W hen I was young and eager, born to boots and Levis, I worked in ditches with a shovel—in many ditches of Mother Earth. Once I worked with an old man who was scarred, had one leg, and had spent a long part of life on a shovel. In a short conversation amidst our work on a late afternoon, he said, “Life is as simple as a tree. It blossoms, it leafs, it gives oxygen, it holds earth, it seeds, it burns or rots away.” The image cast by the shovel-philosopher was formed forever.
He paused at his work, leaning on the long-handled spade, an unusual move for a machine of a man, and added, “A tree bears significance.” But he never said what it was to harvest a tree, cut its limbs, slab or cube its trunk, split the logs thrice or more, stack them, burn them, feel the heat a second time or third time, revel in it.
Well, he couldn’t know everything, or so I thought.
Then I came to know trees and how they pass me by. Oh, the significance.
Time is now passing down through me, and my wood-cutting-hauling-splitting-stacking-lugging-dumping ashes days are gone. They slip away with assorted debris behind the patella, cartilage degeneration, an ACL’s incessant chatter. No more will I venture alone into the deep forest, chainsaw at the ready, fuel at hand, lunch packed in a brown bag and a cooler; the silent forest pitching camp around my sudden noise, shutting me off from the rest of the world, swallowing up all my motored echoes, my static roars. Back then bird life and animal life went on, but I saw none of it. The tirade of a few crows would come at me some days, the imperious bark or yap of a fox retreating into the back of some blow-down or into a hole of sorts, but little else. The reach of the nasty chainsaw went much further than the limb or torso.
I have such a thing for trees, that I listen for them. I have heard them in the night, in the agony of a tearing wind, a limb’s crack and fall like shrapnel at work, from beneath rugged coats of bark. What is also heard, like ankle-deep bites of an ax, is my grandson tossing a ball at the end of the house, past the garage quiet as an empty box on an April day before grass begins its perennial struggle up through last year’s leavings. Only an hour earlier we found a last handful of snow, squatting like a mischievous toadstool playing hide-and-seek with spring, beneath our quarry of leaves scattered about like small talk. In a last act of winter, or spring’s prime for that matter, he first molded it to form, and then flung it the length of the yard at our maple tree, as far away as second base.
My grandson doesn’t know that the huge, double-trunk maple talks to me on legend nights; that it says, “Hold. Hold. Hold on.” Or that sideways broad leaves catch hold of southwest winds, desert-fed, saying, “Sun is in this wind.” Or that split limbs whistle words I hear through housebroken wood, sills, uprights, joists, lintels—trees gone into endless duty: “I lay claim to a space for you. I mine this territory here for the repose of your soul.”
I acquiesce that dark roots carve a deep earthen sepulcher. It is written: When I lay my spirit down, when my final breath is frost and blood is brighter by stars, the soft room within those roots will accept my tenancy.
Generally, my grandson hears the storm barrage in gray tree limbs during northeasterly wars, or hot calamities’ lightning loosed last August from its heart. Bright blue flares and white phosphorous powders arcing to an incomprehensible light, like God’s eyes had exploded the final incandescence. Occasionally, at a different level, I hope he hears the tree empty its buckets of heart-flamed leaves extracted from the core of fire only autumn can ignite, or he hears new spring trickle from a miniature ladle barely half an inch beneath the bark.
Will he ever hear the tree talk, hear it speak of pain, or how many miles its roots have gone dowsing underground? I know he hears the other benchmark sounds I’ve forgotten, the ones that echoed my early life: shots from a baseball bat; the chattering of hockey sticks like old folks in a circle; crowd noises; fathers prodding the shadows of their egos to a capability neither of them could ever reach, perhaps loss with a bad taste in the mouth.
We pause to listen to the sounds of our times, the creaking on the back stairs, a visitor we believe is not there, but is heard. What my grandson hears he must grow with, not that he must have my ear, or even accept my thoughts. But if some August night, when the moon’s a peach basket and the old calendar’s thicker and he puts his ear to the tree, he might hear a deep root break; he might hear a breaking heart. Oh, will he hear the other voice?
Once I heard the other voice talking about a legacy of flight a tree begins: In a time of apples and cinnamon, when summer is piled in ashes, its wreckage is strewn with roses in the lane. Then autumn, in a frenzy, sets its fiery course, though this night calls out loudly for woolens. Woodpiles begin to disappear, curl their hot and puzzling ways up dim chimneys’ thickened throats, just to return as faithful as birds in March’s menagerie.
The ingots of my industry, stacked in July, warehoused like golden corrugations, freed a Phoenix from its grave. An armful of red oak splits, dropped beside the iron stove, had housed bright August’s final bee. Sleepy from her wooden nap, she struggled to bring airborne the fat thumb of her being and faltered on the kitchen floor. Nine times she rose and nine times reaffirmed her thick impotence, wings less rapid than she dared, Earth too much magnetic force. I couched her in a mitten deep inside a cored maple tree, and urged winter down the road, urged its coming and quick passage. In May, when bouncing robins dance on matchstick feet, I will watch her children aviate the lilac bush, the mountaintop.
