This Grandmother Pine Lost

White Pine Cut with markingsIt must have been a big machine that cut down the grandmother pine tree.  I found no disturbance around the stump when I climbed up to it to offer my grief and respect.  The weeds and small brush nearby were there as before, with only fresh wood shavings and pine sap falling over the edges of the stump.  Nothing huge crashed to the ground when they took her. So it must have been a big machine.

I discovered her absence on my walk near Capisic Brook the day before, but didn’t have the strength to approach her while there were lots of workmen in the Rowe school construction zone nearby.  Ironically, they were making a children’s playground, spreading wood chips and such–perhaps that was that her wood they were using?  But why?Workers at the school

I met this tree last winter when I was measuring old white pines around my neighborhood, after I discovered that our white pine was definitely over 100 years old, and perhaps even 160 years, according to her circumference.  At that time, I was also mourning all the cut pines for the construction of the new elementary school.  I found this pine with a yellow tape around her trunk.  She was one hundred and two inches in circumference, just like the white pine in our yard. That is when I knew she was one of the grandmother trees.  I made an inquiry on the school’s Facebook page, but the person who responded didn’t know about the situation of the tree.

And now the white pine is gone.  I went to the place where she had stood, and expressed my sadness, and I did the best I could to honor her.  I counted her rings, making small markings after each 25.  (You can see those marks if you look very closely at the photo above.)  I got to 100, and then the outer rings were too difficult to see clearly–but I guess there were at least 20 more–so 120 years old?  Maybe even 130?  That would mean she was likely a small sapling in the year 1897 when both of my grandmothers were born.  She observed a century of animal and human life from her vantage point above the brook.

People in U.S. society are still thinking of trees merely as resources for our needs and wants.  But we have to begin opening our minds to the idea that the trees have their own lives, their own being-ness.  Scholars are learning that the forest is a living community of trees and other plants and animals and fungi, all interconnected in a network underground, supporting each other and all of life.

Recently, I had a chance to read The Overstory by Richard Powers.  The novel tells the story of several people, all with some significant connection to a tree or trees, who come together to protect old growth forests in the northwest United States.  Powers borrows from actual science and activism in telling his fictionalized version.  I especially loved the character of the woman botanist whose research suggested that trees were communicating and caring for each other. Because of that hypothesis, she lost all her funding and academic connections.  Eventually she found her way into work as a forest ranger, until decades later when other scientists caught up with her insights.  Two other characters spend a year living in one of the oldest redwoods, to try to protect it from the logging company.

Of course, the forest between the Rowe School (formerly Hall School) and Capisic Brook is already badly degraded. It is not old growth or pristine.  It is encroached upon by invasive plants and runoff pollutants. But it is still a living system, a wetland, a wild community in the midst of city streets and buildings.  And so I walk along its path, I cherish it, I pick up litter. I try to bear witness.

Capisic Brook Forest

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The Lottery

fallen-needles.jpgI had almost forgotten about the incredible doom of the draft lottery of 1969 and the years following.  But recently, I happened upon two fictional accounts of lives being undone by this lottery, and it all came back to me.  One came in the television drama This Is Us, in an episode about the back story of Jack’s time in Vietnam. (Spoiler alert!) Jack and his younger brother Nicky are at a bar on December 1, 1969, waiting to see what birthdays will be chosen for the draft call-ups. Nicky is portrayed as a gentle, glasses-wearing kid, not tough, not cut out to fight. Jack is his protector. Nicky’s birthday, October 18th, is chosen as number 5, which means he is sure to be inducted. Their dad tells him only, “Make me proud.”  Jack and Nicky consider options, maybe Canada, but Nicky succumbs to the pressure and joins up.  We learn that Jack himself had had a deferment because of a rapid heartbeat condition.  But when Nicky writes from Vietnam that he has gotten himself into trouble, Jack finds a way to enlist, so he can watch over his brother.

I had almost forgotten about the lottery.  The feeling of foreboding, its random terrors.  My own age peers were affected by the lottery of February 2, 1972.  We were freshman in college, then, and my male friends would have received college deferments, but if they dropped out, or when they graduated, they would once again be vulnerable to being called up.  My friend Tom’s birthday was September 16th. He was sorting out what options he might have as a conscientious objector to the war.  When his number was above 200, we all breathed a sigh of relief.

Before watching that episode of This Is Us, I had been reading the novel, The Rules of Magic, by Alice Hoffman.  She introduces us to a family of young witches: two sisters, Franny and Jet, and their younger brother, Vincent.  Their history included an ancestor tried for witchcraft back in the 1600s in Massachusetts, and continuing suspicion towards their magical family.  Vincent is an artist, a singer, and a young playboy, though he eventually comes out as gay and finds true love with a man.  He has eerily known for years that he faced doom: it comes in the form of the number 1 pick in the draft lottery of 1969. His birthday is September 14th.  (The actual number 1)  The family is devastated and knows he cannot serve in the military–a witch must “harm none” lest it come back three-fold.  They try to figure out a way for him to escape, but ultimately it means that he is forever cut off from his family.

Hoffman compares the lottery to the witch hunts of earlier times, and writes the most haunting description of its effects.  Her words stirred that memory in me of our fear and our relief, of the randomness of horror cast upon the lives of young men and those who loved them. How we were divided into the lucky and unlucky. How we almost took it for granted.

It came on the wind, the way wicked things must, for they are most often weighted down with spite and haven’t the strength to lift themselves.  On the first day of December 1969, the lottery was held.  Men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-six would be drafted to fight in Vietnam according to their birthdates. Lives were interrupted and fortunes were exchanged. A cold drizzle hung down and flurries of snow fell in swirls. There were no stones thrown or drownings, no pillories or burnings. Those chosen were computerized, their fates picked at random.

Life went on in spite of the lottery: traffic headed down Broadway, men and women showed up for work, children went to play. The world breathed and sighed and people fell in love and got married and fell out of love and never spoke to one another again. Still the numbers drawn had the weight of ruin and sorrow; they turned young men old in an instant. A breath in and a man was chosen to walk on a path he’d never expected to take. A breath out and he must make the decision of a lifetime.  Some would leave the country, some went to jail, some were ready to take up arms and die for the country they loved despite the heartbreak of leaving families and friends.  All were torn apart.  It was said that fate could not be altered, except by one thing, and that was war.

After Vincent watches the lottery, he gets drunk, and is brought home by two veterans, who “pitied him the war of his time. Theirs had been terrible, but it had also been just and worth fighting.”  From Vietnam onward, I believe that none of the wars fought by our country have been just or worth fighting.  In each war, so many were wounded, so many broken in body or spirit.  And always, some resisted.  So strange to recall these old tragedies that linger beneath the surface of so many new tragedies.  And as always, some resist.