By Jefferson Weaver
I’m no forester, but I think the old tree has seen a lot.
It’s thicker than pines I know to be 75 years old. I knew the man who planted those particular trees, as his father had before him, creating a forest that one would expect to see in Heaven. Unlike that cathedral-like forest, this tree has never had someone to lovingly, carefully nurture it. Instead it has survived a lightning strike (or two) two car crashes (one fatal, that I know of) and a legion of ice storms, hurricanes and other calamities. It’s not quite old enough to show the boxing that bled golden rosin from its forbearers, but hack scars wouldn’t be out of place farther up the trunk, history carried along as the tree continued its journey skyward.
Were trees able to talk – a silly concept, but one must sometimes embrace whimsical what-ifs – this one might be able to share the stories of its ancestors, before the rich flow of a pine tree’s lifeblood fueled an industry that towered over the tobacco and cotton of later years.
Life was never easy in the deep woods. If trees could talk, when the tree was a
sapling reaching for the sky, this stubborn old pine might have heard tales of the
times when the Cape Fear, the Woccons and the Waccamaws, all Siouan cousins, wandered the trails along the brownwater creek a few yards away, the native children themselves hearing tales of when the woodland bison and great wolves still roamed.
There were great wildfires then that burned for hundreds of miles, rejuvenating the soil even while some trees fell and the humans fled. There were occasional Occaneechi raids even this far south back then, as well as trading along the Great Green Path to the west, and along the banks of the Cape Fear.
The first Europeans through here were likely some of the far-reaching Spaniards, since the Cape Fear is only a long day’s march from the stubborn old tree. The Spaniards came up this far, but they didn’t stay. It was another hundred years before the first stubborn Scots came, bringing steel tools, tapping some trees for resin, using the froe and the broadaxe and saw pit to convert others into lumber for homes, bringing the forest into submission one axe stroke at a time.
A generation later, those same Scots found themselves fighting with and against
their neighbors, as a country was born. The road past where the tree now stands was a busy one, and there were a few skirmishes amongst this pine’s ancestors, somewhere near the creek, but those shots in anger have long since passed into misty memory to all but a few with a passion for the times forgotten. The grandsons and great-grandsons of those long-buried combatants passed along the road in a later quest for freedom, in another war that pit brothers and neighbors against each other.
The tree is roughly halfway between the creek and the crest of a small rise, which is home to a small church with a larger cemetery. The church was built when much of the forest had been cleared for crops; through the years people died and argued and went bankrupt and got greedy, so some of the fields went fallow, then became forest again. About the time this tree was a sapling, the woods were deep and dark again between the creek and the church. Those woods were haunted, according to legend, but I personally think those legends were just the product of minds as fertile as the surrounding fields – or the ghosts were strategically created to keep the superstitious away from a liquor still along the creek.
The tree would have been just barely big enough to act as a boundary marker when the first generation of machines came, cutting and harvesting and clearing, longleaf pines falling to become feed for hungry sawmills producing homes and furniture for the parents of the Baby Boom. The land around the tree had another use for a while, as testified to by the rusted strands of hogwire stapled to the trunk and long since half-eaten by the infinite patience of a stubborn old tree.
Again, I am no forester or arborist, but I am willing to bet the tree stood alone when it was first struck by lightning. The scar has long since lost the charcoal that remained in the cut, and in healing the tree took on a bit of a twist about midway up.
The blemish may indeed have spared the tree from what was to come.
Eventually the land was returned to trees. The commercial pines that matured at a time when timber prices were skyrocketing, and even the gum and poplar, hickory and oaks were desperately needed for furniture, pulp and diaper fluff. The new generation of heavy machines came then, unfeeling tools undreamt of by the earlier generations that sawed and chopped and snaked four-foot logs by hand, mule, snorting Fordson tractor and dented trucks with sketchy brakes. They quickly and efficiently reduced the stubborn trees neighbors and descendants to mere carcasses.
The wettest, boggiest areas along the creek were left with a bare handful of cypress and water oak (likely due to the vigilance of the landowner).
As they did when the forests burned centuries before, the grey and fox squirrels,
deer, coons, and woodpecker all fled, leaving the cutover to the coyotes, rabbits and birds. Possums being eminently adaptable, some of them likely remained behind.
And once again, the stubborn tree was left alone.
It will never catch the eye of a logger, what with its twists and turns and scars. It’s far enough off the road to avoid the highway department hazard crews, but I am sure that someday there will be one more lightning strike, one more storm, or even one more flying automobile that spells the end for the old tree.
Until then, in a moment of whimsy, I’ll think about how if the old tree could talk,
what stories its growth rings could tell to the pine saplings that even now are
fighting through the sawgrass and scrub to someday stand tall enough to reach the sky.