Oaks against the sky,
Ramparts of leaves high-hurled,
Staunch to stand and defy
All the winds of the world;
Stalwart and proud and free,
Firing the man in me
To try and again to try –
Oaks against the sky.
– Excerpt from Trees Against The Sky,
Poem by Robert William Service
It’s not a good idea to fall in love with a guy whose favorite book is the dictionary. This thought occurred to me today when I perused my 1995 10th Edition of Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, which I would prefer over using the Internet to look up words, but my eyes can’t take it.
I felt something like comedic irony when I saw her inscription to me in this dictionary, my Good Book, a gift on the third anniversary of our first date.
That relationship brought me to the brink of swearing off women forever. After dalliances since then, I’m now so selective, it’s as good as having sworn off them. I won’t deny the possibility of someone coming along to inspire a romance that makes people dismissive of Tristan and Isolde, or that inspires me to write an eternally classic novel about civil war, bells tolling, and earth-moving sex. (Hemingway, you delightful madman.) Still, she won’t lure me away from Balsamea, or get me to abandon my little Defiant Oak tree.
I met Defiant Oak as a seedling, with just a few leaves, in 2005 or 2006. It was within an area I was clearing in or around Camp Balsamea, long before Balsamea had a house. I don’t have a picture of Defiant before 2013 when it came to the front yard of the house.
I do remember that when I saw the seedling, I did not see just a seedling. I saw flaming red oak leaves on a mature tree planted in a conspicuous place, living “forever” with the history, “This was a seedling at the birth of Balsamea.”
At the time, I could not know where to plant it. It was too soon for that. I could not leave it where I found it, either. That was where I intended to park the car at the entrance to the campsite. I planted it next to a big rock protruding from the ground, to protect it from my big feet and car tires.
I LOVE A TREE
by Samuel N. Baxter
When I pass to my reward.
Whatever that may be,
I’d like my friends to think of me
As one who loved a tree.
I may not have a statesman’s poise
Nor thrill a throng with speech
But I may benefit mankind
If I set out a beech.
If I transport a sapling oak
To rear its mighty head
Twill make for them a childhood shrine,
That will not soon decay.
Or if I plant a tree with fruit,
On which the birds may feed,
Then I have fostered feathered friends
And that’s a worthy deed.
For winter when the days grow short
And spirits may run low
I’d plant a pine upon the scape
T’would lend a cheery glow.
I’d like a tree to mark the spot
Where I am laid to rest
For that would be the epitaph
That I would like the best.
Tho it’s not carved upon a stone
For those who come to see
But friends would know that resting there
Is he, who loved a tree.
As the years rolled by, I was too busy, unwise, or obsessed with other things to give the oak a better home. I noticed how it did not grow much because the deer kept chomping it back every spring. As with so many little oaks here, it grew like a witches’ broom, a tangled mess of little branchlets never living to become branches. Worse, because of me it now grew against the side of a rock.
(That “rock” is the tip of an iceberg, like so many of our rocks here. You don’t move it. You live with it.)
[Click any image to enlarge and/or post comments on it.]
Still, its unruly appearance reflected a feisty attitude toward its assailants and jailer. Every summer it flourished despite spring’s deer assaults. It defiantly produced many happy, healthy leaves, on more branchlets every year. The deer were not killing it. They were making it tougher, though in a tortured geometric shape.
Finally, in 2013, three years after the house arose from the earth, I looked guiltily at this defiant oak, and decided I owed it a better home, and a prominent one, in the yard in the middle of the front of the house, where I could see it from the kitchen and living room windows.
It was about three feet tall when I dug it out. What a back-busting job that was! You’d think it had grown INTO the rock!
I feared that I hacked up the roots so badly it would not survive the transplant. But this is my DEFIANT Oak.
It laughs at adversity, giggles in a 70 mph wind, and dares deer to browse its buds. Living out in the open, in non-sheltered places that take the full force of storm winds, it survived three devastating storms in 2012 and 2013, and an ice storm in December 2014 that laid three inches of ice here that stayed all winter.
This Defiant Oak whistles at whatever wickedness Boreas has to throw at it. It is an inspiration, as Robert William Service said of his oaks against the sky (see top of this post).
