THE GRANDEUR OF ITS SPREADING LIMBS

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I called the Calvin Street Oak “my tree” because it was in my front yard, and because I knew and loved it during the five and one half years I was privileged to live under its beautiful canopy. But it was everyone’s tree. One of my favorite things was sitting on my front porch and watching people walk by. Of course they would look up and marvel. How could you not? It was a huge, magnificent, ancient tree. It’s trunk was 27 feet around. It threw off your sense of scale and reminded you what it was like to be a child when everything in the world was big. And then they would look over at me, visibly transformed by their encounter, and allow me to share in a neighborly conversation invested with an unusually high quotient of wonder. I will miss those conversations, and I will miss this tree like I would a friend.

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You could say that Hurricane Florence brought it down, but that really wasn’t how it happened. This oak tree chose when and how to leave the spot it stood for 250 years. The light gusts that started on Friday morning when Florence touched the Triangle—ones I barely noticed on my way to yoga that morning—were part of a conversation between tree and wind, the answer to a request for assistance. Thank you, my friend, for waiting until after I left. It would have been hard for me to see and hear you go. Thank you for falling away from the house, for falling so gently that you didn’t even knock over the rock cairn Rachel had just built right next to you. Thank you for not hurting anyone. Thank you for leaving on your terms. For leaving with the same dignity with which you lived your long and mysterious life.

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Before there was an old oak there was a mature oak. Before there was a mature oak there was a young oak. Before the young oak was an acorn. And before the acorn there was energy as potential, an idea of something that could be.

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What would it be like to sit in the same place for two and a half centuries? To cultivate a perspective and a level of patient watchfulness under which a whole town, a whole country could grow up around you? To support untold numbers of beings of countless species as they are born, grow up, live and die or move on? What would it be like to aspire upward from a trunk 27 feet around, lifting branches themselves the size of mature trees high up into the sky? What would it be like to know the subtlety of half a million leaves tuned to infinitesimal gradations of light and wind? I’ve been all over this state hiking, and each time I returned I would marvel that although I saw many amazing trees, the most magnificent one of all was right in my front yard.

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I was always curious how tall you were. The Hillsborough Treasure Tree website, which singled you out for the grandeur of your large spreading limbs, said you were “at least 70 feet.” That estimate always seemed overly cautious to me. So after the workers removed your trunk and main limbs, but before the smaller branches had been taken away, I saw my chance to find a number. In the field across the street, I found the end of your top-most branch, sitting there right where it fell. I pointed myself toward your trunk and began to walk, one foot in front of the other, heel to toe, balancing like a tight-rope walker until I found myself looking upward into the sky in a spot where, if you had still been there, I could have leaned in and pressed myself against you. 111 steps. I went inside and measured my left foot. 11 inches. I measured my right foot. Exactly 11 inches. I’m not a math whiz, but I calculated that’s 101.75 feet.

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Now the place where you stood is strikingly empty. Now there is pure potential once again where once there was the fullness of all things oak tree. Now there is a certain set of inclinations, a certain bent of curiosity, that wouldn’t have been possible before all that you were had been seen, felt, experienced, known. A quantum wire somewhere in the universe is vibrating. The energy in the ether is palpable. There’s the smell of ozone in the air like after a storm. And I can’t wait to see what you choose to become next.

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THE WALL

HipstamaticPhoto-531680009.251065.jpgONCE UPON A TIME, this rock foundation, set by a stream, was an idea in someone’s mind. Someone who needed to build a mill. There was digging, selecting, and stacking. Now, the mill and all its history are gone, and this collection of rocks is an idea in the mind of Nature, with different processes at work. What human mind can encompass those processes and truly appreciate their scale, scope, and beauty?

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THE SHADOW

NOT TOO MANY HOURS removed from headlights, highways, and pouring rain, today I sat on a fallen tree, feet dangling, gazing down on a stream fattened with translucent blue water. I watched the water break swiftly and purposefully, yet without a sound, through a leaf dam from where it sat still as a pond, creating a long channel of movement along the far side of the stream. Through the trees, gentle light fell on my shoulders and onto the water, where it illumined golden nooks made of submerged leaves, branches, and mud. I studied the surface to distinguish all the activity taking place there: twinkling sunlight, flowing ripples, and dancing shadows of leaves and branches swaying above me.

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My eyes rested on another spot where the water was moving past the leaf dam. Here, instead of rushing through, it gurgled over the top like an underground spring, zig-zagging between a series of leaf abutments before escaping to the slower-moving water a couple feet away.

I turned around on the tree and reconfigured myself to face the other direction. About a hundred feet ahead, where stream joins river, there was the sound of rushing water. Another, bigger leaf dam? I saw the shadow of the sturdy tree in front of me. My body formed a triangle, my hands planted behind me on the moss-covered bark, my head a circle on top of a pyramid. I lifted my hands to my nose and inhaled the earthy smell. I moved from side to side to make sure that shadow was me.

To get here, I walked 51 years and two miles along the Eno River. At first the path was asphalt, then gravel, then dirt. Then I veered off the trail through the woods. I had never been to this spot before, but my movement was swift and purposeful, and there was no doubt about the destination once I arrived. On this, one of the most beautiful fall days I can remember, there were lessons here I needed to learn.

