This is in memory of trees not mine. Not that any tree is mine, of course, even the one I climb every day. But in a way these felt like mine too.
There is a posting to the town listserv that the next day our dirt road will be closed from a little ways above our house to its far end, for the removal of trees. I suspect I know which trees are slated for removal. There is a place where our road becomes quite narrow—it would take some work for two cars to pass—as it climbs a hill, and there are high banks on both sides. Along the left bank, going up the hill, a series of old birch trees lean out over the road from the top of the bank, and much of the earth has been eroded out from underneath them. Their roots run alongside the road in a tangle at about shoulder height, and, since the earth is hollowed out from underneath, you can look at them from below.
Their roots and trunks hold countless rocks. Some pebbles, some fist-sized, others the size of a human head, they are suspended in this tangle of roots, either resting on it, deposited there as the earth sifted down through this bent and twisting meshwork, or tightly gripped by roots from above. In some cases roots have wrapped around rocks and grown half over them, stones now suspended by the long, jointed fingers of the tree. Others have been enveloped by the tree at ground level and are embraced by the trunk itself. It looks like the tree is giving birth, laboring to thrust half-born creatures out into the world—or as though it is reluctant to let them go, a too-protective mother holding them back with powerful arms.
The effect is ancient, chthonic. Wood and stone, root and rock. It’s like a door to the underworld. It stirs the imagination. The universe could not have conspired to create a better place, for example, for hobbits to hide as Black Riders menacingly traverse the bank above, threading among the trees on stamping horses.
It is Christmas vacation and I propose to Emme and Claire that we go up the road to visit these trees, in case they are indeed the ones to be taken down the next day, when there will also be a snowstorm coming through. Emme has been sick since Christmas, has barely moved from the couch for days, but she is game and we decide to mount the expedition. We bundle up and drive most of the way, and walk the rest.
We spend some time scrambling about, examining the intertwining of roots and rocks, crawling part way under the embankment to look up at them from underneath. There is a thin snow over everything and the light is flat, gray, and chilly; it is not the most beautiful of days. Immaculate snow, brilliant sunshine, and deep blue skies would have been nice. But we enjoy being there, and roam about exploring and taking pictures.
In the lush growth of summer, this part of the road is an entirely different place. It is almost luminously tunnel-like, the banks green with vegetation and moss, trees nearly meeting overhead. It feels enchanted, shimmering with life. In this pared-down world of snow and tree trunks, roots and stones, other marvels are evoked: the exposed bones of the earth and an ancient sense of depths.
Last summer we made some videos of Emme playing the hammered dulcimer on this bank, beneath these trees, and now I am glad we have them. Because when we drive up the road a day or so later, when the snowstorm has passed, all the trees are lopped off about six feet above the ground. The lower trunks I assume will be taken later. There is a strange and uncomfortable sense of openness above the road. It is hard not to feel that the lopped-off trunks are like amputated digits or limbs.
But birch trees age quickly, and not well, and while this was part of their charm, they would not have lasted much longer, especially perched precariously on top of a scooped-out embankment. We need our thorough-fares. We can’t fare through without them.
When all three of us have taken as many pictures as we want—as always, pointing a camera at something is a great way to observe it more closely—and we have spent enough time with the trees that our visit feels complete, we make our way back to the car and drive home.
The embankment is still there, for the time being, the trunks and roots and rocks, but no life springs from them now. The stones are no longer gripped and suspended by living beings. The bank doesn’t breathe. No rafts of foliage will be held up to the sky in summer. The meaning of it all has changed. In time the roots will rot and the embankment will collapse.
I am glad we made our little trip.