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Letter to a Red Oak

Bayou-Diversity (21 April 2019) I’m not going to be so presumptuous as to tell you your business, like how to grow or how not to grow all spraddled out like that. You’ve been around almost twice as long as I have and obviously know a thing or two about how to get along in this world. Homesteading so close to the road, you’ve seen a lot. I’m sorry to say that it was likely my great grandfather who began contributing to the soil compaction over your roots when he bought the first modern wagon in this area, a John Deere with solid rubber tires. But upland hardwood trees were common around here in those days, and folks needed shade. Then it was my grandfather with his nineteen twenty-something Star automobile with big, brass headlights, the first car on the sandy, one-track road. My dad followed up with post-World War II Fords. Like you, they had to root-hog or die on this hill just up from the D’Arbonne Swamp. Unlike you, they moved on to more fertile ground when the cotton played out. I’m a late comer to this scenario and only a few years ago acquired a piece of paper that declares you live on my property. Now that is presumptuous considering that I live on your land.

When I moved out here on your property and built a cypress house, I brought a mental sack full of classical Latin names that I had gathered up from universities near and far. Yours is Quercus falcata, which means oak tree with leaves that have sickle-shaped lobes. Since we are acquaintances, I prefer to address you with the more familiar term – Southern Red Oak. I walk past you most days on my morning hike and often wonder about your life. What caused the injury that led to the small hollow on your east side? How much metal is hidden beneath your dark furrowed bark in the form of iron nails, rusty barbed wire, and lead bullets? Is the air more polluted now than in your youth? Did my great grandfather’s brother ever tie his giant black mule to your low limbs after he had ridden across the swamp from Trenton laden with a case of sardines and an empty whiskey bottle or two as the stories say? How have you managed to dodge lightning bolts all these years? Since we have a lot in common, including 70 percent of our DNA, I suppose the essence of those questions could be asked of me one day.

As a prominent citizen around here, you are well-known to a lot of other life forms in the area. Poison ivy and Virginia creeper vines use you for a trellis. I have seen blue jays and cat squirrels pinching your acorns on occasion. Orchard orioles hang their bag nests high in your boughs. A swamp rabbit seeks shelter in the ground-level cavity at times, and in your forks resurrection fern withers and revives in cyclic worship of the weather. I realize too that everyone is not on the best of terms, as it is obvious that you and an old, recently deceased walnut tree had subsoil run-ins over the rights to scarce nutrients; you apparently won that neighbors’ quarrel. Nonetheless, you are a good example of how to age well, get along with others when you can, stand your ground in spite of adversity, and still flower as senescence approaches. I aspire to that.

©KO 4/18/2019


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