This midnight’s as thick as conspirators, stars secreted like listening devices waiting for one breath to find me out. In the woodpile I can’t see, a snake settles where my hand left a moment’s warmth on a slanting of birch plunging past white, its coils wound tight as bark. Field mouse, beneath owl’s infrared eyes and sudden wing thump, hangs about and gathers into minutes. The only flag is pennant of skunk, the tail-up streamer recalling every vengeance borne on mysteries of abiding shadows. High darkness and a collective of agents are pierced by the peephole of a nail-head star, deities’ confederate beginning revelations. Yet this somber evening, I stand in the shadow of a tree, a dwarf of a tree so green and solid and bearing an odor as if some “little people” will creep around it, not on display, but celebratory, loading it up with their special depositories, their gifts without fancy wrapping paper, without bows and bright ribbons, but the aroma from a far hill, by sled, by an anonymous father.
The voice also muttered low about logs, friends, and hard Februarys, an exclusive eulogy for fire-taken Paul Jodoin, at midnight rushed up into flames. Logs and hard Februarys go rigid with identities; iron hanging by its teeth on beams wearing bark and cracking up white, axe’s cold tooth buried in the scattered face of a stump like a map, slicing its hemispheres; ice pond riding earth skillfully as eon’s sled, my hands stiff as knots sucking up white frost. A friend cuts night’s news short; doesn’t just go away, leaves the nail half driven in a tree coming together again. Nothing’s as cold as a fire out and a man traveling with his smoky February of an odd year.
Paul Jodoin’s smile falls from all stacked wood piles, though I can’t see his mouth spilling new wisdom, or logs, or trout washing under the year as long as the river’s long; but the image of his jacket hangs clear, hardly worn out at all. He hangs in forever.
The old, gnarled ant-toured pear tree, bent beside the house, has angry skin. It wears many years’ bruises, the applied rod, frenzies of a whip, manacle marks where my brother’s chain held the brute mobile, a ’37 Ford engine, as he faltered through the mechanics of July. In the smashed fist of upper limbs one moon of October, afraid my breath was seen, that an aura glowed my tell-tale place, I soft-chimed my belfry hideaway, saw chums as mice scatter in shadow.
In winter this tree contorts whistles. I’ve seen it boiling like an olla stew, whipped by Caribbean madness up the coast from Hatteras, but promising only kindling. Its roots are like best friends, summons servers, tax collectors. All my years it has dared dread December its bidding, worn alien icy crowns sometimes diamond-bright into spring’s heart.
She has never known this: In a high fork, sun-bleached, pruned by the hard seasons, her name is another bruise; letters clumped bulgy as toads pretending they will leap. I was fifteen at the carving and feel the knife’s handle yet within my hand, the single breast, hear her windy name sighing through the splatter of leaves, vespers of youth. Oh, Love, when hearth fire strikes into the names of these limbs, we shall be warm again.
To fall asleep here by my pellet stove, feet up on an old stool, not yet used to a recliner, is to dream back to those days when I gathered the wood supply; when I felt the heat of wood a second time, or felt like the throwback that I was, hustling, working my tail off, beating the system at its own game, surviving. Oil prices were on the rise and I rebelled. Some Saturdays in the ‘70s were a six-pack day of splitting wood, stacking the corrugations in their pile against the fence, feeling the yesteryear in my bones, the vaunt carousing in my soul. A Saturday’s work was shoving against oil, against cartels and gougers, and the reality of middlemen; it was a three-beer push on the maul handle. My shoulders shot nerves into fibrous white oak, into elm never letting go, maple that reported splits clean as firecrackers.
I heard the flag sing in front of the house, my drummer high on a hill, and, in strange field, crevice and creek, from here to Montana, gunshots of the maul, chainsaw’s deep roars, my Howitzers in the fray.
And still, near this hearth which holds my heart, a dwarf of a tree will soften a week of special evenings in late December, throw extraordinary light into dark corners, cast the once-a-year aroma throughout the house, all with the love and energy of a man easily known these days, and who embraces the holiday rite.
Tom Sheehan has published 28 books, which include the western collections The Nations, Where Skies Grow Wide and Cross Trails published by Pocol Press, and Six Guns, Inc., by Nazar Look. 2 and three titles issued in 2016, … The Cowboys, Swan River Daisy and Jehrico. Tom has published multiple works in Rosebud, Literally Stories, Dm du Jour, Danse Macabre, Linnet’s Wings, Serving House Journal, Eclectica, Copperfield Review, La Joie Magazine, Soundings East, Vermont Literary Review, Literary Orphans, Indiana Voices Journal, Frontier Tales, Western Online Magazine, Provo Canyon Review, Vine Leaves Journal, Nazar Look, Eastlit, Rope & Wire Magazine, The Literary Yard, Green Silk Journal, Fiction on the Web, The Path, Faith Hope and Fiction, The Cenacle, etc. He has 30 Pushcart nominations, five Best of the Net nominations (and one winner), and short story awards from Nazar Look for 2012 – 2015. He has been named Writer-in-Residence at Danse Macabre. His Author’s Page, Tom Sheehan, is on Amazon.
Image Credit: © Mike301 | Dreamstime.com – Four Trees Photo