Trees get so much attention in this drifting journal, The Balsamean, because they are easier to write about than people are, and trees often make better friends than most people do, and the tree fairies would sprout leaves green with envy in the middle of winter if I gave as much time to humanity as to them.
This is another long post, about 3,000 words, but it has lots of pictures, one of my favorite poems (a famous classic), and a piece of original art by The Balsamean.
It took a year to write this. It’s not that I took a year to start it. I worked on it dozens of times beginning last September. The earlier versions were close to 6,000 words, and told too many stories that deserve articles of their own.
If not for too many long sentences, this would be an easy read. But my readers are sharp. And it’s especially readable if you just take a seat, slow down and act like the world moves at the speed it should, not the one it does.
Don’t read it in a hurry. It took a year to get here.
by Joyce Kilmer
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
Notice that everything in the poem is female (except God’s neutral gender)? Note also that Joyce Kilmer was male.
From Wikipedia article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joyce_Kilmer
Joyce Kilmer (born as Alfred Joyce Kilmer; December 6, 1886 – July 30, 1918) was an American writer and poet mainly remembered for a short poem titled “Trees” (1913), which was published in the collection Trees and Other Poems in 1914. Though a prolific poet whose works celebrated the common beauty of the natural world as well as his Roman Catholic religious faith, Kilmer was also a journalist, literary critic, lecturer, and editor. While most of his works are largely unknown, a select few of his poems remain popular and are published frequently in anthologies. … At the time of his deployment to Europe during World War I, Kilmer was considered the leading American Roman Catholic poet and lecturer of his generation, whom critics often compared to British contemporaries G. K. Chesterton (1874–1936) and Hilaire Belloc (1870–1953). He enlisted in the New York National Guard and was deployed to France with the 69th Infantry Regiment (the famous “Fighting 69th”) in 1917. He was killed by a sniper’s bullet at the Second Battle of the Marne in 1918 at the age of 31. He was married to Aline Murray, also an accomplished poet and author, with whom he had five children.
Part 1 of my Oak Tree Trilogy was about the Sentinel Oak growing near the entrance to Balsamea’s driveway, and my relationship with that oak. Shown here at 2 feet tall in 2005 and about 18 feet in 2015:
Part 2 was about the Defiant Oak. It suffered an abused childhood for several years because of browsing deer and my neglect. I finally transplanted it to a prominent place in the front yard. It is the tree nearest this window in front of me as I bang on this keyboard. It grew about 3 feet from 2013 to 2015 …
This is Part 3 in the Oak Tree Trilogy. It began in a place within Balsamea that I call Maplegate Square, an area on the north side of Whitetail Way between Grassy Path and the convergence of Whitetail Way, Blueberry Pass and Maplegate Path, about a hundred feet east of Rock Wall 2. (The rock walls have the least creative names of anything in Balsamea.) Here are a couple of 2012 fall color pictures from Maplegate Square:
717 took down about five dozen big trees, mostly balsam firs, on our 19 acres, which then clobbered many little trees in their way, and blockaded many segments of our trail network. It snapped the trunks down to shredded stumps ranging anywhere from zero to ten feet tall. 717 downed more big trees in a quarter-hour than the winds had knocked down in the prior ten years, cumulative, without exaggeration.
I have added or modified several trails and places since then, but here are my crude trail maps before and after 717 (click for full size images):
I have GPS mapping capability now, so these maps will “get real” soon. There are also many places and trails added since these maps were made.
This Buddy Oak story is the best of several 717-related stories, because it involves the perennially favorite element of man-dog drama, with a dose of father-and-son story. Meet Buddy here or click the picture.
The biggest of the blown down balsams in Maplegate Square obliterated what had already been a choke point in Whitetail Way. It was a primitive portion in the development of Whitetail Way, where I had cut only a narrow footpath, squeezed into a tight zigzag through small maples because there was no good alternative without using a chain saw, and Balsamea has a law against using chain saws in trail work, not even for recovery from blow-downs.
The notion of firing up such a monstrously noisy, violent machine in the midst of therapeutically peaceful forest makes my jaw clench and my arms jitter. The trees abhor the chainsaw, too, and squirrels and birds trembling in their nests develop PTSD.
In eleven years here, I have never used the chainsaw for anything outside creation of the original campsite (Camp Balsamea), before we had a house, and for some work on the edges of the yard that was created for the house.
On the trails, I use a heavy lopping shear and bow saw powered by a bipedal engine that runs on oatmeal with a lot of cinnamon and raisins and a little milk, often accompanied by a banana and some Greek yogurt, on good days.
