I’ve always loved the forest. Maybe it’s because I’m a shade person, a lover of moderated temperatures and flickering shadow. Some of my earliest memories involve sitting beneath huge elms sucking strained peas from a Gerber jar and joyfully wetting my diaper while watching tiny shafts of light dance through the canopy and across my face. I am not a tree hugger in the conventional sense, but I do sometimes hug trees, because trees need love as much as anyone; and though many people pay lip service to the idea, few actually reach out and touch a tree with purpose.
This may seem hard to imagine, but I haven’t always been able to understand trees. I know I seem the kind of guy that was probably conversing with trees since birth, but the fact is I didn’t learn tree empathy until I was well into my twenties. Sure, I loved trees, admired them; even thought often about if I were a tree, what tree would I be? But chat with them? Hardly.
Then one day I was camping alone on a solo canoe trip, and it got colder than normal; a change for which I was wholly unprepared. I needed to build a fire, a real fire not just a warm up the beans in the can embers type fire. I like the latter type fire because I’m basically lazy and hunting for wood is a chore I can live without. It doesn’t take much to heat a can of beans, so generally I’d just pull up scraps from around the site and coax them into a little pot warmer glow. But this time I was freezing and needed a little bon in my fire. So I headed into the woods a bit to find some dead wood I could scavenge.
Now having to bend over gives me a headache, not to mention a sore back, so anything at eyeball height was fair game for me. As luck would have it I came across a nice fat limb that looked to be dead and just waiting for someone to break it off. So I grabbed and pushed, hoping it would snap before I’d expended too much energy and needed a rest break. But it didn’t snap at all. In fact, what happened was….
“Vat da hell d’ya tink yer doin!”
Well, it scared the heck out of me! I thought I was alone!
“Let go o’my branch dis moment boy or by yiminy I’ll knock you ten miles to da vest o’here!”
It was the friggin tree! The tree was talking to me! I let go of the branch and stepped back a few feet.
“Dar now” it said, “var sa god. Vat da hell is it ya vant anyvays! Ya can’t yust go breakin branches offa any old tree ya know!”
I…I was cold” I stammered; “I need a fire or I’ll surely die!” (It was an exaggeration sure, but when you’re talking to a tree things come out that you might not have said to, say, a park ranger.)
“Vell den; vy didn’t you say so! Dars a dead villow behind me dare. Go ask him if you can take some vood den. I’m sure he von’t mind!”
It was obvious by his accent that he was a Norway Spruce, so I answered him with words my grandfather had taught me as a boy. “Tak sa myecket! I said. “Tusen tak!” I shouldn’t have done that of course, as then he started blabbing in Norse as if I knew more than a half dozen words. I quickly turned away as if I hadn’t heard him.
I tried to divine the proper response to my situation. I could run to the tent, jump in the sleeping bag and shiver myself to unconsciousness, hoping that by morning I would wake and discover that I was actually home in bed with a fever and had dreamed the whole thing; or I could lay down immediately, curl into a fetal ball and start babbling and drooling until I either froze to death or the funny farmers came to claim me. Neither option seemed doable; I was damn cold and I wanted that fire! So, what else could I do? I walked around the spruce and found the willow. Sure enough, there it was, dead as a doornail.
I thought about just ripping a few heat bearing logs from it’s girth, but the previous encounter had me spooked. “Excuse me mister willow” I said, cringing at the insanity of it all; "I heard you were dead, so do you mind if I take some scrap wood to make a fire so I don’t freeze to death?”
“What does it matter” said the willow. “I’m dead don’t you know. It’s not like I could do anything about it if you tore me apart. Go ahead, deface me!”
It was at that moment I learned tree empathy. I felt bad for the old guy. Here he was actually dead, and I wasn’t even hypothermic yet! I relented, hung my head and turned to walk back to my camp and accept my fate. Then I felt a poke.
“He vas yust kidden” said the spruce. “Tell da boy you vas yust kidden villow or I’ll move outa da vay da next time a big vind comes blowin tru!”
“Oh alright then” said the willow. “Of course you can have what you need. We dead trees know how to share. Why, I’d rather see me used for a good purpose than simply rot in place. I was joking youngster, take all the wood you’d like. Just… just don’t peel my bark if you would. I hate looking like a leper.”
I was overjoyed. Though I was prepared to lie and wait for the grim reaper for the sake of my new friends, the forest, I was really thinking that curling up next to a nice cozy fire would be a far better way to spend the next few hours. I thanked the willow and gathered enough scrap for a long night’s conflagration. Lucky I did, or I may not have made it out alive, and I could never have written this story!
But, why did I write this story you ask? Well, because I have another, much shorter story to tell and I wanted to give you some context, lest I simply blurt out my ability to talk with trees and have you suddenly think I’m nuts or something. I’m sure this way is much better for both of us.
Well anyway, I was walking through my back yard the other day when I heard a muffled voice say “Hey you! Down here!” Yes, I looked around and didn’t see a soul; not even a tree for gosh sake! So I kept walking, but on my second step it seemed as if a root came right out of the ground and tripped me! From my newly acquired prone position I said “ok, who’s the wise guy”. And then I heard “I see I’ve gotten your attention.”
“Hey, wait a minute” I protested; “You’re just a stump! That means you might have been a tree once, but now you’re definitely dead!”
“Yea sure, don’t rub it in. I’m dead alright, and I deserve some dignity!” The stump seemed a bit indignant, if stumps can indeed even be ticked off. “I need you to do something for me!”
I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear his request. After all, what might a stump want? Human sacrifice? A lamp, jug of cheap wine and a Gideon’s Bible? A female stump to make eyes at? I tried to step away but up came another root to block my toe’s path. It was inevitable that I would need to speak to him eventually. He was in my own backyard after all. It wasn’t like he was on some boulevard somewhere and I could just take another route to work. So I answered him.
“What do you want then?”
He whispered. “I need you to remove me. Could ya do that for me? Just eliminate what you can and leave what you can’t buried underground where I can rot in peace.”
“Why would you want to be destroyed?” I was beside myself. Sure it wasn’t a tree, but at least it could see the sun, and hope for the day when a volunteer branch might spurt from his innards and start him back on the climb.
“I know what you’re thinking” he said. “It’s no use. I’m dead. I’m not growing again, I’m not that kind of tree you ninny!”
“But” I insisted, "but there’s always hope!”
“If you were dead, would you have hope?”
He had a point. “Well no, but my dead and your dead are two different things!”
“Not so much” he countered. “And think of it this way… if you were dead and they buried you, only they left your big butt sticking out of the ground… wouldn’t you be mad as hell?”
“I suppose I would.” I stared directly at the stump. “You mean… that’s your butt?”
“Well” he said, “in a manner of speaking. So, will ya do it?”
I though about his request. I thought about the local cemetery, and tried to visualize what it might look like if all the dead bodies there had their butts sticking out of the ground. It was gross. It was humiliating. Of course I had to help the stump.
“Sure” I said, knowing that I was still as lazy as I was in my twenties and it might take quite a while before I’d actually put shovel to sod and hand axe to tap root. “I’ll make it right for you dead tree. I’ll destroy you so no one will ever see your rotting carcass again.”
He sighed, as only a stump can sigh. “Thanks” he said; “I’ll tell the other trees in the neighborhood what a great guy you are.”
I’d have been better off without his promise. Now every time I walk the dog, some tree is asking me a favor. “Can you trim up my branches? Water me please! Hey buddy, I have a canker here, can you cut it out for me, it’s embarrassing!”
Oh well. At least my life is interesting. I guess I have a summer chore to do. Destumpify.