What stories trees would tell if only they could talk.

 

The venerable limbs of an oak at sunset. If only we knew what the trees had witnessed. Photograph: J Gerald Crawford.
The venerable limbs of an oak at sunset. If only we knew what the trees had witnessed. Photograph: J Gerald Crawford.

SHE WAS pulchritudinous!

Her thick branches grew horizontally and formed a crown about ninety-eight feet in diameter. She wore her branches proudly and presented a powerful dignity.

From the moment of her germination, my mom lived side by side with the organisms that eventually killed her. Insects created small wounds in her wood, ivy scrambled up her trunk, and fungal spores settled on her branches and infected her. Slowly, she surrendered to her attackers. She was dead. At the end of her fifty years, she produced me, just a little seedling.

Most of my early life was lived with many other acorns among the leaf litter on the ground.  The first few months of my life were hazardous. I hid from invertebrates, microscopic nematode worms and insects . I survived and matured into a cute little sprout. I enjoyed plenty of rainfall and sunshine. As the leaves broke down, the minerals they contained were released and absorbed by me. I stayed alive through a hard winter. Then, in the spring, my real birth happened. I germinated from a forgotten stockpile created by squirrels. In only five days, my seedcase was lifted off the ground by my developing stem. My roots grew deeper into the ground, and rootlets began to branch out just below soil level. As I grew, my trunk and branches expanded upward and outward. Surrounded by an abundance of others like me, I was sturdy and strong. Well nourished, tall, with bark for protection from the outside world, I was a sturdy oak. I bore fruit, provided shade , a place to climb, place to tie a swing or a rope ladder.

In my lifetime, I encountered canine, feline, and humans.

Cats ran up my trunk and got stuck in the top of me. There they were at risk of starvation and dehydration because it is virtually impossible to obtain food and water. That situation necessitated retrieval and rescue. That’s where humans entered the scene.
Speaking of humans, why do they think dogs are a tree’s best friend? Dog urine kills my kind. Acid will eat right through my bark to my wood zone and destroy my defense system .

I had no real human connection until I saw them walking through my world of nature. At first, I welcomed them and offered some shade when they acknowledged me. When I spied loggers and a tractor hauling circular saws, chain saws, cutters and grabbers, I had a conscious realization that I was in danger. One day, a bulldozer equipped with a brontosaurus attachment, pushed me over . I wanted to stand, preserve my natural character rooted in the earth.” Stop! I am a contributing member of the biotic community! I provide your oxygen.”

Felling my friends and me was a process that took many days. I screamed , “Help me ! I’m being massacred!.” Somebody hear my voice! I don’t want to leave my home. don’t like this despicable behavior!” Not knowing my future, I wept.

First came the conversion, the rough, painful sawing. Second came the re-sawing, more accurate cutting and finishing. A Victorian upright piano was my new transformation. A wood carver held a chisel in one hand and a mallet in the other to form molding of leaves and flowers for my heavily detailed ornamentation in my panels from top to bottom and all my sides. The manufacture shipped me to a very small family owned furniture store in south Alabama.

Grandma Bessie bought me in 1910. She could not read music. She played by ear. She knew every song in the Baptist Hymnal. Her little blind daughter, Ruby, learned to play simply by aural reference. I was handed down from generation to generation. Ruby’s daughter, Theresa, learned to play some of her specific melodies by sitting on a bench next to her mother. Theresa gave me a butterscotch color paint job, covering my beautiful finish. Theresa’s daughter, Terry, with no knowledge of theory or notes, learned to play tunes on me, too. When she was a teenager with a basement apartment of her own, she painted my ivory with fluorescent acrylic paint allowing my keys to shimmer and reflect characteristics of changing colors under a black light. The illumination was awesome. Each flower and leaf had gold added. At that time, 1960s, the craze was to transform an ordinary piece of furniture into a stunning “antique” with a little paint and glaze for an aging distress effect. So, now I was a green color. Hey, wait! That distressed me all right! I was already an antique!

Faye Crawford refinishing her piano.
Faye Crawford refinishing her piano.

In 1976, Terry sold me to her cousin, Faye, for forty dollars. I was put in a pick-up truck ,moved two blocks, and placed in the basement where Faye proceeded to restore me for the next eight months. With rubber gloves on her hands, she applied gallons of Formby’s Furniture Refinisher, a chemical paint remover to clean down to my raw wood. The fumes were thick and noxious. I wanted to cough. I was glad when she rolled me outside in the fresh air to work. Gliding the scraper across my surface to remove the old dull dirt and paint, was soothing. She used steel wool and water to rinse the last of the gook. My bare wood was gently sanded, stained, and varnished. I got some much needed attention with obscuring details to my molding and carvings. The colorful ivory was popped off my keys and replaced with plastic. I could feel the love that went into all that work.

I never saw the upstairs in that house. My humans moved from Birmingham shortly after my face lift was completed. This time, I rode in a large moving van for eight hundred miles to Texas. That long ride presented unique problems. I was bulky, fragile, and was not securely wrapped in a blanket. I needed something to soothe my nervous system and get me in tune again, so I received an internal restoration. I had a permanent place in the living room for twelve years. As a child, Faye had a strong desire to play, but by the time I came along, it was gone. Her son, Stan, used his tonal memory to recall a popular song, and quickly figure out the notes. Dei Dei, her daughter, took lessons, could read simple sheet music, but her fascination to learn withered. Once , though, a gifted pianist, singer, and songwriter, Duncan, came to visit. His blindness gave him insight into my heart. He made me sing like I never had. His fingers played all of my eighty-eight keys and activated sweet melodiousness with depth and feeling. He even used my pedals! No one else in my life had mastered past the basic techniques of playing.

Time to move again. I went back to my home state of Alabama, but this time to Montgomery.  There was not enough room for me in an apartment, so I was put in a stuffy storage unit. Extreme cold and hot temperatures began to dry out my wood . I wanted someone to rescue me. After all, I was a musical instrument beginning to deteriorate with lack of care in my old age.

Faye gave me to Bob, her brother. Once again, I was loaded into a truck. I endured another long distant move. This time, I traveled one hundred miles to live in Chelsea, Alabama. Memories of the climate control home resided in my heart. I was cleaned and waxed all over to provide extra moisture. I could breathe, again. The house was decorated with lovely antiques, and I felt as beautiful as they were.

Country living with its fantastic scenery and peacefulness was at its premium. The sky was clear, with a light breeze from the south and a cold shiver from the north. A delicious aroma in the kitchen reached my senses. The warmth of the fireplace was amazing and mesmerizing. I was home and feeling cozy.

Until…

I smelled smoke.

I heard a crackling sound.

A spark had escaped from the fireplace.

I could see the flickering of flames before they reached me.

The fire was intense as it wrapped itself around me.

The flames went up from under my keys and around my back and engulfed me.

The fire burned away my panels and revealed my strings. With the majority of my wood gone, my skeletal metal frame was revealed.

The fire swept through the entire house. It seemed to laugh deviously as it sizzled and sent roaring flames into the ceiling bringing the roof down on me.

Soon I was overtaken by heat and smoke. I tumbled over.

Nothing was left of me. Not even my screws.

The searing inferno charred me into a carpet of ashes in a heap of blackened rubble.

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