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Speaking for a Friend

by Charles C. Cole

My best friend, a nameless eastern white pine, is Brobdingnagian and silent as my mother’s idiomatic way of cursing. She is maybe forty feet into the woods, beyond our disused horse paddock and collapsed run-in barn. I spot her from the state highway down the hill, on my approach home from work or errands, as she pokes her head up above her brethren. I see her watching and waiting for my return.

We first connected the day of my father’s funeral. Though it was emotional to commune with rarely-seen relatives, they were in fact entirely too chatty for me, neither quiet nor reverent. They joked, teased and even shoved one another, like awkward boys at their first junior high dance. I suspect Mom needed the high-energy distraction, rather than morosely staring out the sliding patio door in her dining room worrying about balancing her checkbook for the first time. But I longed for brief, superficial closed-eye hugs and calm.

After a late lunch at my mother’s crowded house, I stepped out to fix her toppled gray plastic birdbath, then sneaked away for some fresh air. I found myself walking through Mom’s expansive pine woods, with only an occasional fern for undergrowth, all the way to my house, some quarter-mile distant.

As I stopped to make my way between the strands of loose white monofilament fencing around the overgrown horse pen, I reached out blindly to steady myself with my open hand against the trunk of the nearest tree, and I missed! I half-spun, or wound downward, catching the center of my back against what I originally considered indifferent, unforgiving bark.

I was embarrassed and angry and mildly stunned. But mostly angry. I momentarily considered grabbing the eveready chainsaw in the basement and taking justifiable revenge. Then I started crying, the sloppy torrent usually reserved for the loss of a favored pet. But I still smiled because I was so happy to be away from all the human noises. Here among the ancient, guardian trees, even though I was aware of the constant hum of the distant highway traffic, I was smothered in nonjudgmental near-silence.

I began to appreciate the selfless support pressing against my shoulders. I looked up at the majesty of a towering eastern white pine. I thought about the tree’s age, how much it had witnessed. The state tree (since 1945) has been documented to live up to 450 years, with an average death coming around 200 years.

I live on the edge of ancestral family land. This tree, if imagined with sentinel eyes, could have witnessed my great-grandfather as a teen walking home from the boarded up one-room schoolhouse on Highland Cliff Road.

We have long, mossy stone walls in our sylvan paradise, like the remnant foundations of a lost society, gathered by colonial farmers to mark their territory and make room for growing crops. This land was once covered with working fields and wide pre-industrial landscape, before technology and cars led to commuting to mechanized work. This tree survived the burnings and the clearing, the slaughter, not to mention countless windstorms and nearby lightning strikes.

She therefore deserved — and deserves — my unconditional respect.

She? My father had many talents, including charismatic public speaking and building houses, but hugging his children was not one of them. I stood, looked around to make sure nobody was watching, and I hugged this behemoth like a needy toddler clinging to his mother’s calves. To my surprise and relief, I experienced her strength, felt her peace fill my hollow bones. She, wordlessly, took my anxiety from me like a massage therapist displacing stiffness. I immediately felt renewed, if temporarily.

How had I missed this resource before? Sure, Dad had trained me to cut firewood. (He could also fell a tree in the precise direction predicted, like calling which pocket the eight ball will drop into at the end of a pool game.) Thankfully, we almost always harvested hardwood, denser and therefore longer-burning, though it had to season over several months in the stacked woodpile. Sure, we had brought down a pine or two, but only the standing dead, something paper-dry, bug-free and quick to ignite, kindling to encourage the introverted deciduous mafia.

She’s not perfect. She’s embarrassingly top-heavy, lists to the south, is glaringly asymmetrical. She’s been known to creak and/or groan on even mild-weathered days. And, come to think of it, she’s less than abundant with her annual droppage of cones. But she’s vigilant and mostly uncomplaining.

I allow her space, aware not to make daily visits. I don’t inundate her with my tactile demands. A few times a month. Often not at all during winter. When my mother died. When my cat died. When my manager gave me my first bad annual review. When my manager gave me my second bad annual review. When my daughter had a car accident. She weathers all my tragedies well.

One day, I heard distinctive rapping in the woods and tracked down a pileated woodpecker picking at her scars. I yelled and it flew away. Will she outlive me or I, her?

I know, as I glance at her from our side porch, on my way to the car and the city, she has given back her fair share. No, she is not adapt at fighting climate change. Our broadleaved oak and maple manage that front, generating proportionately more photosynthesis. But she is the grande dame of the forest. How many of the smaller trees gathered under her canopy blossomed from her seeds?

So, thank you, old friend. I’m glad we didn’t have the woods clear-cut for mere money and future lumber. Times are hard, in so many ways, but I will stand by you as you have always stood by me.

Copyright © 2020 by Charles C. Cole

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