Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

September 23, 2012

Funeral for a friend: Death of a giant provides opportunity for reflection

There was no obituary, no hymns. No one standing at an altar sharing stories of his majestic life. He passed out of this world with no fanfare. Standing proud one minute; then taken down by the ravages of time and nature.

He was one of thousands gracing southern West Virginia’s woodlands. A proud, majestic oak whose 50-foot-plus tall trunk bore evidence of his advanced age.

Some 20 years ago, the last time I’d hiked through this particular section of woods, he was still standing — his giant branching limbs casting shadows and shade on the forest floor.

I didn’t remember him specifically, as the large section of land is an abundant old-growth forest — home to squirrels, deer, birds, bear, wild turkeys, other wildlife and, for the past 50 years, a family whose kids and adults have enjoyed hiking and exploring all the nooks and crannies of this wonderful world of nature.

Veering off the beaten path while hiking with the dogs on a recent weekend, I noticed the oak’s demise from a vantage point on top of the ridge. He lay on the side of the mountain; his large body and branches having crunched several smaller trees when he crashed to the leaf littered hillside.

It was a scene of destruction. The crash to the ground was obviously quick, but who knew what had caused its fall. A quick bolt of lightning? A slow death from disease or injury?

Two quick whistles and the dogs ceased their roaming. They’d been intent on following the scent of any and all creatures that had tread the mountaintop in the days before, but now they fell into step beside me as we walked toward the fallen steward of our forest.

I couldn’t help but wonder if the tree made a sound when it fell. Normally, I would have had a grin for the appropriateness of the old question in this situation, yet the sight of the grandiose oak sprawled and splintered on the ground gave me nothing to smile about.

• • •

We reached the scene in just a few minutes. With each step closer the full scope of the devastation became more apparent.

The oak’s large frame rested atop another tree almost as large. At one time they probably stood a mere five to 10 feet apart. Now, their lifeless bodies were intertwined in a juxtaposition of rotting wood and flaking, decaying bark.

With no wildlife biology degree or studies under my belt, I had no idea whether the trees had fallen separately or at the same time during one tragic act. Then I realized it really didn’t matter.

No matter how strong and infallible they may appear, these giants in our forests can be as frail as their human neighbors. Destroyed by a single blow or slowly devastated by internal or external factors — some within our control, some not.

The yellow Labs, in a constant state of hyper-excitement, reached the trees well before me and began jumping over the trunks and through the branches in an impromptu canine obstacle course. Quickly, I gave the signal for them to go play and chase scent.

The sight of their jubilant, tail-wagging dance around the trees didn’t seem appropriate.

Taking a seat on moss-covered rock beside the broken giants, I wondered at my melancholy mood. In the past 18 years I’d experienced my share of mourning with the loss of both parents, my grandparents, a few good friends, and some of my best friends of the four-legged variety. Why, I wondered, was I now feeling sad for two anonymous trees?

• • •

The shadows on the ground lengthened considerably before I gave the final whistle to start the hike back home. During that time of reflection, I thought about my youth, and the many walks and explorations through the forest with my siblings, my father, my friends — and the many, many treks I’d taken on my own.

Growing up in the country, the woods have always been a second home. Traversing the parent-forbidden underground caves and swinging across ravines on grapevines, the forest offered excitement and summertime adventures. On rare lonely days of childhood, a walk through its paths — listening to birds and bugs and winds whistling through leaves — provided an uplifting feeling of serenity and familiarity.

And, when life threw you a curve ball, the woods provided comfort. Around the age of 6, I sat in the bough of a chestnut tree and cried my heart out over the death of our first dog, Brownie. We had buried her in the shade under the tree’s branches.

Maturing into full-fledged adulthood, I began losing touch with this special place. Although I was always at the “homeplace” visiting family, work and other duties began taking precedence over walks in the woods. I would manage a quick hike once or twice a year, yet slowly but surely I began losing touch with the one place that had always provided me peace and solace.

• • •

Before walking off the mountain, I stroked the oak’s cracked trunk and ran my fingers across the lichens now growing across its bark.

Closing my eyes, I envisioned it in its days of grandeur — bending but not breaking in the midst of a violent thunderstorm, weathering a Nor’easter’s blanket of snow and standing tall in the summer, with leaves and limbs embracing a kaleidoscope of sunbeams.

I had no eloquent speech, but it was a visual eulogy. A funeral for a friend.

Samantha Perry is editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact her at sperry@bdtonline.com. Follow her @BDTPerry.

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