THE STRING OF SAPPHIRES

THIS PAST WEEK I went camping in the Bitterroot Mountains of western Montana with my uncle, who recently retired from a career managing forests there and two friends of his who are ranch owners and have known and loved the Bitterroot their whole lives. We hiked up Chaffin Creek Canyon, following the stream to its source, 9000 feet high in the snow-filled peaks. As the journey progressed, I kept finding lessons everywhere: losing the trail but finding it again when you realize you just have to listen for the sound of water. Remembering how important it is to keep focus so you don’t lose your footing and injure yourself or send a loose rock down on your friend. Finding an amazing spot but not settling there because you know there is more beyond.

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The prize of this hike was a series of mountain lakes called the String of Sapphires because of their shimmering crystal blue hues. Hardly anyone goes there. To get to them you have to scale a nearly thousand-foot cliff where a waterfall cascades over the side, and by this time you are already far up into the canyon and have been enjoying three beautiful lakes that are themselves worthy destinations (and that in our case captivated us for two days and nights before we set our sights beyond). I looked up at what seemed to be the canyon’s rim wondering, where is all that water coming from?

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Only one way to find out, and once up there you realize there is much, much more than what you saw from below. After a precarious ascent using any bit of rock, tuft of grass or shrub you can find for leverage, you breathe a sigh of relief to find more certain ground. You discover a skinny path to the waterfall behind waist-high snow sheets slowly detaching from the mountain. You get as close to the edge of the falls as your adrenaline allows and take in the view before following the stream up from there through lush, mossy meadows as it meanders from one small lake to the next. The air feels crisp and clean in your nostrils and lungs.

Each lake stair-steps a little higher than the last, and is fed by a charming waterfall you feel you could sit beside for hours. I knew I had to dive into one of those lakes, and I chose the third one, because it was deeper than the others and tantalizingly blue. I could hang out for about a minute in the lakes below, but these waters were fed directly from the snow pack, and I lasted all of about 5 seconds here. Lake #4 is big, and you think it’s the end, but then you notice more water coming over the 300-foot ridge behind it. Tired as you are, you dig a little deeper and continue up. You figure out a way around boulders the size of small houses and traverse large, open slopes of snow, planting your feet heel-first so you don’t go sliding down. There are no real trails here. You reach an open spot at 9000 feet above all but the scrubbiest vegetation. You’re standing on solid granite and quartz, kicking chunks of rock broken off by the freeze-thaw cycle at work for centuries in the crevices and cavities. The wind whips against your face like winter and tries to throw you off balance. You steady yourself. You’re breathing hard but feel exhilaration in the views that go for miles to the left and right. Down in front of you, at last, there it is–the creek’s source. A big, blue alpine lake with no name, surrounded by a round, sloping, snow-filled granite bowl.

Beyond is yet another ridge. It’s the final one. Precipitous and jagged, it’s called “The Shard,” and it looms up another 800 feet, close to another mile away. Nothing grows there, and its stacks of rocks look like they could come crashing down if the mood hit. We want to go to its very top, where you can peer over into the next canyon, all the way into Idaho. But we are getting nervous about the time. The afternoon clouds are coming in, and we saw countless lightning-struck trees on the way up. And we could only imagine retracing our path down that cliff in the wet. So we’ll save the final ascent for another day, and in the meantime savor rich memories of amazing sights, great companionship, and an unforgettable adventure.

CONFLUENCE

April 11, 2017

YESTERDAY I RODE MY BIKE through the rolling farmland north of Hillsborough. The temperature was perfect and the lush fields were bathed in the golden light of the late afternoon sun. I found myself headed to a place called the Confluence, where the East and West forks of the Eno River converge and the river builds momentum as it winds its way toward the town that settled its banks in Colonial times.

I turned my bike onto the gravel path that leads into the park and lifted it over the shiny enameled gate whose lock signifies that this place, a work in progress, is not yet open to the public. I bounced along on my skinny tires as churning and popping rocks and dinging spokes made music underneath me. I powered and slid my way up a hill where the road petered out and opened onto a wide meadow filled with lush green clover and grasses alive with buzzing insects.

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Near where the gravel ended I spotted a dirt two-track road that led toward the woods. I continued pedaling. There were remnants of a rock foundation revealing someone had farmed this land in an earlier lifetime. The two tracks lifted and fell with the terrain, and as the road met the woods they flowed unevenly into a long dip whose rims hid the entrances from view. At the center of this dip someone had positioned a copious metal bench that looked fifty feet down onto the river as it formed a grand horseshoe. The bench bore a plaque dedicating it to someone who had known and loved these lands.

I laid down on the bench and looked up at the treetops swaying back and forth, the light working magic through the leaves. Then I closed my eyes and started to become aware of the sounds around me. The wind was bringing two layers of sound together–the wind blowing through branches and leaves nearby and the larger, more distant sound of the wind flowing over the treetops and encompassing the woods as a whole. Beneath me, rising up from the river, was the sound of a gentle rapid.

Then I began to hear something else. As the sound came into focus, I recognized it as something running or trotting. It was getting closer. What is that? It sounded too large to be a common woodland creature. It was too steady and light-footed to be a human. I sat up and watched as a beautiful brown coyote trotted through the woods past me on the other side of the road. As he exited onto the road about 30 feet away from me, I whistled. He turned to acknowledge me briefly before continuing on his way.

Soon after, I got up and continued on mine, feeling rich to live in a world that offers such beauty, and thankful for the mysterious and auspicious messenger it sent my way.