Though to the outer ear these trees are now silent, their songs never cease. —John Muir
I ran into Loering down at the post office. His tall thin frame hovered over the long table by the window as he sorted through the stack of envelopes freshly extracted from his post office box.
“They’re taking down the big ash tree on Maple Street,” I told him.
The director of public works in town had ordered that the ancient tree be taken down. Many of its dead and decayed limbs had fallen without warning over the past year. The old tree had become a public liability.
“I saw them working on it this morning when I walked down for the mail,” Loering said. “That’s the last one to go.”
“The last of the original trees on that street. Over the years I’ve watched them all come down, one by one—some diseased, some damaged in storms. I counted the rings on the last big one to come down before this one. I reckoned it dated back to 1806.”
Loering’s cloudy blue eyes danced in the late morning sunlight that streamed in through the front window.
“Now when that tree took root,” he mused, “Thomas Jefferson was president. Lewis and Clark were just returning from their voyage of discovery. The war of 1812 hadn’t been fought yet. Just think of all the history that tree witnessed over the years,” he grinned. “Why, if trees could talk, I wonder what they would tell us.”
Slowly, I nodded. The power of the imagination. Time and again I encounter the thoughts of a philosopher in the least likely of places. In this life there are no ordinary moments.
“From the diameter of the trunk, it must be at least 150 years old,” I told him.
“I guess we’ll find out soon enough,” he winked.
By the end of that day the town workers had taken down all of the branches on the big ash tree except one, leaving the massive trunk standing.
With no advanced notice, the men returned early one morning the following week to finish the job. They couldn’t have picked a more miserable day: cold, damp, overcast and rainy. Wearing fluorescent yellow slickers and yellow hardhats, the men worked steadily through the rain. By mid morning they had felled the trunk.
When the tree surgeon made the final cut through the base, a great volume of dark brown frothy liquid bubbled out. It was almost as though the old tree had hemorrhaged in its death throes.
That afternoon the sun came out. When I returned home from work in the evening, I went out to inspect what was left of the big tree.
I climbed up on the massive stump and with a straw broom brushed off the remaining debris.
The center of the stump had rotted, leaving a soft spongy black pulp devoid of any markings. I measured the base along several distinct diameters and recorded anywhere from 52 to 60 inches.
Genuflecting on one knee, I notched the first visible ring near the spongy pulp with my pen knife and started counting outward—118 rings. I measured the pulpy heart, and reckoned the tree to be about 135 – 140 years old—close to my initial estimate of 150 years. This tree dated back to 1869.
The ancient ash had certainly seen a lot of history: a century of wars; the invention of the airplane, radio and television; the atomic bomb; the civil rights movement; a man on the moon; the fall of the Berlin wall; the tragedy of 9/11; the election of the first black American president.
Loering’s words echoed inside my head: “If trees could talk, I wonder what they would tell us.” What would this one have said?
I rose to my feet and regarded the remnant of the old ash, straining to hear its ceaseless song.