Startled from winter’s dark torpor by a thump worthy of a Hagrid, we looked at each other and rose to face what waited outside in the night. The beam of our flashlights swept the path leading from the kitchen to the back garden and caught an opossum poised for escape. Fat though he was on grubs and bird seed, he was too pint-sized for a sound the magnitude we’d heard. Slipping to the kitchen’s side doors, John flipped on the light and aimed his torch down the walk, through the pergola to a scene straight out of our own personal Dark Forest. A cataclysmic force of nature as told by the Brothers Grimm, carrying with it a miracle, flawed but full of magic and grace. Slain by merciless rain and implacable gravity, a massive white oak tree slumped dying across a hundred feet of garden, its massive roots pawing at the wind on the other side of the creek. Its branches, broken and twisted, now lay at our feet, inches from the arbor clothed in ‘Polish Spirit’ longing for spring.
With only a whimper of light to mark our way, we passed down the length of our fallen oak. Out there in the dark, in the path of the great tree, lay the fate of others, wonders all, that I’d planted one by one over these last years. I swung the torch westward and illuminated the Magnolia ‘The Woodsman‘ its fattening buds trembling but intact. Feeling my way, I encountered the slender branches of the young Magnolia pyramidata, all there and accounted for. John swept his flashlight right, then left. The grove of cypress appear unscathed. At last I turned east and looked for the winter bones of my Hovenia dulcis, my Japanese Raisin tree, bought in part for the poetry of its name, and found it still whole and beautiful in this its seventh year. I exhaled. On the way back, I almost stumbled over a small Cryptomeria japonica ‘Black Dragon’, wounded, mutilated – this miracle’s dusky side.
Before surrendering to the torrential storms of this past chaotic winter, the oak had clung to the lowest slope of a wooded hillside that climbed at a roller coaster pitch, teaching a lesson in the tenacity of trees. With the onset of the colder months, the sun sinking ever lower in the sky skirted the ridge line, flashing through the forest of beech, oak, poplar and redbud in a teasing memory of summer and a promise of spring. Along with me the trees dwell in a season of gloom. I wonder if they dread it as I do.
This land has been farmed for close to two-hundred years, tilled first by a moldboard plow behind a team of mules. In the first half of the previous century, mechanization arrived in the hills of Tennessee and a Ford 8N began the circuit of this particular three-acre parcel – year after year – forming a berm like a cresting wave along the creek bank. Thirty feet to the north, the land begins a gentle slope skyward, turning a worn out tobacco field into a swamp.
Our first year we cut drainage ditches that silted full by autumn. We dug again year two. Year three found me standing in water lapping over the toes of my Wellies, contemplating removing the “lip” from three-hundred feet of creek bank bordering the worst of the flooded area. There, fueled by aggravation, bloomed an epiphany. I’d plant Taxodium distichum, a reminder of a childhood spent playing in the cypress bogs of my deeper south.
We planted eight – bareroot, four feet tall. Topping eight feet by their fourth year in the ground, they were already making a difference, their roots soaking up excess water. After a rain days of standing water turned into a few hours. We planted another eight two years ago.
Now on either side of the downed oak, our grove of beautiful cypress trees stood firm – trunks spreading like buttresses, “knees” popping up around them.
Making hay while the sun shone, John revved up the chain saw and cut the oak trunk and larger branches into eight foot sections, stacking the kindling-sized debris in temporary piles for the wrens, chickadees and finches to enjoy. From the confusion of branches, I eyeballed a selection, four to five-inches in diameter, and rolled them into the edging divots I’d made along the garden where I’d extended the beds – yet again. Contributing even in death, the oak would last until I could come up with a more permanent solution, leaving behind its spirit as compost for the soil.
Connecting the ancient roadbed across the creek to the cypress grove on this side, the last of the great tree rests. Almost three feet in diameter, it will remain. A bridge to the other side.
Taxodium distichum – http://www.coldstreamfarm.net
Hovenia dulcis – http://www.forestfarm.com