I am always amazed to notice how leaves stay on trees despite fierce winds whipping them so hard you’d think they would shred to bits.
Tree at my window, window tree,
My sash is lowered when night comes on;
But let there never be curtain drawn
Between you and me.
– Excerpt from Tree at My Window by Robert Frost
I always wanted to put a tree there, within view from the windows. It would have been a cluster of beautiful, big white birch that lived there before building the house, but I forgot to tell the builder to preserve them. Chances are it would have been very difficult to do that, because of their position relative to the space needed by the crane to swing in the two halves of the modular house.
It is an ideal place for a deciduous tree. I would not put a pine, spruce or fir there. In its naked winter state, an oak does not interfere with that being a key location in the snow-throwing strategy here. And I don’t want a front yard full of evergreen needles. Acorns, yes.
By the way, this looks like a good mast year for some of the mature oaks in the Balsamea woods. I gathered these today. I will cast them into formerly mowed areas that I’m allowing to become reforested.
Is it just me, or do these look like something just begging to be eaten? Don’t try it. Yech.
I have been a tree amid the wood
And many a new thing understood
That was rank folly to my head before.
– Excerpt from The Tree, poem by Ezra Pound
In summer, it will give shade to the front yard — eventually — which is also the windiest part of the property. The due east-west alignment of the driveway, combined with the big open space on the other side of the road (west), make the driveway like a wind tunnel bringing the prevailing westerly winds into the front yard. Defiant Oak will have to stay staked vertical until its trunk hardens. Choosing that place, I foresaw sitting in the windy shade of my oak.
Wind and shade are two of my best friends among the six outdoor allies tending my limited tolerance for heat and sun. The other four are clouds, rain, cold and night. I find a good naked walk in a furious thunderstorm’s deluge as therapeutic for mind and body as anybody’s two thousand dollar hot tub (and I’ve been in a few).
When I transplanted the little oak to the front yard, I pruned it back to one stem about two-thirds of its original height, and took off all the wild, tangled branches. This “stick” is how it started in its new home.
Defiant? It grew wonderfully despite my hacking away at its roots and branches, and after neglecting it for several years planted against a rock and letting the deer gnaw away at it every spring.
Never mind those five-gallon buckets in the picture above. They were other botanical experiments, none of which worked. They give a nice size reference for the tree as it stood upon transplant.
My father planted in me the seed of taking joy in planting a tree and watching it grow over the years. Everywhere we lived he planted trees. My earliest recollection of his tutoring on how to plant a tree dates to around the age of nine, at our house on Carnation Avenue. This particular memory is about a certain deciduous tree in the front yard, not far out from the front door. I don’t know, but I’m guessing it was a maple.
Strange how some memories just stick firmly. This one brings me an almost palpable experience of handling peat moss and the shovel and the hose, with Dad explaining and coaching. As I recall, he left it to me to water the tree daily until it got settled in its new home. I have a vague notion that it was from Dad that I first heard this Joyce Kilmer poem.
by Joyce Kilmer
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
That reminds me of one of my first tastes of cultural gender bias. It was around that same time, maybe a year or so later, when my parents entrusted me with the great mantle of unsupervised lawn mowing, which became one of my routine Saturday chores (throw me in that briar patch). My two sisters’ Saturday chores remained entirely indoors.
I think it was my younger sister — very near me in age — who complained, “How come he gets to go outside and mow the lawn and we have to stay in here and work?” Or some such wording.
If I recall correctly, and I hope someone will correct me if this is not right, my mother replied, “Because he’s a boy.”
It was a little strange because my mother could and would do anything a man could do, and much of it better, as long as she was physically capable of it. She certainly set an example for female operation of a lawn mower.
At that same house, she helped us clear a little play space around the base of a certain tree in the woods, off the northeast corner of the yard. In flip-flops and housecoat, she went in there with the lawn mower to do the last clearing of the ground. Sticks and leaves and duff and all sorts of forest floor stuff shot out from all over the mower in a cloud. I was impressed.
