Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Angel Oak, Part 2: 300 Years

But trees are the foot soldier casualties of a tornado.  


Trees have souls, I'm sure of it. Granddaddy was too. He said once when I was about 10, and the spring sun was coming through the Nashville sky so piercingly that it seemed to unfurl the new leaves of the ornamental pear tree right before our eyes: "Louisa, you can't tell me that a tree doesn't have some kind of soul, some kind of feeling on a level we might not understand. Just look at the leaves on that tree, uncurling in the sun, bright green and eager to grow and reach out. You can't tell me that somehow or somewhere that tree is not happy. I think perhaps all things of nature have a bit of soul attached." 

If Granddaddy, a Methodist theologian and author could make such a radical statement, then it was probably safe for me to believe it too, I thought as a 10 year old. Besides, I already did.

It stuck with me, so most of the time if I see a river, or the rocks at the bottom of it, or a splitting glacier, I think, what is happening to its soul? How does the Ocoee feel about being dammed and released, dammed and released, or to carry all those gleeful rafters along its back?

And if so happiness, then perhaps grief attaches itself to things of nature as well. And if this is true, then surely tornado alley, as we call it in our neighborhood is a massive graveyard of mourning right now, here in the shadow of Pine Log Mountain.  Spanning a swath a half a mile wide, trees are twisted off at 30 or 40 feet, as if the whole ridge had a bad shave,  revealing a layer of blue we never saw that close to the earth. And beyond it, lower ridges of the beginning Appalachians that had been hidden by the treeline, uncovered now, and more intimate in their new exposure.

And the most important living tree, the wind-torn old oak by the kitchen door that held the roof and house down, is thinking something. Possibly it is thinking, I have done my job, it's time to go. Possibly it is thinking, thank you for telling the money hungry tree removal people to leave me be, I'm the only one left to watch over this old place, the only one with the DNA memory of birth and death of 6 generations of cotton farmers, boney mules and wood plows, and coal smoke coming up through my branches from the chimney over the kitchen wood stove.

I don't know. But trees take a long time to grow and a short time to fall, whether to an ax or a tornado. The angel oak reminds me of another sentinal, a giant fir I saw once at the edge of a clear cut on the way through Oregon as we drove down to "Bluegrass at the Beach." The loggers had come in with helicopters and giant fork lift claws to lift out 6 or 8 trees at once, 60 or 70 an hour, and transport them straight onto trucks headed for pulp mills. In a few hours, a whole mountainside of 100 year old trees can be erased, leaving only the useless branches and a few too-thin trees that didn't make the grade on the ground. A natural auswitz of sorts. 

Against this bleak tapestry, high on the mountain at the edge of the clear cut, stood a giant tree that towered above all those in the next section of forest. I thought, they must have come to it at the end of the day and thought, aw, let's just go eat dinner and get that one tomorrow.  And this tree towered over all--the eroding hillside and the younger growth,  I thought, it must know its time is next. And I wrote this song, an a cappella song in a minor key:

           Three Hundred Years
                             Words and Music by Louisa Branscomb

I'm tall as a lighthouse and green as the sea
most magestic old fir tree you ever did see
all the creatures around, they look up to me
and I thought that I'd be here till eternity

The music of silence brought joy to my ears
sounds of the forest for 300 years
then they came with their chain saws, the worst of my fears
the forest cut bear and my fate drawing near

Sing one for the money and two for the show
takes three hundred years for another to grow

The deer have all fled and the undergrowth died
the earth bleeding mud down the steep mountainside
my roots pulling loose and there's nowhere to hide 
they may as well kill me for I'm dying inside

Sing one for the money and two for the show
takes three hundred years for another to grow

I hear the big loaders they come up the hill
I know that I'm next and I know that I will
be stripped of my branches, laid bare for the kill
the wind howls around me and will not be still

do you think of your children who never will know
the forest that fed them, do you think they'll grow old
hungry for something way down in their souls
who gave you the right to take what you stole?

sing one for the money and two for the show
takes three hundred years for another to grow
sing one for the money and two for the show
I know that I'm next, and I don't want to go
sing one for the money and two for the show...

                  words and music by Louisa Branscomb
                  c Millwheel Music 1997  

from the CD Louisa Branscomb: Fool's Gold



  1. WOW! What a beautiful and poignant song. I believe all of nature has a soul. The mighty oaks wanted you to know they fought hard to protect their beloved homestead, but the winds were just too forceful. They felt sad it was their time to go. The oaks were so proud to have had so many generations of love surround them. They wanted to thank you for the wonderful love and appreciation that you gave to them. The fallen oaks wanted to say, "Thank you for all of the beautiful seranades, contemplations, joy and laughter. Thank you to the 'Angel Oak' for being able to stand your ground against the forces of nature and continuing to keep a watchful, protective eye on the old homestead. Proudly we served."

  2. I remember spending a night with you at your Grandparents and remember them well, how kind, gentle and attentive they were to the two of us and the music we made. I remember the private concert we gave your Grandmother in her room. I also remember her out working in her flowers and the huge flower arrangement on the dining room table. Sweet memories, thanks for sharing.
    Hope things will be OK soon at Windsong!