Was it third grade? Fourth? When did we widen our eyes and open our mouths in amazement at discovering that the age of a tree is determined by counting its rings? And why did it never occur to us, to me that the only way to count those rings is for the tree to die?
Owen and I are walking down the field road toward the pond. To our right a deep flutter of wings breaks the quiet, but not the sky. Whatever bird has been rustled from its rest by our approach remains within the keep of the woods. A softer scurrying close to the ground, a sound that would normally send my hyperactive dog bounding into the underbrush, goes ignored and fades.
We have already walked two miles, to the crossroads and back, but the brisk afternoon has beckoned me again, a reminder that February days of temperate weather and light wind are outliers, that the cold and rain that mark this shortest month will not be denied their rule and tomorrow I am likely to be imprisoned.
So I am walking again, strolling really. Purposeless but for the intention of being as close to the world as possible.
Tossed to the side of the road, having laid there long enough for scrub grass and various vines to have grown up and around it, is a tree trunk. It was a couple of years ago that the tree fell in a storm.
It’s hard to tell why a tree falls. This one may have been old and rotten. The wind may have been, as the meteorologists call it, gale force. I suppose it’s possible that a tree can just get tired and want to lie down. For whatever reason, this one fell and in its falling took out a power line.
In the otherwise complete darkness, the rotating yellow lights of the linemen’s trucks threw strange shadows into the woods as they sawed the tree off near the ground and tossed it to the side before restoring power. They didn’t, however, toss it far enough. They left it in the path of the center pivot irrigation, which necessitated another assault, a carving of the trunk into pieces that could be pulled completely out of the way.
From where I stand I can see the tree’s rings. They are uniformly narrow, indicating the sandy nature of the soil, and, while I’m not dressed to go tramping into the sharp deadness of the branch to count them, I can guess that there are somewhere between 75 and 100. Staring at the rings, endless circles with no beginnings and no ends, I remember something about a tree growing from its center. How the outermost ring is the oldest and how it stretches as growth takes place deep inside. How the tree remains healthy as long as its heart is vital, producing the sap that sends water and nutrients to the branches and limbs and leaves.
I am not a tree. I compute my age not with rings, but with months and years. Not with endless curves, but straight lines that begin and end.
But what if I was? What if I was a tree, my heart wreathed with love received, friendships made, beauty observed, obstacles overcome, tragedies survived? What if each beat of that heart pumped sap into the farthest reaches of my hands, my thoughts, my words? And what if on the day that I am felled by wind or lightning or fatigue those rings remain visible to passers-by? Glistening in the light of the sunset, testifying to a life measured in far more important ways than years.