Conversations with Trees

— J. Drew Lanham

Trees falling in forests and their silence in human absentia would lead one to believe that without our witness, there would be no stories. I believe the trees would beg to differ. Forests are gatherings of sylvan spirits come together from sprouts and seeds. They are fortuitous plantings by absent-minded rodents and over-zealous corvids forgetting buried caches of acorns, hickory and beechnut bounty. They are living formations born of forced flow and alluvium—streams nudging and rivers bullying their way through landscapes to dump castaway seeds and runaway soil to lay nurturing beds. They are the convergences of chance and capability; the wind playing games of chase with light-seeded things—willow duff blown hither and yon to find riverside landing; a breeze dumping maples, cottonwoods and yellow poplars far away from home in places plowed up and gone fallow to time and purpose. Some are choosy, but sweetgum and loblolly pines spring up wherever they choose—pioneers on new ground or in the case of the pines, planted in rows like turnips to be hewn down to become convenience for human use.

Listen carefully and you will hear birds tell tales of forests to come. Waxwings flock and dine—passing gossip among themselves all the while. In the feast they also pass the undigested remains of their fruit-lust and greed—dogwood drupes and juniper berries shat-cast to chance and fertile hopes. A fence line of eastern redcedar tells the stories of bluebird perch preferences and maybe which way the singing mockingbird tail wagged when the meal was done. Forests are planted by beasts and birds and bugs. By deceptively evolved design, there is goodness offered in the colorful thing that swings or dangles or drops. Bears answer affirmatively to the age-old question posed of their post-digestive proclivities. Find the dung pile and see the possibilities of persimmon and paw-paw in the deposit. The canids fix the future too. Foxes walk woodland trails—sniff and squat. The future has been chewed but not consumed. The pulpy meals are not squandered in the shit. Omnivore turds are filled with what was—the woodland future sticks to the assorted disassembled lives of unfortunate mice and not-quick-enough voles. Death by blood isn’t the end for a seed that cannot bleed. The steaming stomach of a doe, fresh fallen by my bullet in the hunt for my own sustenance, is filled with what the oak gave to her. Her rumen would’ve crushed almost all of the forest’s gifts in the cud-chewing cycle that ended when I made the decision for venison. I lay her past life out in a gut pile for the coyote to recycle. It will howl a song of thanksgiving for the both of us. She is concentrated Quercus re-jiggered in the life and death decision lain on my trigger finger. She will become me. I imagine in a year’s time a few of the acorns will sprout and grow to become more doe and fawn and buck to come. If wishes for my ashen end come true, then one day I will nourish the oak grove that will drop future acorns to the deer not yet born.

Beyond the planting by happenstance or purpose; nurturing by soil, sunlight, water and time must combine for the community of giants to be. Here, in my southern piedmont place, sticky red clay clings tick-tight to sweetgum and shortleaf pine roots. Above the foothills, in dim lit mountain coves, the last of the eastern hemlock struggles in murderous blight. Climb the wooded slopes through chestnut oak and heath hells to the table mountain pine on the hogback ridges that demand crown fires to split and spill themselves from sap-glued cones. Only then can the winged seeds spin down to bare ground with any chance of growing.

South of the foothills, downhill towards coast longleaf grows tall and straight in drought-prone sandhills and lower still in flatwoods. Like its montane pyrophytic Pinus kin, it too wants to be fire-kissed-but in kinder ways. Backfires—by lightning or human hand lit—burning low and slow clear the way for ground-hugging pom-pom tufts of longleaf seedlings that rocket up in fifty years—give or take—to skyscraping boles that might house red-cockaded woodpeckers in sap-weeping cavities. Underneath the giants in wiregrass understories, bobwhite quail covey and Bachman’s “pinewood’s” sparrow whistle sweet songs. What’s left of the tens of millions of acres of the “King of the Pines” is a pitiful fraction of what should be. So much fell to perceived progress—from ship masts catching the wind and naval stores cat-faced drained to gum up the hulls on Her Majesty’s man-o-wars’ sailing to imperialized global subjugation; to acres felled in record time to crosscut saws and feller bunchers for cotton field and greed, not much remains.

Where the water drains, lies and sits, the trees swell and buttress themselves against the storms and floods sure to come. The cypresses send up knobby knees too—deer-eye high to genuflect in some coniferous prayer. The green giants that touch the sky all breathe out what we must breathe in. It is a necessary quid pro quo—exhale for inhale, lungs for leaves—our blood enriched for their xylem and phloem. Forests are the unfathomable gene pools where evolution swims. Beyond all the biota that flies, scurry, swim and hurry there are unseen millions of minions dwelling in cracks and crannies. Under moldering leaf litter up through towering canopies, life begets life. Bird song winds through the timber. Frogs and crickets croak and whisper. A buck grunts and a doe bleats. The sun meters the seasons through frost and humidity; through cold and heat.

I’ve talked to trees, but they seem more often in the mood to speak than listen to me. Maples rustle and gossip to blushing in cool autumn rain. Hickories flush saffron on the dry hillsides and tell the secrets the blue jays would rather hide. In the winter cold, timber standing beside the rivers yield somber tones—splotch-skinned sycamores sketch stories on gray skies. Bare-branches bone clatter in restless winds. Trunks twist and the souls from somewhere deep within groan.

Have you ever listened to the ways the trees gather the summer dreams of birds? The vireos chatter over nests of web wound moss. Migratory messages pass wing to wing in chips and warbles. Who’s back from the tropical stay? Prothonotary warblers pass the roll along in golden tweets from bough to bough and hole to hole. In the shadows of the clouds the trees spit out, a swallow-tailed kite drifts heaven high held up on a string of heat and hopes. It tilts in and out of view, black and white against blue sky.

Back up the “hill”, yellow-throated warblers creep along the limbs of longleaf. They are listening and learning. The old growth pines murmur through their needles, casting rumors of coming storms, cleansing fires and quenching rains. You can almost hear the old growth’s heartwood beating. The song of fire and wire grass is a quieter one now but yet those left brag about black stockings and catface scars. They miss the old, slow tortoises that gophered among their roots and miss the diamondback rattlers lying quiet and quail busting from the briars. There are the echoes of what was, in what remains—ivory-bills in big timber, Carolina parakeets in backwater swamps, Bachman’s warblers in bottomland canebrakes. Extinction looms heavy in places once whole. There are some still standing old enough to remember when the ghosts of gone birds were flesh and blood and feather. Yes, the trees in my southern home place have much to say. I sit eavesdropping in piedmont forests of oak and hickory; I hike through moist coves of tulip poplar and basswood. I wander longingly in longleaf pine savanna and see myself mirrored in cypress-tupelo blackwater. It is meditation. It is an exercise in understanding my place in this world. Among root-bound beings who’ve seen the ages past—both good and bad, I am inspired to insignificance. I find reverence in that proper belonging where my five decades shrink in the centuries that plunge deeper than I can know and stretch higher than I can see. I’ve been told that wisdom lies first in listening and last in speaking. Whether I am there to hear one fall, or present to see the seed sprout, the voices of all of them echo loudest heartward.

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