The grass bends easily in the wind. The great oak stands unmoved. A strong wind can uproot the oak, but no wind, however strong, can uproot the grass that bends flat before it.
-Chin-Ning Chu, Thick Face, Black Heart
I am walking on the estate again. I reach the boundary gate at the river, and turn to look at the water. To my amazement, the stone mansion I have been glimpsing, straining to see from the road a quarter mile down river, is directly in front of me across the bank. It is only now that the leaves have died and fallen away, that I can see what’s been nearer than near, all along. Only now, that they have honored their totality of purpose, and completely released, is the sought object revealed to be already present. It is as if God has sighed tenderly and said, Clear enough, baby? I begin to cry, and I pray that I may die all my deaths with the grace and dignity of a leaf.
I am walking on the estate again. It’s been very windy and very few leaves remain above, but there are many below. It’s cold and bright, and I look at the mansion for a long time. I turn, and walk the other direction. In front of me is a fallen giant. I massive tree has shattered at its base and stretches across the lawn, all the way to the edge of the brook. Its size and its majesty are awe inspiring – and in its death, accessible for the first time. Dying changes the perspective of those who have only ever experienced us as living. Huge swaths of earth are torn up from the impact of the fall. Broken branches rest a foot into the ground.
There is an odd smell in the air. I weave under and around the limbs, touching the bark, marveling at the life of this creature. I decide to bring the boys back here later, so they might see something this rare for themselves – a body that’s been in the sky for hundreds of years, laid now at our feet. I look up at a branch still clutching leaves. It is an oak. They are always among the last to let go, holding their curling, russet leaves well past the first snow. I think about the cheerful, sugary maples, naked for weeks now. They helicopter down their soft seeds in the height of summer. A party. A ticker tape parade. Not like acorns at all, who hold their dense energy easily, stoically, all winter long. I feel a chilly sadness for the oak, for the vulnerability of staunchness.
I am walking on the estate again. The oak has been cleared away, the splintered stump, neatly sawed across the top. Around the edges, the tree rings are clearly marked – a bending topography of time, etched in creams and browns. Towards the middle, the cut surface is ragged and white. I touch the outside rings; the wood is very firm. I touch the inner wood; it is soft and pulpy. I pick up a piece of wood left behind, with the grain clearly showing. It is very hard and heavy. I pick up a pale, ungrained piece. It is light, it crumbles easily between my fingers. This tree died from the inside out. It is how most of us die, but strangely, we rarely think of it that way. We think of it as something that happens to us, rather than something that emerges from within us. There are tiny pine seedlings at the base of the once-here tree. I wonder, do they know the fortune that’s befallen them? Do they feel the light that has always been there, but is newly born to them?
I am walking on the estate again. The oak stump comes into view, a tidy headstone in memorial to itself. Everything about the way trees die and live, is immaculate.