These simple tools are easier to carry a thousand feet into the woods than a chainsaw with gas, oil, spare chain and tools, and I can safely use the bow saw without hot, heavy Kevlar chaps and eye and head protection. Almost nobody else wears them (except professionals required to), but I have to use the safety gear with a chainsaw because there is nobody within shouting distance to come and drag my loose leg and me to the phone, and I live behind the Digital Curtain in the Wireless Free Northern Adirondacks, so my cell phone does not help. It took only one branch’s whack to the skull to get me to start wearing the helmet, my being such an intelligent, fast learner.
Nature drops a tree on a trail. I accommodate her. She leaves me better than she found me, in many ways: healthful work, creative opportunity, a trail section better than before, and sometimes a place that makes Balsamea more special, even if nobody ever hears the stories and names of places like Maplegate Square, Aranyaka, Kieferhaven, Frutierra, Silviden, Tettegouche, Turkeyfoot, Cladonia, Steinwald, Deerhaven, etc.
While working on creating Maplegate Square from the pile left by 717, I cleared a small, dense patch of young, bushy balsams, ranging from a few inches to ten feet tall. The seedling of the Buddy Oak grew hidden under the branches near the edge of that patch.
Between deer eating its oak buds and rapid growth of balsams over it, that infant oak probably stood little chance of maturing. A long chain of events in an evolving life gave it a chance. Life granted me this gift of land in 2005, Whitetail Way developed in pieces over the years to 2012, and 717 got me working on Maplegate Square, which revealed the oak, which became Buddy’s.
In these endless chains of processes, everything is integral to one thing, and one to many. Balsamea is that web of relationships, that one thing.
Among the dozens of baby oaks I might have named for Buddy (the canine Prince of Balsamea, who died August 5, 2015), why this one? What does he have to do with this little oak?
Maplegate Square bore visible evidence of a thing that Buddy created and used every day for three years, and it amused me every time I saw him do it. (Apparently, it will keep on amusing me endlessly.) It was among many little pleasures adding to Balsamea’s ongoing daily sweetness attributable to Buddy.
The blow-down created a grossly tangled mess of trees upon trees, with balsam fir’s special abundance of densely proportioned branches and intricate web of greenery. After studying the situation for a moment, Buddy decided to push through the dense wall of tangled branches instead of going around the roots of the fallen big tree (which was also a complicated, but less difficult route through other dense growth).
After I cleared a path around the upturned roots, and cut off and hauled away a thousand balsam branches, Buddy continued using his shortcut. Normally, I would not have cleared the branches from under the fallen log, only the ones on top and sides, to open the space around it. For this blown down trunk ramp, since Buddy insisted on using the shortcut, I cleared a better space under the log, to be his chosen shortcut and private underpass about eight feet away from the original, pre-717 route of Whitetail Way.
Beginning in February 2015, Buddy developed a severe seizure disorder attributed to a brain tumor. An injury or neurological problem related to the seizures made it difficult for him to duck under the log, which had sunken a little as they always do. Despite the difficulty, instead of going around the tree on my new trail, he used his underpass shortcut through the spring of 2015.
One day he walked up to his underpass, stopped, looked around, and then turned and slowly followed me on the new “human” path. Thereafter, he never used his own special path again. It had become too difficult to dip his body in the way needed to go under the log, and I doubt he could crawl either.
Therefore, this was a real “Buddy thing,” something unique to him, something only he used, and something I watched his illness take from us, which helped burn into my mind a special significance for that place.
I transplanted Buddy’s oak (with its mere seven leaves) from next to his underpass path to an open space next to the wild blueberry patch in the widest part of the yard. If he were here, from that spot he could supervise everything throughout the yard from the road to the old campsite at Rock Wall 2 (Camp Balsamea) where our brotherhood as fellow Balsameans began.
I buried some memorial tokens of Buddy’s life under the roots of the tree. The Buddy Oak commemorates our experience together. It will be a living outgrowth of our relationship, possibly for centuries. It will help keep me mindful of the ways this relationship left me better than it found me. The relationship, like all of them in the web of Balsamea, lives permanently in my nature, in who I am and what I do in the world (or do to it), such as plant an oak tree in the yard. (I wonder if you can put a clause in a land deed prohibiting the removal of a certain tree?)
Size when planted in August 2015 (and windblown) versus early July 2016:
When planted in August 2015, the tree had 7 leaves. In early July 2016, it had 21. Now, in mid-August 2016, it has more than 30 leaves, over 4 times the original a year ago. They look good.
I have to say something about afterlife, spirit, soul and such.
At the end of Buddy’s euthanizing, the doctor said, “Do you want me to leave so you can spend some time alone with him?”
“No,” I said. “He’s not here.” I meant I did not have to be in that room with a dead furry body to be with him. He lingers more in his little tree than he ever could in that room. Buddy as the dog we knew was already gone two weeks before we chemically stopped his heartbeat.
