Some trees are simply beautiful. Their branches are strong, and their roots reach deep down, firmly anchoring them between earth and sky. We gather at their trunks and call it “base” in games of tag, relax and refresh ourselves beneath the branches, and we rake their leaves in the fall for piles to jump in.
We also cut them and use the lumber to build houses, make paper, and a host of other items. We depend on trees to filter the air we breathe, create wind blocks, deter erosion, and the list goes on. It’s hard to imagine a world with no trees; they have helped humanity advance in numerous ways.
Tugboat Ropes and Tire Swings
In the back yard at my Grandpa’s farm there is a majestic oak tree with an old tugboat rope tied to a long low branch. At the bottom of the rope there are three or four knots tied one above the other. Further down the branch is another rope, with a tire tied to its end.
Grandpa could have chopped that tree down when he built the home that he and my grandmother would raise their children and grandchildren in, but he didn’t. There was something about that oak tree that spoke to him, and he enjoyed its shade when he needed some respite from the Missouri heat.
Over the past 65 years, the old oak in the backyard has grown into a towering colossus with wide spread branches. Countless children have played on, under, around, swung from, and even hidden among the leaves and limbs. It has watched over the farm like a leafy sentry for decades.
Indian Summers and Tall Tales
Visits to the farm were always filled with wonder. Grandpa didn’t raise corn or beans, he raised animals of all sorts. It was a regular zoo, sometimes. Birds of every shape, size, and color nested or roosted in the oak tree. There was truly nothing as magical to my younger self than when they would be startled by some small noise and lift off all at once and soar into the clear blue sky.
I remember snapping beans and shucking corn with my Grandma in the shade of that old oak as I grew older and
was more help than hindrance. When I needed privacy, I’d take my book and “hide” on the far side of the tree, leaned against the trunk, and from the other side it seemed I’d disappeared.
Life moves slower on hazy summer evenings, and the sun setting behind the oak was breathtaking. Fireflies danced around, sparking and hiding their lights, casting an almost eerie green glow against the bark before flitting off to light again a short distance away. It was the perfect setting for evening stories about my ancestors, or the daring river folk who navigated the Mighty Mississippi just a dozen miles away.
Fish Fries and Fairy Folk
Kids will believe just about anything that excites their imagination, and I was no different. I imagined the acorns scattered around the roots were being harvested by the fairies I was sure were hiding somewhere close by. Countless hours were spent removing the caps for fairy hats or bowls, and the nuts were dutifully stacked in little mounds for the pixies and sprites to carry home for supper.
It may sound far-fetched, but that same branch our swings hung from also supported Grandpa’s prize bull’s favorite toy! A huge tractor tire was strung on a log chain and dangled from the tree. ‘Big Red’ would bat it around with his head or balance it on his nose like a trained dog. There is nothing I’ve seen since quite like the joy that bull got from his tire toy!
Perhaps my fondest memories of that grand tree were the family fish fries that were held beneath its shady canopy. Platters of steaming fried catfish filets, bowls of tangy coleslaw, piles of roasted corn on the cob, crocks of baked beans, and baskets of fruit of all types drew friends and family for miles around. Unlike formal dinners, it was perfectly acceptable to eat with your fingers, and throw the leftovers over the fence to treat the animals.
Reaching Ever Upward
I’m grown now, with kids of my own, but I still get that feeling of peace and happiness when I visit the farm, and my favorite tree. Four generations of my family have lived, laughed, loved, and lost yet, the tree remains. I know that when the day comes that the old oak falls, a piece of my soul will go with it. For now, though, I think that it has many years left to grow.
Occasionally, I get the photo album out, and relive the memories that created the person I am today. When I get to the pages of the farm, it’s heartwarming to see how it’s grown as I have. An old story that has been told and retold in my family reminds me how old the great big oak tree my Grandpa refused to cut down really is, and I wanted to share it with you before I go.
The story goes like this: A long time ago, before the Mississippi ran backward, before the area was settled, the trees grew wild and free. The tribes that made the river valley home gathered just like we do now to celebrate the harvest. Back then, the cedar trees were giant, and were rivalled only by the sequoia trees out West. Scouts would climb to the highest branches and scan the horizon for friends and foes.
One day, the cedars had all been cut down, and turned into houses and buggies and rafts and wagon wheels. This was a good place to call home. Over time, new trees began to grow where the great cedars once were. Legend has it the oak tree sprang upfrom a dropped acorn that long ago fell out of the pocket of child very much like me.