by Jim Davis
The poet Wordsworth was probably right. The way we look at nature changes as we grow up. Our early innocence is full of wonder, but a later mature understanding of nature becomes ample recompense when the splendor along with childhood passes. Although my view of nature seems to have been single-mindedly focused on trees, the poet’s idea fits my experience fairly well.
Every child, I suppose, has had a tree to play in. Children often discover a downed tree, perhaps with misshapen trunk. It could become a submarine, fort, or ranch house, as needed. My tree, however, was a huge sycamore that took me up. My imagination didn’t work out any particular plots; it just reveled in the adventure of height, the awe of terrifying risks as I tried for limbs I hadn’t reached before.
This was in Savannah where the tall oaks of Forsythe Park shaded my vigorous play. Soon, I was able to appreciate the beauty of trees; and even now the most striking image of Savannah I retain is those oaks, with their dark canopy, their huge writhing roots creatively destroying concrete walkways. Later, in Mobile, the beauty of other, spreading live oaks amazed me. On one broad thoroughfare, they overhung traffic; there was one with low limbs longer than the tree was tall—they had to be propped. When I was a young man, the army for some reason sent me to Labrador. This tour left me with another vivid picture—the maples and ash trees there, so brilliant in autumn that Virginia’s fall was almost an anticlimax.
But before the army, shades of practicality had already begun to close about me. As a teenager, I worked several summers for a paper company in northern Florida and learned the commercial value of trees. Although a reluctant wader of swamps, I was receptive to this new knowledge of trees. I learned how to cruise timber, to spot with paint the pines to be cut (leaving the best for seed trees), and to de-bark, by hand, a pit prop. I learned incidentally about the turpentine industry, what a cat face is, and the difference between resin and rosin.
As I’ve grown older, this harsh maturity has been tempered by recognition of symbolism in trees. In Lexington there was a large, shapely maple in my yard that blew over while I was in Mobile at my mother’s funeral. Did it fall out of sympathy? Ultimately, it assumed a meaning having more to do with life. Before my return, a good friend cut it up, hauled it away, and planted a seedling in its place. It was the offspring of a tree in his yard, a real giant that Lee and Jackson no doubt passed many times. It’s still there.
When we moved into the County in 1992, I wanted to help its beauty, maybe even change the world, by turning our pasture back into forest. Of course this was long before advice from the Fevriers was available, and my old friend reminded me how much even a small tree costs. I settled on three, a maple, a copper beech and a willow (down by the stream). Later, I added four river birches. I’m not sure these efforts exhibit Wordsworth’s standard for mature understanding, but the trees offer this mature person pleasure and contemplation every day.