It’s another one of those visceral memories. The impression still speaks to me, and I can almost taste the dust and hear the mower chopping away with that crashing kind of sound it makes going through things like that.
At least that’s the way I remember it. I know memory can be a liar, but it’s the honest way I remember it. I like the story and I’m sticking to it.
No wonder I have this thing about making nice little hangout spaces in the woods when inspired by a certain tree or lack thereof.
The kinds of connections with the ground I grew up with, exemplified by parents and encouraged by the immersion of our homes in woods, made possible my existence as The Balsamean. Life as The Balsamean began in the womb, not just in this past decade. (May 23, 2015 was Balsamea’s 10th birthday.)
by Wendell Berry
I part the out thrusting branches
and come in beneath
the blessed and the blessing trees.
Though I am silent
there is singing around me.
Though I am dark
there is vision around me.
Though I am heavy
there is flight around me.
From Collected Poems, 1957-1982. North Point Press, New York (1985). This poem first appeared in A Part (1980)
I enjoy mowing. It’s that kind of work that gives you instant gratification every step of the way. You’re continually looking at what you just accomplished a moment ago as you press on to do it again. The loud droning of the mower blocking out everything else, and the careful, focused attention you’re giving the task with your muscles and eyes, the steady-paced walking, combine to create a meditative environment. It makes me think now of Kay Gardner’s Drone Zone / Healing Music CD, something I cherish so much I bought two extra copies in case it would go out of print before I found the right people to give it to as gifts. (It is an old work, and Gardner has died.) One has been given, and a second one is going to go soon, to someone I just learned has an interest in sound therapy.
I mow about an acre in scattered pieces with a 21″ push mower, not self-propelled. I mow to grow.
By June 15, 2014 (above left), it was not bigger, but rapidly on its way, with three more months in the growing season. There’s how it looked relative to the house. I see it taller than the house before long, and a little redwood picnic table in its late afternoon shade.
Fourteen months later, in mid-August 2015, Defiant had grown to nearly double its June 2014 height. It looks narrow here, viewed from south to north. Viewed from the east, things are a little different, and now I’m using a bigger measuring stick, the last measure of all things Balsamean!
So it’s as big as me now. Sooner than you think, it will be as big as the house. (Yeah, it is a little house.) Here’s the annual comparison with the house:
My heart is glad, my heart is high
With sudden ecstasy!
I have given back, before I die,
Some thanks for every lovely tree
That dead men grew for me.
– V. H. Friedlaendeer
It will remain tied to that stake until the trunk is strong enough not to bend with the west winds howling in from the driveway. After that, I’ll continue pruning the downwind branches until the tree is too big to do that without a ladder except for the lowest branches. Then it will do whatever it wants to do on its own.
I shot the above picture at 10:26 AM on August 13. Notice that it casts a shadow bigger than the chair’s?
Within a week, at 9:13 AM on my birthday, with a sunny sky and breezy air, I tested Defiant for my dream seat in the shade and its ideal windiest place in the yard.
Hey, the size of this shade fits me even better than the kiddie pool for summer refreshment and relaxation! Maybe next time I’ll show you the crude way a Balsamean has a picnic on the grass in the shade. (You may recognize this “pool attire” from Oak Trilogy Part 1. I shot this picture on the same day.) Hmm. I could move the pool to Defiant’s late afternoon shade. It has to be moved frequently, anyway, so it doesn’t create a “crop circle.”
The following bit of verse is on an index card on my refrigerator. It’s been there a very long time, but it is not overlooked automatically like other things that stay there a long time. I often recite it from memory, any time, anyplace, but especially in the woods.
And this our life,
Exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees,
Books in running brooks,
Sermons in stones,
And good in everything.
– William Shakespeare, As You Like It
I am my best self in the forest. The tongues in trees say so. Imagine how incredibly lucky I am to LIVE in the forest, exempt from public haunt.
I would love to close this 3,000-word tome with some brilliant, unforgettable line. Got one?
In Oak Tree Trilogy Part 3 coming soon, you will meet a baby oak with just its first seven leaves transplanted to the yard this month (8/2015) from a unique place in the woods, in a special ceremonial way. You’re going to like it better than this post. I promise.