There has been a near-constant breeze at Sandhill since early March. At times a gentle puffing that sends the rocking chairs back and forth in a detectable rhythm. At times erratic gusts, moving in loop-de-loops across the open fields that look like skywriting in a language I don’t know. And when accompanied by thunderstorms, wide bands that race toward the house and wrap themselves in the backyard trees, rattling branches like bones in a zydeco band.
Not all the limbs manage to hold on. After every storm there are at least two or three armloads to be gathered and tossed into the edge of the field where kudzu used to grow and where it is too low to plow, two or three armloads of slick sycamore twigs, branches, and limbs that made no sound in their breaking away.
I gather them in my arms – cradling them, really, like long skinny babies – , being careful as I lean over not to poke my eye out, my mind filling with images of every television western I’ve ever watched, each with its obligatory “gather wood for fire” scene which inevitably results in someone getting bitten by a snake or kidnapped by an Indian. And, because I am so busy imagining myself as Laura Ingalls and Audra Barkley and Rebecca Boone, I don’t realize at first that it is only under the sycamore tree that I am daydreaming.
Standing next to it, in a long row that lines the driveway, are two sawtooth oaks. The three trees were planted at roughly the same time and are about the same height, but it is only the sycamore that regularly loses parts of its armature. A quick comparison would leave me with the thought that the oaks, with their reputation for deep rootedness and strength, are simply better able to withstand the wind, whatever its frequency or force.
One of the most dangerous things one can do, of course, is to base a conclusion upon a quick comparison, a truth I have learned over and over in the most public and private of arenas, and so I stop, arms still full, and take a closer look – at the limbs I hold, at the tree under whose branches I stand. What I see, what I – not Laura or Audra or Rebecca, but Kathy – see is that not one bit of the tree that has been broken off and sent falling to the ground has anything green on it. Not a leaf or a bud anywhere. Everything in my arms is dead.
The sycamore tree has lost nothing that wasn’t already useless.
I am no longer imagining television westerns, but rather something out of a fantasy novel, one in which trees are animated and the broad branches of this tree are arms, opened wide to welcome the wind, inviting it to dance. And dance it does, a waltz in the afternoon breeze, a tarantella in the thunderstorm, its joyous movement shaking loose everything that can’t produce fruit, making more room for that which can.
I lower my arms and everything I am carrying yields to gravity, rolls to the ground. Is the sycamore, I wonder, a reflection of what has been happening in us these last 50 days, these days of limited human contact and extreme self-protection?
In cleaning out our attics are we shaking loose the dead branches? In playing card games with our families instead of our phones are we making room for something to grow? In letting go of our schedules and the adrenaline rush that comes from thinking we are needed are we learning what it feels like to dance with the wind?