirty fifth wedding anniversary. We woke up in our traibin (half house trailor, half cabin) to a change of weather, cooler and windy. A dark purple overhead raised hopes of rain to end the dry spell, restore the ponds and recharge our spring. After coffee we went over to the edge of the woods by the back pond where a larger chunk of the sky could be observed. Two aluminum lawn chairs waited on their hanger, a broken branch on a small pine. We set them up on either side of a heavy flat stone on which I laid a peach and a plum that I had brought for a snack. Clouds stirred about as if a storm were brewing but they hadn't yet coalesced and the sun shone intermittently between them. The wind began to gust with such intensity that I wondered if it might not take down my favorite birding tree, a large old oak, still alive but struggling. Its top had died out and in its several remaining branches a redbelly, a nuthatch and possibly a flicker had nested last spring. It was tall enough that if it fell in our direction it would definitely reach us. But there were still plenty of healthy green leaves and I concluded that it was strong and healthy enough to withstand this wind. Even if it did fall it would probably be away from us, and if not, we would see it coming in time to move.

To witness such an event, the falling of a dead tree, would be a special treat for me, one who has written verses about dead trees falling. A couple of years ago I published a poem entitled Dead Wood in which I highlighted the valuable contributions that trees continue to make even after they die, and recently I’ve been working on a song that ends with this verse:

We need our old growth
Verdant and tall
So we can feel her spirit
Every time we get near it
Hear it call
Why don’t we let some trees die
and let them stand and say good bye
until they fall?
(doo doot n doo doo, d' doot n doo doo)

The natural falling of a dead tree has been witnessed by far fewer people than the deliberate felling of live ones. After all, who has time to sit and wait for a dead tree to fall of natural causes. Besides, in most neighborhoods, dead trees are about as common as vacant lots and are removed long before they fall; most are removed even before they die, because of threat of injury or property damage. Cavity nesters be damned.

But here in Briary Bottom, unless they happen to be close to someone’s cabin or to a telephone or power line, trees that die of natural causes are usually ignored. In my yard I attached cables to a couple of dead trees to prevent them from falling on the traibin thereby encouraging woodpeckers and other ant- and termite-eating birds to come and go frequently in easy view of our front porch. The probability that the tree would actually fall on me or one of my friends or loved ones was too remote to worry about. That was quite a few years ago and now the remains of those trunks decorate the yard, gradually decomposing, giving to the earth what they took from the sky. Pileated woodpeckers still include them in their grand rounds.

The wind continued to gust. I asked Glenda if she believed that the weather is controlled by a God or gods, I mean in a way that he/she/they, if angry, might actually decide to stir something up, get even with humanity for ignoring its humble origins or for having the chutzpah to claim to have been created in his image (well, half of us anyhow). Drought followed by high winds, rain and flooding for example -- we've had enough of both around here to develop some respect for the possibile consequences of climate change. Trees are dying right now for lack of sufficient moisture. On the other hand, properties fronting on the Cacapon River have sustained three major floods in the last decade, two within a six month period in 1995/96. Would God do that on purpose? We recalled that in earlier times people had multiple gods: rain gods, sun gods, gods of earth wind and fire. According to ancient mythology the gods competed with each other and used their powers to manipulate nature and through it their human subjects. We don't believe that anymore, even though we can't really prove otherwise.

The mountain to the east that helps define Briary Bottom has been scarred by new roads and rough-cut logging. Our spring water is threatened by the septic systems that are expected to follow. The number of adolescent trees killed or maimed by the careless and clumsy use of heavy machinery is even greater than the number of mature ones taken deliberately with the chain saw. If nature spirits have control of the weather, why don’t they turn their power against the forces that ravage the earth? Maybe they're trying to solicit my help, those voices that begin to grumble with such urgency inside my head whenever I witness the needless destruction of natural beauty. Lightning strike me if I continue to ignore them.

Eventually the wind diminished to a gentle breeze. Our thoughts and conversation turned to other subjects. Then we heard a sudden cracking noise, not the mere snapping of a twig under weight of deer or bear, but a heavy noise, a noise of substance, as when a large tree breaks and starts to fall. It was not the above- mentioned birding tree. The noise came from behind us and very close. We stood up and turned to see a tall dead tree falling directly toward us. I hollered at Glenda to move back in the opposite direction but she instinctively came toward me. We quickly moved together a few feet away, turning back in time to see the tree slip neatly between the several small pines (including the one where we stored our lawn chairs) that had concealed it from our view. A second later it crashed loudly on the ground and all was silent. We stood there looking at eachother and the tree, hearts pounding, knees trembling from the thud. Its branches reached all the way into the pond and its 14" diameter trunk rested heavily on the flat rock between our chairs. The peach was smashed but the plum was undisturbed.

I considered falling to my knees and making the sign of the cross or some other gesture if only I knew which one was appropriate. Had we not moved I likely would have witnessed the destruction of at least one of my sweet Glenda's legs. The tree missed her chair by only two inches sweeping through the space where her knees had been. Thank you nature spirits for your compassion.

After recovering from the initial shock we rearranged our chairs, making use of the fact that we now had a place to put our feet up off the ground. We couldn't help but wonder if there was a connection between this event and our previous conversations about God controlling the weather. It was spooky and Glenda was visibly shaken, so much so that she was suddenly over come with a post-traumatic dizziness and almost fainted. I urged her to bend over and breathe deeply through her nose which she did. For a moment her breathing appeared to stop, sending yet another bolt of fear through my body. I remember her fainting once before when overcome by severe back pain. I had panicked and called the rescue squad. Here in Briary Bottom the rescue squad is not so close at hand. "Are you ok?" I asked. She insisted that she was but showed no interest in sharing the plum with me.

We spent the rest of our anniversary appreciating nature and each other. I whispered many prayers of thanks and atonement to any and all gods who might be listening. We went to town for a nice dinner. That night we sat on the back porch and watched heat lightning discharge every few seconds for about an hour and wondered again about the meaning of it all.

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