“Places remember what people forget.”
Richard Powers, The Overstory
I recently saw a documentary about sentinel trees. Sentinel trees have witnessed major events in history. For example, they were examining the trees in Gettysburg, PA who saw the bloodiest battle of the Civil War.
It got me thinking of all that trees observe. In the White Mountains of California, there are Great Basin bristle cone pine trees that are thousands of years old. What have they seen in their lifetimes? Pioneers in covered wagons searching for prosperity in the new west? Curious and inventive citizens have certainly sampled their bark for medicinal purposes.
I thought of all of the trees in my own history. Like that mammoth oak that had the tire swing in my friend’s backyard growing up. I was afraid of that tire swing because the tree was the size of a building! The tire swing was high above the ground. The yard had a steep slope, so it would swing right over her mother’s garden. One day, I twisted up my courage and attempted to master the tire swing. I did not ride in the middle of the tire like most kids. I decided to straddle the top of the thing and ride away! Little did I know I would get frightened mid-flight, let go and landed directly in her mother’s vegetable garden—just a foot or two away from the tomato stakes. I could have been impaled! Yet, I looked up and saw the tree. Its green canopy above signified that I was OK.
There was also another tree in my backyard. It provided shade for the whole yard. I believe it was another mighty oak, perhaps maple. I used to collect the large leaves in the fall and pretend they were dollar bills. My dolls were the richest toys in all of Cortland, New York. They had many leaves with which to buy their jewels, cars and houses.
My brother was a fan of our crab apple trees on the side of our house. He and his friends would pick them and hurl them at each other in vicious apple fights. I remember being scared of even touching the crab apples because our mom warned us not to eat wild fruit. I don’t know if my brother cared. He just wanted to engage in battle.
Trees are silent witnesses to so many events. They not only see the mischief of everyday life, but have been bystanders to pivotal moments in history. There are trees still alive in Dallas, Texas that observed the assassination of President Kennedy. There are also trees around Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts that had a front row seat to Louisa May Alcott’s family history she so lovingly recounted in classics such as Little Women and Little Men.
I am on my back porch now looking at the pines in our backyard and think about all they have seen while we have lived here. These pines have witnessed the growth of our two kids, my reading and writing back here, the kids and I whistling at the birds in their branches and many, many family celebrations filled with food, wine, bubbles, sprinklers and songs. Our daughter finds solace in the small wooded area in our backyard. She used to build wooden sculptures out of downed limbs. It was looking like the Blair Witch Project in our backyard for a while.
As writers, we have a lot to learn from sentinel trees, these silent spectators. Observe. Take it all in. Be in the background for a while. Just watch. See what unfolds.