“You know,” said the claims adjuster, tilting his head as far back as it would go to gaze up at Grandfather’s huge branches, “you really ought to take this one out.”
Oblivious to the horrified look on my face, he continued, “The first thing I did when I bought my place was clear cut everything. Just to be safe, you know.”
To be fair, the claims adjuster was there because the temperamental black gum tree, further back in the yard, had just dropped a massive branch on the mud porch, doing enough damage that the insurance folks had to be contacted.
What he didn’t know was that 1) He was dealing with a fanatic tree-hugger, 2) I had actually hugged this tree, and 3) This tree had a name: Grandfather.
Grandfather is an enormous white oak at the bottom of the driveway. He is by far the biggest tree on a street of very large trees; his branches soar into the sky, and his trunk is so large before it roots into the ground that two people with outstretched arms could barely encircle it.
This tree was one of the first things I saw when I first looked at the house. Far from thinking, “That will have to go,” I instead marveled that this living thing, likely 200 or more years old, would be part of the place I lived in every day.
I’m not an arborist, but in my untutored opinion, Grandfather is old enough to have stood there when few humans were here but the Cherokee, and the Cherokee are on my side.
Karen Raley, in her essay “Maintaining Balance: The Religious World of the Cherokee,” writes: “Everything in the Cherokee environment—from corn and tobacco to eagles, deer, and snakes to fire and smoke to creeks and mountains—had an intelligent spirit and played a central role in Cherokee myths as well as daily practices. Native peoples did not view themselves as separate from their environment—they were a part of it.
“Like other native peoples, the Cherokees did not try to rule over nature but instead tried to keep their proper place within it.”
My proper place is to live alongside Grandfather, who is a flourishing eco-system. Birds nest in his branches, fungi live on them, and no one knows how many generations of squirrels have lived hidden among them. He is beautiful in every season: Magnificently furbished in leaves, he shades one whole side of the house in summer. In fall, he is a symphony of color (and his acorns patter against the roof like hard rain). Dark against the winter sky, his leafless outline is awe-inspiring. And in spring, as he leafs out in yellow-green, he is a reminder of renewal I see every time I walk down the driveway.
Of course, the claims adjustor was right. If Grandfather did fall toward the house, his bulk would crush a large portion of the front rooms. But I see that as part of the contract I made when I agreed to come and live in this place. Don’t get me wrong—tree trimming that preserves trees and at the same time, protects your property is just common sense. But to kill something that is far older than me, that has seen generations of not only squirrels but humans come and go, just to be “safe?” I’ll take my chances, thank you.
It’s the humans who have come after the Cherokee that I fear—the ones who cannot seem to grasp that it’s not about saving owls rather than creating jobs, who deny climate change in the face of overwhelming evidence, who do, in fact, believe that we as a species are entitled to do anything we wish to this place we live, no matter how destructive…because we can.
In “Leaves of Grass,” Walt Whitman included a short poem I have always loved, “I Saw in Louisiana A Live-Oak Growing”:
I saw in Louisiana a live-oak growing,
All alone stood it and the moss hung down from the branches,
Without any companion it grew there uttering joyous leaves of dark green,
And its look, rude, unbending, lusty, made me think of myself,
But I wonder’d how it could utter joyous leaves standing alone there without its friend near, for I knew I could not,
And I broke off a twig with a certain number of leaves upon it, and twined around it a little moss,
And brought it away, and I have placed it in sight in my room,
It is not needed to remind me as of my own dear friends,
(For I believe lately I think of little else than of them,)
Yet it remains to me a curious token, it makes me think of manly love;
For all that, and though the live-oak glistens there in Louisiana solitary in a wide flat space,
Uttering joyous leaves all its life without a friend a lover near,
I know very well I could not.