An Old Tree and a New Year

“Things will go as they will, and there is no need to hurry and meet them” – Treebeard the Ent (as quoted by J.R.R. Tolkein)

While strolling through the Forest Preserve one day, in the merry, merry month of December, I was taken, although not exactly by surprise, by a very weather-beaten old living being of immense size.

He moved with the wind so daintily, moving as graceful as can be. His legs were like the trunk of a tree. I amounted to nothing as he stood next to me.

And in fact, it was a tree. A stately, 200 year-old green ash tree with its roots planted firmly in the soil of the Sangamon River Forest Preserve.

The impressive deep and craggy bark of the ash tree’s trunk evokes an image of Treebeard, the living forest friend of Tolkein’s Hobbits.

I’ve passed this way before, and I often stop by for a brief chat.  So as the new year arrives and we toss out that old geezer Grandfather Time, born so many months ago (12, to be exact) and start anew with “Baby New Year”, I asked the 200 year-old ash whether it was excited about the coming new year.

“What is your hurry?” the ash asked in reply, “Most years pass, same as before.”

“Yeah, I guess there’s not much that surprises a 200 year-old.”

“Every year brings change, much of it unexpected. Some good; some not so good. The next will be little different, I expect.” The ash replied.

“So even though every year brings change, they’re all the same?” I observed, slightly confused.

“Over the years I have learned not to be surprised by the unexpected.”

It’s quite the battle-scarred tree, hollowed out and with its crown lost to a wild thunderstorm a few years back. But still, with a trunk nearly 13 feet around, it holds firm; a testament to the will to survive and of the tenacity of life itself.

“So on the New Year, what advice does a 200 year-old ash tree have for readers (hi, Mom!) of a bi-weekly column in the Mahomet Citizen?” I inquired.

“Stay firmly rooted; always remember your roots.” “Sounds good,” I said, pen and pad in hand.

The great ash continued: “Stand tall. But be sure and bend your branches when a strong wind blows.”

“Good advice,” I added, and the tree continued: “This lesson have I learned the hard way.”

“And always listen to the sounds of nature; the voices in the wind. Eventually you’ll hear everything you need to know.”

Then it added: “And always listen to the voices inside your own head.”

“Well, I don’t hear voices in my head,” I countered, “but I always listen to trees when they talk to me.”

“Are you quite sure of what you’re hearing?” asked the ash. I wasn’t sure what he meant by that. I mean, does he really think I could make this stuff up?

In any case, I was about to bid the tree a good year, when he added, “This year, the geese are flying south and a chill wind blows.”

This was pretty obvious, but it occurred to me that sometimes old trees talk in metaphors.

“Is there some threat I should be aware of?”

The great ash answered “There is an impending threat to the very existence of me and my kind.”

“What is it?” I asked, “Harsh winter? Big storm? Fire? Flood? Drought? Climate change?”

“No, all of these have I survived.” Answered the ash. “A small creature, brought by humans from a great, distant land. It’s killed millions of my kind already. It’s not far away right now. This small creature portends the end. Of it, I have no defense.”

And so at the dawn of 2015, I thought of this great tree, this living tribute to long life, born around 1814, the Lincoln Ash Tree, standing not far from the Sangamon River and now perhaps brought down by a tiny insect, the emerald ash borer.

So with some sorrow and a heavy heart, I bid the stately old ash a fond farewell. But I was glad for its wisdom, the wisdom of many years passing. There is much to be learned from old things, including survival itself. Along with the acceptance of inevitable change. Not a bad thought for the start of a new year, I observed.

I found myself wishing there was something I could do to help the tree – a message I could somehow share after it had shared so much with me. But how to get the word out to people about halting the spread of emerald ash borers to help trees such as this one stay with us a bit longer?

What can I do?

I’ll close this week with apologies to Ed Haley, writer of the Fountain in the Park (published 1884) for my take on a song more commonly known as While Strolling Through the Park One Day.

He moved with the wind so daintily, moving as graceful as can be.

I thought I’d seen a lot of things, from New York to Colorado Springs.

From his topmost branches down to his trunk, from the back up to the front, the green ash tree is so astonishing. The green ash tree is so astonishing.

Appeared as Notes from the River, Mahomet Citizen, Janary 1, 2015 by Scott Hays


Comments are closed.