“Since thou wasn’t precious in my sight, thou hast been honorable, and I have loved thee.” Isaiah 43:
The heartbeat of America is not really found on interstate highways…rather on softly winding dirt roads, or gentle voices that ring out from small church congregations; the laughter of children, the toiling of a bell. There are wide green days, milky nights, tall majestic trees…There is a strong pulse beating in these lands we call home. And all we need do is pause and listen.
It was a typical North Carolina January day, heavy and gray with a sky that whispered rain. The man, maybe in his nineties: reached down and gently touched the tree’s massive trunk. He rubbed his hands over the moist pinkish white rings that marked so well the years and times of this ancient oak.
His strong features made him appear somewhat bleak; with his arched nose, generous mouth and square Scottish jaw. As he examined the tree, (oh, so carefully,) his expression became sadder, and his mouth pulled tightly at the corners, hinting more strongly at his age. A trace of veins, mapped the hollows of his cheeks. He let his breath out slowly, and shook his head. It was easy to read the gravity on his face, for, he was above all a sensitive man, and his feelings always spilled close to the surface.
Peering intently, he traced the rings marking the oak’s huge trunk. It was an old, old tree, older by far than himself. Nature…..it had always humbled him.
As a boy, he had climbed, played, swung from sturdy branches; slept away hot summer days dreaming under its vast canopy of cooling shade. He had spent many school days studying beneath the tree’s large branches. As a man he had often come to the oak: no longer to play or study, but to sit and contemplate and make as much of the seasons as the oak seemed to make of them.
A storm had stuck the fatal blow. A lightning strike, a single lightning strike had wounded it terribly. The lightning left a jagged scar several yards long on the trunk, cutting cruelly into its damp flesh. So, the tree would have to come down. For the life of him, he could not remember making a harder decision. Already, he felt the aching loss.
The oak had always been there for him. Somehow in his mind it had brought him closer to God. The ‘meaning of life?’ Well, this old oak breathed more about life than most humans knew. It had brought him more peace at times than his family, and that was a hard thing for a man to admit. But, that was the way it was.
When the war had ended for him in ’45, and he had finally come home, weak in spirit, weary of mind, sick to death of the killing and dying; searching for answers in his nightmarish nights, the old tree had somehow soothed his wounded soul and eased the pain from his mind, until he was fit to face his life again.
His children and now his grandchildren and great-grandchildren had scampered up its massive trunk and hidden in its thick canopy of branches, playing the special games children play. Dreaming and smiling to themselves just the way he had.
The tree echoed with secrets. It had harbored giggling girls, mischievous boys, and generations of picnics. It had listened silently to the bitterness and pledges of undying love. It made no judgments, this faithful friend.
Ah, it was a very old tree. So old that when this land had trembled with the violence of the War Between the States, it was but a sapling, innocently struggling to grow in desperate times. By the end of the Reconstruction, the oak had finally begun taking on size and strength and was firmly rooted in the rich, Carolina soil. Only disease, fire, violent storms, or the axe might have brought it to its knees.
In the early 1880’s, his papa had come to this land; built his first humble house near the oak, as if to somehow share in its strength and protection. Garfield was president then. The old oak had gone through hard times and good times, fought years of the boil weevil….droughts and floods. It had witnessed weddings, births, and last goodbyes. It was the heartbeat of this land. He would miss it. His world, (he almost cried aloud) would be less without it.
He remembered when they had read a passage in Papa’s will that had sought to protect the beloved tree forever. “In consideration of the great love I bear for this tree” he wrote, “and the great desire I have for its protection for all time, I convey to it entire possession of itself and all land on 8 feet of the tree on all sides.” When, many years later, he had become owner of the house and the tree, he understood what his papa felt, and he too vowed to preserve it forever. Now, it seemed, forever had come to an end.
For a few moments in time on that January afternoon, the only sounds were the murmurings of the pines and the gentle sighing of the dying oak. The old man wrapped his strong arms protectively around the trunk, and rested his head. Soon now, soon, the tree would be no more. Part of his history would be no more. It was the end of an era.
The life of an oak, the numbered years of a man, and the secrets buried in this southern soil shared a common bond, a past rich with whispered memories.
He knew, of course what he had to do. Future generations deserved no less. He would plant another, he had an obligation. There must always be an oak.
He wiped his eyes hard on his shirt sleeve.
Yes, he would plant another……
Micki Cottle is a member of the Sampson County Historical Society and was a long-time columnist for The Sampson Independent, who still contributes writings from time to time.