Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Tree of Living Waters

The Tree of Living Waters
Venerable in its years, though slowly rotting from the inside out, this great American beech (Fagus grandifolia), hidden away in a coastal woodlot, still towers above its neighbors.  In the midst of its fellow beeches, along with a scattering of younger pin-oaks and hollies, the tree's outspread canopy shelters a clearing, shaded and quiet, the sort of place one would go to gather one's thoughts on a pleasant day.  Or a sad day too, if that is needed. 

Sam, who, along with his granddaughter Jessica, has guided me here, ventures the object of our pilgrimage is likely a century and a half old. If true, this is ridiculously old in a landscape that for the last century or two has been harvested and replanted every thirty years or so, "working land" as it sometimes is referred to.  And the preferred tree in this enterprise is not the slow-growing beech but the fast-growing loblolly pine, which has proven the most amenable to a quick turn-around time between one seeding and the next.  As if to prove the truth of this, just a hundred feet away from our idyllic setting, the woods stop abruptly and a vast patch of land clearcut last winter begins - a melee of overturned trunks, disturbed earth, mounds of uprooted brush. A quarter-mile back, stacked in neat piles, trunk after trunk of loblolly shorn of their limbs are waiting to be picked up for delivery to a wood shredder or saw.  Such is the usual fate of forests here on the eastern shore of Maryland.

But on the Eastern Shore even a grandfather beech tree in a beech wood providentially saved from the saw is still rooted into working land, although of a different sort than the loblolly plantation next door. Michael Lewis, environmental historian at Salisbury University, notes that beech were not so common in the forests encountered here by European colonists 300 years ago.  Up to that time the First Peoples of this area - Wicomico, Assateague and the like - had been busy using fire to keep the land clear of underbrush and amenable to hunting.  The upshot of this practice was that the beech, which is vulnerable to fire, was little in evidence.  But the newly arrived colonists suppressed rather than encouraged fires, which in turn allowed beeches to find a renewed footing. Today approximately 20% of the forest in Maryland is composed of beech trees.   And, although they are no longer harvested commercially for their wood, their nuts offer food for a variety of wildlife including turkey and deer. The land, Sam reports, is regularly rented out to hunters, a fact that is underscored by the many deer blinds we have encountered on our walk here.  Living things, at least the ones some humans are fond of eating, are doing well in these woods.

A Closer Look
Sam and Jessica have brought me here today to share their love for the Tree of Living Waters.  I call it that, although I must also report that Jody Haggler who owns this woodlot calls it the "Jesus Tree," because sometime in the last half century or so, someone has incised the bark with a series of words and phrases, all of them directed to sharing the good news of creation, or at least, of a solidly Christian version of that news.   "God - Fountain of Living Waters." "Emmanuel." "Jesus is Lord." "The Saving Word." These and other phrases of similar import have been carefully arranged on the trunk in beautifully rendered block letters, a work that must have taken considerable dedication and time to accomplish.  And, judging from the height above ground of some of the entries, good climbing skills as well.

This tree, engraved with human words conjuring supernatural powers, in turn readily engraves itself on the memory of those lucky enough to have found themselves in its vicinity. The agency involved in this process is complicated, tricky. Is an unknown scribe, employing knife and bark in place of quill and paper, the one who is now at work in my own thoughts as I remember and admire what his or her handiwork has wrought? Yet surely the one who inscribed these words left them not for her or his own particular fame - no initials or dates are in evidence - but for the sake of the Most High.  Is it to God then I must turn to appreciate the power of the tree's evocation?  Or is the tree itself, this great living pillar of sugary cellulose and dusky sap, spanning from the darkness of the earth to the airy heavens above, the one who is making its mark upon me?   To behold such a tree is surely to remember all the trees one has ever looked upon and loved.  I am reminded of Wendell Berry's beautiful lines in praise of the trees, "patient as stars," composing his own woodlot in Kentucky.   "They build in air, tier after tier a timbered choir," he writes, "Stout beams upholding weightless grace of song, a blessing on this place."

The blessing of being human certainly entails receiving gratefully the blessing of such arboreal choirs.  Yet with this blessing a troubling thought cannot help but to come to mind. Were not the trees of this place once beloved in other tongues with the names of other gods?  European colonists were quick to name the towns of the Eastern Shore after those found in their Bible and their memories of home - Salisbury, Chrisfield, Cambridge, Hebron, Bethel and the like.  But the naming of the waters - Wicomico, Pocokmoke, Nantacoke, Nassawango, Choptank, Marshyhope - came from another fount entirely, the languages of peoples dispossessed and pushed aside, even as these small indications of their existence were enshrined on maps to persist even into our time in everyday parlance.   Given this history, might not the Tree of Living Waters also be thought of as the Tree of Usurpation?   Engraving the names of one's God upon the face of a land once held by others is certainly a statement of ownership that should not go unremarked upon.  Throughout history, people have murdered others in the name of their God.  We should not forget this, even if that very Name itself remains worthy of praise and commemoration in our deliberations and musings, if not our prayers and rituals.   History is besotted with violence, a nightmare from which we are trying to awake. Repairing to a glen in a wood does not diminish this fact.

A century ago, yet another in a series of blights arrived on our shores that threatened yet another in a series of species of indigenous tree, this time, the one in whose precincts I have been walking, Fagus grandifolia. The Tree of Living Waters has not proved immune to this disease and now is succumbing to it. Beech scales, tiny aphids that attack the tree in turn precipating one of two fungal infections, have been at work.  The smooth, gray surface of the bark for which the beech is universally famous is growing black and crusty, particularly where saving words, now disappearing into the decay, were incised.  Jody tells me that two pileated woodpeckers have been having their way with the weakening tree, boring holes indiscriminately into its flesh.  One of the holes, it turns out is placed precisely in the open part of a "d" spelling out the name of God.  The tree, Jody fears, is not long for this world.  

Jessica Brannock with the Tree of Living Waters
In light of this outcome, one might argue that carving the name of God or that of any other being on a tree is not only a fool's errand but also a vandal's. Perhaps without these incisions wounding its skin, this august beech would have proven resistant for a while longer to contagion. I can imagine the shuddering of every forest ranger across the land at the thought of an army of believers, knives in hand, keenly intent upon carving the names of the Creator on the trunks of trees wherever they might be found.  Certainly this should not be counseled.  Yet, I am also glad that the Tree of Living Waters, carvings and all, stands here, at least for the time being, welcoming any passerby willing to spend a moment in its company.  Someone came into this forest decades ago to behold a fellow creature whose very glory touched the deepest springs of human and more-than-human longings.  And suffering the depths of that inspiration, prayers were left in the very flesh of a living thing.  "Emmanuel" is a Hebrew word signifying "God is with us."  But also, Jody reminds us, a seven foot black snake that swallows rabbits whole is making its home near the tree, perhaps even in its very hollow.  What would that particular creature ask of us, I muse, if we would dare to listen to it carefully?  In The Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold notes that to buy a woods is to buy "almost as many tree diseases as [one has] trees."  But these very maladies, Leopold adds, "made my woodlot a mighty fortress, unequaled in the whole county."  Although Leopold, when he wrote these words, had in mind the manner in which decrepit trees offer magnificent habitat for a wide range of living things, including both rabbit and snake, the arc of his thought leads other places as well.  These woods indeed are dark and deep.  Death as well as life is making its home here. Dare we enter into such environs?  Faith is required.  

Incision of "Emmanuel" isolated from the surrounding Bark

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