There is no ghost of Buddy, no sentient presence, no afterlife in an imaginary heaven. His afterlife is in Balsamea and me. I expressed a bit of that afterlife in planting a tree.
The dead are here to the extent we let them be. We carry a version or sample of them within ourselves, in what we do, and in our other relationships. Buddy changed me, and thus the world as I know it. I am his afterlife.
“Spirit” means “essence.” Buddy’s essence made my essence better, and still does. Who could deny that he still lives, now in a new life? But he is not here, and not anywhere. The afterlife is a new life, not a continuation of the old one, and not a reincarnation.
I believe this is a realistic view of afterlife. It makes more sense to me than to believe that Buddy is “up” in a fictional Doggy Heaven watching me living the life of Balsamea, a life he lived, loved, and lost even before he died. That would not make him or me happy at all. No, his afterlife is here, alive in a new existence, but not as the soul that died and is gone. We make the deceased immortal, as ourselves and what we become, and not merely in memory. We are their afterlife.
In Maplegate Square, Buddy had worn his narrow path into the ground where it diverged from the main path to his log underpass. Throughout the summer after he stopped using it, his path began re-greening. Eventually, as its supporting branches rot away, the log overpass will collapse to the ground, closing Buddy’s underpass forever. Then the log will be easy to step over, following Buddy’s short-cut route. Thereafter I will remember every time I step over the log that Buddy’s path had become my path, too.
His afterlife is here. The Buddy Oak is a celebration of it that will last two hundred years.
I started the ceremonial transplanting on August 23rd, 2015, three weeks after Buddy died. It took that long to decide whether to have a memorial for him. I did not think it necessary, but it was a good idea.
Over the next two days, I added improvements to the job, such as stabilization against the strong winds it will live with, arrangement for protection against deer browse in winter, and gravel around its base for aesthetic and protective reasons (now covered in repeated layers of grass clippings). I gave it a bucket of water every day until the leaves were ready to fall off in October. It was a long celebration.
A week after the planting, I learned that my 88-year-old father had inoperable, terminal peritoneal mesothelioma (cancer caused by asbestos) with a short life expectancy. Despite speculations about only weeks or months to live, he is still here in the flesh, as of this writing a year later. Apparently he will see an 89th birthday.
I mention this because Dad has a connection to these oak tree stories. One could say he triggered them. He inspired my special interest in the oaks of Balsamea, one of the minority trees in this densely evergreen forest. He did not have oaks at his own sort of “Balsamea,” the land into which my parents infused their retirement years for as long as they could, with Bunky, their dog of 14 years, who we buried on Dad’s 70th birthday.
I believe that most of my strong appreciation for trees came from my father. He planted many trees everywhere we lived. He gives trees their full due respect. As for the oaks of Balsamea, I think it was the first question Dad asked me about the newly acquired property that became Balsamea in 2005, “Are there any oaks?”
At the time, I did not know. Over the eleven years since then, I have found half a dozen big, old oaks, exceeding fifty feet tall, with trunks more than a foot wide. One of them has two trunks that size. There are several young ones ranging ten to thirty feet tall, and dozens of little ones fighting for their lives, many not making it, against voracious browsing by our surplus population of deer.
Along my trails throughout these woods, many little oaks get my special attention and protection. There are three extra-special ones, too: Sentinel Oak, Defiant Oak, and now third in the oak trilogy, Buddy’s Oak.
Each of them is endowed with the paternal legacy of a man they never knew.
We know nothing of the influence of our lives in the world. Leave it better than you found it, in whatever little ways you can, as often as you can, because every little bit makes a difference. We are always changing the world, one way or another.
It was just one simple, little question, “Are there any oaks?” It literally changed the world. These oaks are not the end of the influences mentioned here.
Imagine all the other ways Dad influenced the creation of Balsamea and its place in my life and the world. From my perspective, it’s an impressive legacy.
If it were not for Dad, no such thing as Balsamea would exist, because it took so much of the very special resourcefulness of his nature instilled in me that made it possible for me to be The Balsamean.
Dad and Buddy will always live with me in these trees, in the essence of Balsamea and in all it is to me, far more than just a place to live. Balsamea is the relationship born of the union of our souls with the soul of a forest, transforming us into sylvans, and transforming each other. The Oak Tree Trilogy is part of my personal mythology, the stories I live by.
I don’t post pictures of family or friends’ identifiable faces, especially not living ones, but sometimes an artistic rendition is okay. That’s Dad on his birthday in 2007, in one of my favorite pictures of him (available to kin, etc.) with Autumn leaves of the Defiant Oak in my front yard.
Learn about the Northern Red Oak (a relatively fast-growing oak) from the US Forest Service Quercus rubra page.