Bayou-Diversity (6 May 2018) This year a spring storm determined my source of domestic heat for the coming winter. Straight-line winds toppled a huge southern red oak on an upland hardwood slope a few hundred yards west of my house. I came across the fallen tree soon afterwards during my ramblings and mentally marked it for mid-summer firewood gathering. The trunk was straight and void of forked limbs for the first forty feet. In its prime the tree was 105 feet tall and 28 inches in diameter – not a goliath but impressive nonetheless and indicative of having the good fortune to germinate on a moist, fertile site.
I often wish that such organisms could possess and share an anamnesis, the remembrance of past events in their lives. The lifespan of this tree was on a human scale. It lived for 80 years, the same as my father. Indeed, Dad was a stripling and the tree was a sapling at the same time in the Great Depression. Their paths almost certainly crossed as both grew to maturity with roots in my great-grandfather’s land on the edge of the D’Arbonne Swamp. The tree would know of the people’s lives, of how the women gathered at the nearby spring on washday to fire up the black pots and scrub the hard work out of faded overalls with lye soap. It felt the thumping vibrations of great-grandfather’s small, steam-powered cotton gin beginning each October with the first bite of frost on its highest leaves. After several years autumn was quiet again as the shallow, red-clay soils were milked of nutrients needed by hungry cotton, and the gin boiler was hauled off in the scrap metal drives of World War II. Four generations of boys stung the tree and its neighbors with the prick of .22 rifles in the relentless pursuit of cat squirrels. An old fire scar on the butt of the tree may indicate someone’s carelessness, or maybe just the common practice then of firing the woods to keep down the snakes and ticks. Whichever, the tree would likely know as it leaned away from the scar for many years.
The firewood is gathered now. Large blocks of the bole are piled and ready for splitting just off the front porch. When I walk past them every morning on the way to the garden they reek the sour, earthy smell of green oak wood. During the harsh winter nights to come, warmth generated by the remains of this organism will fuel my vespertine remembrances, recollections that include those in common with the tree.