That Asshole Tree, Part Two
"Go out and play," my mother said.
It was the same thing she'd told me in College Park. Unlike in a small city, though, the rural setting where we lived near Darnestown offered almost no chance to visit other people. I couldn't knock on doors until I found available friends. If I wanted to get away from my family, that was fine enough, but if the cute girl, Jeannie, wasn't allowed outside or the Hecker kids couldn't skip their goat-feeding chores, I had no one else. I could hike from farm to farm. I could explore the woods. That was it.
Half a year or so after moving to the area, I calmed down about the situation. I'd tried the farms. There didn't seem to be much to like or dislike about cows or corn. The cattle stared at me with disinterest. After enough time, I returned the feeling.
So it was the woods for me.
There are a lot of things to do in a forest, including play in the streams and creeks, catch crawfish, follow raccoon trails, attempt to track the deer, poke blacksnakes with sticks, locate the copperheads, play in broken-down, abandoned wood shacks or eighteenth-century stone buildings, chop down trees for amusement, beat rocks with sticks until the sticks shatter, eat blackberries, and, well, a lot more, too. Most of those might not sound attractive. But sometimes anything was better than being home.
I wasn't happy in our new home at first. For one, it was yellow-green with pollen for a lot of the time. I could see the sheen of pollen on the roof, on the steps, in the rain barrels, on the cars, in the doorways, and in the house. There were other things as bad or worse, too, like cigar smoke, snakes in my room, and the presence of people, but the bad health of the place was the most significant.
When we'd moved, I'd gotten asthmatic from the pollen and angry about my situation. On top of my intermittent medical problems, I was usually irritated by the wolf spiders that were bigger than my hands, the dogs running loose in the neighborhood and occasionally attacking, the stink of the farm fields and herds of cows over the next hill, the broken-down mill and its copperheads, and more. I'd taken to the woods because there was nothing else to do.
After a while, even though I was becoming a teenager and the natural world seemed increasingly ridiculous, I started noticing the individual trees along the trails, the plants growing in the clearings, the roots gnarling up out of the ground, the shelves of shale rock and the patches of clay next to the creek, the different sorts of bees and brambles, and the clearings.
Many of the trees became my landmarks.
One of them was an oak that leaned out over the water. I didn’t like it. It didn’t seem like a friendly tree. On its heavy bark grew a vine and next to it grew a juniper bush. Other than those two things, nothing lived near the unfriendly oak. It kept an area to itself. The grass and underbrush around it had died. There were no oak saplings nearby. Even though the spot sat next to the sunshine of the creek and was itself a clearing that got sun, nothing seemed to grow except the tree and the one bush it tolerated.
I visited it in the fall and in the winter. In the spring, I put my hand on the bark as I leaned over the water and surveyed the creek for a few minutes. A while later, my skin came up with a rash. That's how I discovered the furry vine around the tree was poison ivy.
The rash made me hate the tree even more. Even while I was starting to feel better towards a lot of the trees and towards certain spots along the trails, I really did not like the clearing or the leaning oak. As convenient as the place was to stop for a moment, it never felt friendly.
It took me another year, maybe until I was fourteen, before I realized the oak tree was in a battle with the poison ivy vine. The vine was trying to strangle the oak tree. It occupied a lot of the trunk and most of the branches. It choked out some of the oak leaves. Both the tree and the vine were leaning out over the creek. That was a great place to get sunlight and energy to grow. But it was also a position from which the tree roots could be undercut by the flow of water as the waning and flooding creek ate into the sandy clay banks.
That was what was happening. I could tell the tree was closer to the stream than it had been when I first saw it.
By the time I was fifteen I had learned more about the clearing. In most of the forest, the trees and bracken grew close together. There were sapling oaks all over. That pattern was the rule. Yet still nothing had successfully taken root near the asshole oak except the weird, lonely juniper bush. The juniper had grown within the root ball of the big tree. I hadn’t read any books about the underground life of trees. Maybe there had been none written at that point. It didn’t take anything besides observation, though, to understand that most of the oaks were supportive of saplings but this one was not. It was killing the children around it and yet somehow it made one exception, one friendship.
I remembered in elementary school how one bully had tolerated a stooge who followed him around and supported his behavior toward everyone else. The juniper struck me as that sort of supporter. Somehow, when it was young, its roots had reached out among the roots of the oak and sensed the bully in its fight with the vine. And it had decided to offer something to the oak. What it was, I had no way of knowing. Maybe it gave some badly needed nutrients. Whatever peace deal was made, the juniper lived. It was tolerated by, maybe even protected by, the mightier tree.
Although I never got to like the oak or to really tolerate the way it killed almost everything around it to create the clearing, I did start to root for it in an absent minded, teenaged way. I hoped it could last long enough to beat the poison ivy.
During the winter when I turned sixteen, ice and floods cut out five feet of riverbank underneath the leaning oak. Abruptly, the tree tilted harder toward the middle of the creek. The storms had exposed half of its roots, even the deep ones.
In the spring, I walked through and saw that the clearing was missing. The tree had disappeared and more, too. The ground itself was gone. Most of it had fallen into the water ten feet below. I waded through brambles to glance down. There, at an angle across the creek, lay the dying asshole oak tree.
By then, I had gotten used to the way most of the trees around me had personalities. Some of them were a bit quirky. And for sure, they were all nicer than the asshole oak tree. But there was no doubt that the tree had showed me how aggressive a plant could seem. The thing had wanted to fight. It had scrambled like crazy against its poison ivy infestation. Ultimately, it lost its war. But it had tried. Really, really tried.
Sure, maybe plants aren't intelligent in the way people are. But ever since that tree I’ve felt they have intentionality. They have goals. Their aims become clear over a long enough span of time. You have to be in a forest and in the very same place for plenty of seasons in a row. Years, at least. Then you can see the plant-world dramas play out.