Imagine being a very big tree, a mighty red oak. You have been standing in your same spot on a Virginia hillside for a very long time, say, at least a hundred years. You are part of a forest, not a national park or anything so grand, just a peaceful forest not terribly far from the Blue Ridge Mountains. You grew strong over the years, pushed your way ever higher toward the sun.
Ah, the sun, the seasons. Bask. Bask.
When you were about 50, some humans came to the site to build a house, but you survived this possible demise because of being just far enough away from the spot they decided was best. They put a utility pole fairly near you, but its inanimate state was uninteresting, and you said Paugh, who cares about that?
When you were about 90 and towering proudly among your adjacent tree-fellows, another risk came along, another building project, a cottage this time, but your majestic canopy and the glorious shade it provided these new humans saved you. You said to the young beech trying to grow right next to you, I’m feeling a mite weak in the joints, little fella, but don’t get any ideas about taking this spot. I’ve been here a long time. No offense, but it’s mine.
Wind. It comes, it blows.
The sound of a tree-fellow nearby crashing to the ground during a storm always adds to the drama of the day, always causes you to ponder your own strength and good fortune. You tell yourself that if you were not meant to become the mightiest grandfather in this neck of the woods, you would have fallen already. Some tree has to become the giant among giants – it might as well be you. Then one spring day that blasting wind comes again, and in one super painful stroke, your hugest north-pointing limb lets go at the joint, its weight bringing it instantly to the forest floor below and leaving a massive, open, splintery wound on your side.
The humans come and inspect. They bring other humans to come and inspect. They all shake their heads and use words like risky, problem and electrocution. Electrocution? They point to that inanimate pole that’s closer than it used to be… or, oh, maybe you’re just bigger than you used to be. No! you want to say to them. Don’t worry! I am still strong! I can stand another fifty years! You are a little like Mike Mulligan, who used to say about Mary Anne (his steam shovel) that “she could dig as much in a day as a hundred men could dig in a week.” In this classic children’s book, Mike’s assertion is always followed by “but he had never been quite sure that this was true.”
You are not quite sure that you will not fall one day and hit the cable coming off that pole. You cannot be sure. The humans cannot be sure. As they walk away, you want to believe it will all be okay. You settle into your new life, feeling somewhat off balance, slightly less steady, especially when the wind kicks up, now that you have no huge branch on the north side counterweighting all the other branches. Weeks go by. The humans seem to have lost interest. What a relief.
Then one day some big vehicles arrive. They stare and say, “See how it leans?” They curiously turn their attention to a perfectly nice (younger, smaller) oak that stands between you and the biggest vehicle.
You watch. A man sits in the bucket attached to the vehicle, starts at the top, lops off branch after branch, then sections off the main part of the trunk one piece at a time, letting each one crash. Huh. They cut that poor little fellow down to earth-level for no seemingly good reason. Then they move the truck in closer.
It’s your turn. They start on the side closest to that damn pole. They work carefully to make sure nothing falls near the cable. The 75’ reach of the bucket is barely high enough to get them to the best position. But they manage. Bit by bit, they buzz their tool and drop your limbs. Parts of you that only ever knew sky meet the earth.
Then they move on to the side that hangs over the little cottage. Yeah, you knew that lowest one was perhaps your weakest limb. Maybe they had reason to worry about that one. It didn’t take much for it to break. They were careful on that side, using a rope around it to make sure that when it swung down, it would avoid the cottage roof and land where they wanted.
This is it, you realize. You reached, you grew, you survived. You gave beauty to the forest, shade to the humans, home sites and abundant food to forest creatures for many years. Now you will give warmth by way of firewood. Lots of yourself is already on the ground, the danger of hitting the pole now a thing of the past, but they left some for the next guy to come and fell.
“Sad,” you hear the lady of the house saying. “Reminds me of The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein,” she says, “a book that’s been called ‘a touching interpretation of the gift of giving.’ Maybe that’s what this tree did. It gave. For many years it gave. As with all of us, its days were numbered – even if none of us ever know the number! But chapters do close….”
Since Micah’s death, there have been two more people that I knew for years, two more I talked with, played with, greatly admired, two more who gave to those around them, who added depth, joy, love, fun and substantial contributions to the circle they walked in, two more whose chapters have closed. To the families of C. Wayne Callaway and Ken Brown, I offer my deepest condolences.