When I was home visiting my folks over the Fourth of July, I spent a lot of time thinking about what I would miss most.
They’re in the process of selling the house, which was Dan and I’s childhood home, so they can move up to Wisconsin.
I thought I’d have to prepare myself emotionally for saying goodbye to the place, but I felt strangely unattached as I walked around the property. Instead of the presumed melancholy, I instead felt encouraged by the thought of another family being able to experience such a wonderful place.
The house sits on the edge of town, inside the city limits but with a distinctly out of town vibe. The property is just under five and a half acres, much of which is made up of a crick that separates the house from the town ball diamonds on the other side. It was a childhood paradise.
The woods that envelop the crick are still pockmarked with foxholes and bunkers from hours upon hours spent playing army. There’s a wooden footbridge made of some old telephone poles stretched across the water so we could walk from the house to the ball fields. Near the back of the yard there was a small apple orchard that served only as a source of food for the dog when the fruit began to fall in midsummer. She would lounge in the shade of those trees gorging herself on bitter, dark red apples for ten hours a day until they began to rot in early September. Though I haven’t actually smelled it for over a decade, the scent of fermenting apples still fills my nostrils every fall when the weather begins to change.
The real highlight of the property though, is a bur oak tree that sits directly south of the house. The tree is massive, its 100-foot crown dwarfs everything around it. Three NBA forwards holding hands couldn’t span the circumference, and the furrows on its bark are damn near deep enough to put your entire hand in.
When I was a kid, an older guy who’d grown up on the property years before stopped by to look at the house. He told me he vividly remembered playing with a small toy truck around the exposed roots of the big oak tree when he was my age. I later found out he’d been wounded in France shortly after the invasion of Normandy, which gave me some real perspective on how long that tree had been around. A couple years later, one of the biggest branches on the tree broke off after a summer storm. It sounded like a 10-car pileup when it hit the ground. A neighbor of ours cut the branch up for firewood, and counted the rings nearest the union with the trunk — there were 120.
That was in the summer of 2002. Assuming the tree is at least 5-10 years older than that branch and adding on the twenty years since our neighbor counted the rings, I figure the tree has seen everything that’s happened in that crick since around 1871.
I relish the tree now more than ever. Its mystery is intoxicating. To sit in the presence of a living thing that’s older than the Battle of the Little Bighorn is hard to wrap your head around. It’s a little like looking at the stars and thinking about how much distance is between us and them — do it long enough and you get that shiver down your spine. The most astounding fact of all is, our big oak doesn’t hold a candle to the largest of its kind.
There’s a bur oak outside of Columbia, Missouri that’s estimated to be 350-400 years old. Its crown stands a full 50 feet larger than our tree, and it’s survived through countless floods of the nearby Missouri River.
Think about this for a second. When Lewis and Clark passed by the Columbia oak on their way up the Missouri in the summer of 1804, it was already 200 years old. Stop, take a drink of coffee and let that soak in.
There’s history all around us, and oftentimes the most profound examples are the most well hidden. There’s power in that history, in the wind that blows through the trees that’ve stood the test of time. Listen carefully and you’ll hear the voices of those who came before.
Among all the memories of my childhood home, the hardest thing for me to come to terms with is the thought of never seeing that tree again.
C.L. Sill can be reached at email@example.com or on Instagram @thewingbeat