The Tree

The Tree had been there as long as she could remember. As long as her mother and grandmother could remember. As long as Great Grandad could remember. As long as anyone who had ever lived in town could remember. Pictures in old newspapers featured the tree: People posed in front of it on the 4th of July, Halloween, Christmas, even Easter, in the days when they still had the big Easter Egg Hunt in the town park.

“Meetya at the Tree,” was as often said as hello and goodbye.

In school she learned it was Quercus kelloggii, the California Black Oak. But it was always The Tree to everyone in town. It was big and tall and gnarled, its limbs all crooked and twisty, its waxy leaves dark, dusty green; and, well, it was just beautiful to look at.

But now, Mom said, The Tree was sick. It was a danger to the passing cars. It could fall down at any moment. That lightning flash last summer was the final blow, she said. The Tree was already weak from the disease, and the lightning had burned out what little healthy tree flesh was left.

So it had to come down.

Everyone in town was there. They did it early in October, on a Sunday, right after
church services for the town’s three congregations. But regular people outnumbered the church-goers gathered on the sidewalks. Not everyone believed in church, but they all believed in The Tree. They even loved it.

Even the contrary folks, people who wouldn’t talk to each other if they bumped into each other on the sidewalk, all stood together, mumbling their anger and sadness and agreement on what a shame it was. They gathered on both sides of the street, looking at The Tree where it had always stood, on its oval knoll between the traffic lanes, silent witness to all of the town’s upheavals and celebrations.

The tree expert said it was dead; they could easily pull it out by its roots.

But that old tree hung on tight. They put chains around it, hooked the chains up to a big tractor. They pulled on it for nearly an hour, but they couldn’t budge it. A cheer rose from the sidewalks each time the tractor choked, died, had to be restarted.

So then the tree expert, in his big boots, old jeans and flannel shirt (even though it was a late Indian summer that year and at least 90 degrees in the shade) climbed the tree and began to cut chunks off of it. When all the chunks were on the ground, there was a big, flat-topped stump about two feet tall. The tree expert had a bucket of stuff to pour on the stump to kill it.

That’s when the mayor stepped in and said, no, they couldn’t take the stump. They had to leave it as it was. A few days later, there was a little plaque by the stump, and they planted some flowers on the knoll, and it made a nice memorial to the town’s best friend.

About a month afterward, the tree expert wrote to the mayor. The Tree had been 372 years old, and he was shipping a cross section of the trunk to the town so they could put it on display. No one in town cared about that. It wasn’t really their tree, only a piece of something dead that used to be alive. A fossil.

The following spring dozens buds appeared around the base of the stump. Pinky brown shoots of strong young branches reached out to the warming sunlight. Yellowy green new leaves unfurled, then darkened to a familiar velvety dark green as summer moved on.

What grew there was a funny looking bush, full and green and lush with leaves, but all around a hollow centre. Eventually, it was bowed, shaped and trimmed to look like a solid mound of green-ness in the California summer dust. But everyone in town still calls it The Tree. And everyone in town, from kindergartener to nonagenarian, can still recount the history of that stubborn old tree.

©2008, Ramona K. Silipo. All rights reserved.

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