For the 67th time National Arbor Day has slipped by me unnoticed. I can’t remember anything going on April 24 that was more important than sitting in the shade of an old oak tree or climbing in its branches. In spite of annually missing Arbor Day, the way I look at trees has changed over the years.
I worked for a gyppo logger for my first job out of high school. A logger views trees kind of like a cannibal looks at missionaries. However, with the influence of literature, nostalgia, and maturity, I have developed a real affinity for these wooden friends. I can only recall having cut down one tree since my logging days and that was done reluctantly.
The way I look at trees began to change when I read Robert Frost’s “Birches:” “When I see birches bend to the left and right/Across the lines of straighter darker trees, /I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.” (It’s worth looking up the poem and reading the whole thing.) The poem makes me think of my own childhood uses of trees. First of all, trees were the jungle gym of nature’s playground, especially broad leaf trees. A boy could prove how high and fast he could climb. “Hey guys, look at me.”
If it was an apple tree, it produced ammunition for childhood warfare. The apple trees stir one of my fondest memories. A boy can’t wait for the apples to turn red before eating them and too many green apples lead to a bedtime belly ache. While I lay in bed crying and whimpering with an aching stomach, my father would slip into my room and rub my tummy with his rough, working man’s hands until the ache would subside and I could fall asleep. It is still the most powerful image I have of my father. Even today, I can’t resist candy with a green apple flavor.
A tree always made a good home base for a game of hide-and-seek or a hiding place in a game of the kick the can on a dark night. It was also a place to cobble together a club house from scraps of lumber high in its branches.
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy we meet Mr. Treebeard, a walking, talking tree. It has been years since I read about the Hobbits, Treebeard, and other such fantasy characters. But, having met Treebeard, a walk in the woods has never been the same. I half expect the trees to talk and maybe even move around a bit. And though that is not going to happen, it is not hard now to imagine that trees too have a bit of personality.
Harry Middleton, in “The Earth is Enough,” also expresses a fondness for trees. Albert and Emerson are a couple of old brothers who live on a farm in the Ozarks. They cultivate just enough of the farm to provide for their immediate needs and leave the rest of it alone. It bugs the community that they pretty much let the farm go fallow while they spend their time fly fishing. It particularly bugs Durham, the county extension agent, who can’t stand to see farm land go uncultivated. He is trying to persuade the brothers to log off all their trees and plant their land to cash crops.
About the trees, Albert says, “They belong here. … They shade the creek, keep the trout cool. Hawks use them, too. And owls. And turkeys. Nearly every creature on the place, really. Why would we want to cut them down?”
I am not opposed to using trees as I also enjoy fine things made of wood, including a wine glass wherry I made a few years ago, or the teardrop camper I made to tow behind my motorcycle. However, I have come to feel that no tree should be cut down wantonly.
I remember one time reading a statement by a psychologist who said we should all get our feet off the pavement once in a while for the sake of our mental health. That sounds like a walk in the woods to me. One of my favorite such walks is found in the W.B. Brewer Wildlife Management Area out of Beech Grove at the end of County Road 131. As I walk down this trail which follows a ridge, I almost expect Treebeard to talk to me. However, just the wind passing through the trees is therapeutic enough. It is the trees which make the walk a healthy experience.
I can’t imagine a world without trees. They are there for the kids, a sort of jungle gym on nature’s playground, to provide ammunition for childhood wars, to maintain health for stressed out adults, and to provide for the animals. I’m sorry I let another Arbor Day slip by without celebrating trees, but I’ll try to do better next year. Maybe I’ll even be back in physical shape so I can actually climb one again.