News From Terre Haute, Indiana

September 20, 2009

The Off Season: Reminiscing on a birthday brings back fond memories of trees

By Mike Lunsford

It is a lazy late-summer Sunday afternoon as I write this; it is also my birthday, and as I sit at my desk today and watch through my window as warm breezes sift through maple leaves, memories of trees other than those in my front yard come back to me, and I open them like brand new gifts.

Our house is a quiet one for now; my son, restless as ever, is on the road. My daughter, visiting for the day, naps on a couch. My wife is stretched out in a chair getting well-deserved down time away from cooking and schedules; she yawns and stretches like a house cat. I hear only a fan as it hums in a corner.

We all have been hard-pressed to speak in these past few hours and break the cool quietness of our house that we feel we have earned by a

week of work.

My memories of trees are not serious or painful or tiring things, but rather are the comfortable kind, old-shoe reminiscences that take me home, when my parents were younger than my age, and the thought of having “nothing to do” made me itch to move much more than I want to scratch now.

I lived in a place where fat, tall red oaks and big smooth beeches stood. Those trees are, for the most part, gone now. A few were cut, a few more blown down by big winds, and some simply grew old and gave up their relentless push upward. I loved living where I did, and I spent much of my time under and around and in our trees.

I have never envied children today when I see them punching at phones and racing through digitalized streets with a plastic controller in their hands; I had a bigger world to conquer on foot.

One of my favorite trees stood over a sandy hillside behind our house. It was a huge, kindly oak, and no matter where the sun stood, those who played under the tree were shaded by it; it was that big. There wasn’t a single branch within ladder length on that tree, and it was as if the whole hillside I played on was anchored there by it alone.

Another tree I befriended was a relatively young beech that sat just to the west of our house along the winding drive that formed a horseshoe around our place. With their thin, gray skins, beech trees beg for names to be carved in them, and I did just that with a pocket knife that my grandfather gave to me when I was just young enough to want one but not yet careful enough to avoid the occasional accident.

Beeches and their copper-toothed leaves dotted the landscape around our homestead. A massive one stood on the hill across from our house on my aunt and uncle’s property; I played there for hours, both alone and with my cousins and my sister. Our field guide to trees says that beeches usually grow to no more than 80 feet, but this old beauty was taller than that for sure, as was yet another that grew along my grandparents’ driveway; they lived 200 yards away from us, at most.

I remember when my grandfather and my dad hired a man – his name was Jim Blackburn – to come to our house. Jim could have been a gymnast; he was strong and nimble and not very big. He climbed that tree as if he’d been born in it, lopping off limbs that hung out over a garage we had built below the hill. My grandfather wanted the tree down, and since it was on his property, it came down. I remember begging Jim not to cut it, but he said he wasn’t the boss, and he brought the leftover trunk to the ground right on top of a peg that he had driven into the ground – right where he said he’d drop it. Our whole house shook under its weight crashing into the earth.

My grandfather was convinced that the tree was dying and that when cut, it would show a cancerous rot running through its center. Instead, it was as solid as rock. It took me a while to forgive my grandfather for cutting it down, and I silently protested for a while by making sure he saw me playing on its barren stump.

We also had a grove of persimmon trees to the southwest of our house; they sat near my grandpa’s garden and each year we filled buckets with their fruit. Sassafras and tulip poplars and a great big chestnut oak on our front hill come back to me, too, and for some reason, I remember using an old book on trees I found at the library to help me label a leaf collection I made for high school. In our yard, and in the woods behind us, I found and tagged dozens of varieties: cottonwoods, turkey oaks, locusts and sumac, the often nuisance tree we only seem to notice in the fall when it has turned crimson weeks before much else has even a hint of color.

For me, it is now the best time of the year. The soybeans are turning to bronze, the ivies run red up tree trunks, and the first phase of fall is helping us take notice of how beautiful our trees are. I find myself driving slowly on my way home so I can see our valley change with the days; I linger before stepping into the house in the evening, just to get one last glimpse of our trees.

I could tell you about the trees I’ve planted around our place – the pin oaks, the pines, the hard maples — but that will serve another story on another day. For now, I’m happy to stand in the yard to watch golden showers from our wild cherry and black walnut trees, early treats. I am already crunching the dried leaves of our hackberry under my feet.

It may very well be true, if we think hard enough, that all of us have memories of trees. A backyard swing, a grandparent’s yard, a crudely built fortress of solitude … they are good thoughts to save for a birthday gift, like the ones I gave to myself today.

Mike Lunsford can be reached at hickory913@aol.com, or by regular mail c/o the Tribune-Star, P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. His second book, “Sidelines: The Best of the Basketball Stories,” will be available this fall. Visit his Web page at mikelunsford.com.