Hurricane Irene has come and gone through Currituck County, washing away a few stretches of road and flooding plenty of low-lying land. It happens a lot in that region, and many locals, especially those whose families have lived in the county long before The Weather Channel could tell them to evacuate, just stay put and weather the storm, literally.
Damage is measured in soaking wet garages, buckled hardwood floors, missing screens, broken glass, and fallen trees. It’s measured too, of course, in lives, but no one goes there unless they’re forced to.
I remember one year after a season of hurricanes, my cousins’ grandparents (the set we didn’t share) finally decided that the few pines left in their yard just needed to go before they fell through the house. We drove by their home, and I remember looking at the yard, which used to be as shaded as the woods even though it was waterfront property, and thinking, “It’s BALD!” The yard looked different, but stranger still, the house looked different—a little awkward, spookily tall, too scantily clad. I felt sorry for it.
There’s a hierarchy of tree loss, it seems. Pine and cypress go, and that’s just life. If they fall onto open ground without shearing off part of a house or crunching a car, they’re removed like any other debris. Fat trees are different. The thick branch of an oak, severed in a storm, is met with a kind of grief that glimmers with what we’d normally reserve for animals or people. Even if the tree survives, we say to each other, “But it’s lopsided now. It looks crooked. Hope it grows full again…” It’s not an arm, but we act as if it is.
When they topple, well, that’s just its own thing. There’s no other way of talking about it. A tree fell. A big tree, a good one.
Irene’s rains and the wind that sent the sound’s waves up over the bulkhead of my mother’s backyard softened the earth enough that at some point, the gusts of the massive storm shoved her only pecan tree to the ground. The tree fell whole, roots still holding onto the soil like a clenched fist, and she took a bowlful of mushy earth up with her in the falling. She landed toward the house, but my mother’s yard is long and wide and the pecan landed in the empty space like it was a bed.
I married Mark under that tree, about a decade after I decided I was going to marry someone under that tree, if I ever got married. My friend and bridesmaid Liz, whose own wedding was a fabulous affair at one of Washington, D.C.’s best hotels, gave a toast at the reception and said, “Ginny told me after my wedding, ‘I’m just getting married under Mom’s pecan tree.’ And now, here we are. The day is here.”
And so was the tree.
We had protected the pecan for as long as she was ours. I swear if we could have brought that tree inside during storms, we would have, with the lawn chairs. When Hurricane Isabel barreled through in 2003, the tree began to lean southward. She was staked, the metal cable anchored about six feet away into the lawn. When I returned from Thailand, I brought with me the brightly colored strips of cloth used to decorate Bo trees and the longboats. The Bo tree is sacred to Buddhists; there were trees in Thailand that could barely be seen under their adornments. The longboats sailed with the fabric tied around their bows like scarves, for protection from harm. I loved the bright colors and the sentiment, and I tied each strip around the pecan tree and just asked the universe to let her stand until I got married. I was single at the time. Very single.
When my mom called to tell me that the pecan tree had fallen, I posted a picture of her from our wedding onto my Facebook wall, letting everyone know what happened. I thought a few people would comment and say that they were sorry to hear it, that they were glad everyone was safe, and go on with their day.
To my surprise, people were truly moved. They seemed genuinely grieved the way I was. My friend Mike, who is Liz’s husband, sent articles on how to right a fallen tree, hopeful that it could be done. I wrote to him and thanked him, but said that since the pecan tree is so big, so top-heavy, I didn’t think she had a chance.
The reaction reminded me of the poisoning of Toomer’s Oaks at Auburn University, when a rabid Alabama football fan took a powerful herbicide to the rival campus’s 130-year old oaks. People were outraged. Auburn fans brought gifts to the trees and placed them at their trunks. One reporter even called the poisoning an “assassination.” It became a commentary on football, on sportsmanship, on the dignity of life, and mostly on cruelty. Ironically, humans do worse to humans, grant less dignity and freedom to each other, and it doesn’t become a lesson the way it does when the victims are plants. The act either becomes something less, or as in the case of the Auburn oaks, something much more.
I don’t know why this is; I only know that it is. Trees, I think, and flowers, have a kind of dual existence; they are both living and yet mostly still. It’s something we have trouble being ourselves. It’s no wonder that the Buddha, upon reaching enlightenment, stared unblinking at the Bo tree in gratitude. Trees can be touchstones of perspective. I dare you to find a big uncrowded tree, surrounded only by land or a bit of water, and tell me it hasn’t made you a little happier. It’s just nice. And trees are timeless, too—unless you’re a landscaper, or one of those fashionable people who believes that every thing on earth can have its “moment,” there really are no trendy trees. Buildings, streets, cars, and clothes change. Trees grow a bit each year, or die, but their kind is not the one dating years and decades. The pecan tree did not look much different on my wedding day than it did the ten years before when I decided I would get married under it. All that changing I did—the tree didn’t need it. How lucky for her.
Johnny, my mom’s neighbor and a man that just seems always to be a great help in these kinds of situations, told my mom yesterday that he thought the tree could be righted. Johnny’s home is a working farm where he keeps horses and cows, and in a thunderstorm a few months back, one of those horses was struck by lightning and died instantly. In my heart I wonder if he saw the pecan tree as a life that could be saved, something not so far gone it couldn’t maybe come back.
There is a line. It’s gray sometimes though…
He did say that it would be a lot of work, and that the job might be cost-prohibitive.
To which Mom said, “Or not.”
So, one Johnny, two helpers, one backhoe, two chainsaws, and one steel cable–running from her trunk to an anchoring post in the Currituck Sound–and she’s back, just a little worse for the wear. If she stays a while, lovely. If she decides it’s time to go, that’s okay too. We just wanted to give her a little more time to stand by the water and think about it.
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