Into everyone’s life a long-standing large oak someday will fall, either literally or metaphorically. And likely, more than once. For whatever lives will die. What seems so strong, so dependable, so firmly rooted that we can count on it to be a lifelong faithful companion—at any moment it may topple over (hopefully when we’re not leaning on it).
A few weeks ago one of our ancient oaks, perhaps several hundred years old, fell into the branches of a neighboring oak tree. Growing in a semi-wetland, its roots rotted. Several years ago we had cleared the area of blackberries. Who knows? Maybe this altered the ecological conditions, allowing more water to flow over the oak’s roots during the winter.
Whatever the reason, the plain fact was that we now had a fallen large oak being held up by another equally large standing oak. Not being complete tree fools, we realized that it wasn’t good for Standing Tree to be supporting the burden of Fallen Tree. Yet not being completely tree wise, we waited a week before phoning Elwood’s Tree Service, by which time a large branch of Standing Tree had cracked under the weight.
And Fallen Tree still was being supported by the now diminished Standing Tree. Fortunately no new damage transpired before the Elwood’s guys arrived. They unleashed their chainsaws and climbing gear and soon had the problem reduced to just what we had requested: Fallen Tree cut into several chunks so we could walk past it; firewood compatible limbs cut into 16 inch rounds; and the remaining tree debris piled up.
Piles there were. Four or five of them, almost as tall as me. You don’t realize how many branches and twigs an oak tree has until they are all lying on the ground. When something substantial falls down around you, it leaves a mess.
Not just trees, of course. People, relationships, businesses, finances, beliefs, conceptions—these too, when they collapse, don’t do so neatly. It isn’t that something is there, and then suddenly it is gone. Everything leaves a trace, a litter of physical or psychic debris that has to be dealt with.
Laurel and I stared at the brush piles, wondering what to do with them. They were unsightly and unnatural. Our first thought was to burn the brush. But complications quickly came to mind. We’d have to wait for the right day, a day when the brush would catch on fire but the countryside wouldn’t. Tarps could cover the piles. Yet we’d have to look at the tarps each time we walked by. They’d remind us that what we wanted to get rid of was still there, now even more noticeable than before.
And burning would leave a large black hole in the grass. It would pollute the air. It would smokily scatter most of the organic material in the tree debris across the skies, and leave the rest concentrated as black chunks of charcoal in the middle of our carefully de-blackberried and re-treed field.
“What would the Tao do?” I asked myself. There had to be another way. A natural way. An immediate way. Trees fall in the forest all the time. Nature doesn’t use tarps or burn piles to get rid of the debris. Nature lets lay what has fallen down. Dead stuff soon decays into material for live stuff. I had been looking on the brush as a problem to be disposed of, rather than as a gift to be made use of. I needed a change of perspective.
Standing in front of the largest brush pile with my small Stihl chainsaw in hand, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I simply trusted that if I started making the best use of the fallen limbs, whatever that use might be, the end result would be just fine. Which it was.
I cut up twiggy branches into manageable lengths and scattered them around close by: under trees, next to a fence, in the hole made by Fallen Tree's upheaved roots. Because we leave our property natural, there was no lack of places to throw some natural debris. When limbs already are on the ground, adding some more barely makes a discernable difference.
Keeping things too neat leads to untidiness being a problem. My scattering wouldn’t have worked if the oak tree had fallen in a neatly mowed field. But it lay in the midst of other trees and brush, so tree returned to tree, and brush to brush.
Moderately straight limbs were lopped of twigs, becoming trail markers.
Other limbs were cut into kindling. The large oak rounds were stacked for drying. Next summer they should be ready for splitting.
I enjoyed placing the rounds with the most attractive mossy, ferny bark on the outside of the pile, so we can see them as we walk past.
At the end of the day all the brush piles were gone. And the debris that I had scattered hither and yon was barely noticeable. I had learned how not to burn. In an afternoon I had dealt with a seemingly difficult problem—how to get rid of the damn brush—that turned out to be easily handled once I stopped considering it so much of a problem.
Life, in the guise of Fallen Tree, taught me a few things. Messes are mostly in the mind. Nature makes use of everything. Death and destruction are fodder for life and creation. Letting things lay usually is best. Renewal comes in its own fashion. It doesn’t have to be forced. There’s no need to burn what doesn’t belong. Let it find its own place to decay, and you won’t go wrong.
Fallen Tree left me with a chunk of itself that screamed
: Listen! Do you hear what I’m saying?