I wrote this post in 2016 and Sheri McGregor put it in an anthology, a kind of “Chicken Soup for the Soul” for nature freaks. The essay would belong to Sowing Creek Press for a year following publication after which I could do anything I wanted with it, such as post it here on Plastic Farm Animals.
If you enjoy stories about nature and inspiration, please get yourself a copy of “Nature’s Healing Spirit: Real Life Stories to Nurture the Soul.”
Carl lives on a wooded promontory with a view of the flood plain. Mainstay in an ever-changing world, he’s been standing tall for decades. Yesterday I walked the half mile through the woods to spend time with him. I went in the morning before it was hot, armed with a spider stick, and prepared to retreat if accosted by too many black gnats and mosquitoes. But summer storms have reduced the spider webs to bearable, and mosquitoes and gnats were also at a minimum.
My legs are strong and sure on this familiar trail. I hit my stride about five minutes out. I’m drenched in living earth, fragrant with pine needles and leaf mulch. Generations of trees surround me, from tiny sprouts to giant sentinels. The air hums with woodpeckers and cicadas. I swing my head to the left when a squirrel rustles in the undergrowth. Sometimes deer startle me, leaping up and blasting away like gunshots. Once I came across a fox, scratching fleas. Another time, a Barred owl swooped down to take a better look and flew back to its perch to keep an eye on me.
Carl receives me in his reassuringly taciturn way, eyes forward. He reaches out with solid, steady limbs and I feel safe. Without a word, Carl and I are in our happy place once again. He is a beautiful example of his species, an American Beech. Or perhaps he is, as I often joke, a son of a beech. Nature gave Carl markings that resemble a human face on the side facing the stream. He has a jaunty mustache with a twig sprouting from the corner, like a pipe stem or cigarette. This year a praying mantis chose to build an egg case on his cigarette.
Old forest lore referred to the majestic beech as Queen of the forest. Their trunks are smooth and straight, mottled with white and gray spots. They have the peculiarity of retaining their leaves all winter, only losing them when new growth pushes them out. Their leaves provide a spark of ocher in the cold, monochromatic months. Surely this tenacity is one of the things that appeals to me as I walk towards the winter of my life.
The neighbors pooled their resources a couple of months ago to build a cedar bench for my sixty-second birthday. Lyle and Amie loaded it in the tractor bucket and carried it to Carl’s side. Jason and Doug dug holes and sunk the legs into the earth. It is sturdy and wide and smells like my mother’s cedar hope chest.
I climb on and sit, legs dangling. The size of Carl’s bench turns me into a youngster. I lay back and peer up through the understory at the sky. My heart swells and my eyes get moist. Time stops. I’m alone and connected. There is only this moment and this place and yet I’m aware of all the moments of my life. All the good ones, anyway.
I think about my friends who cared enough to add this bench to my favorite spot. I recall our many shared meals, the birthday candles and wishes, and remember delicious Sunday dinners at Nana’s. My thoughts wander forward to our daughter Emily’s wedding and our first glimpse of her baby boy. I think about Bob and how lucky I am to have a partner that gets my twisted sense of humor, and how relieved we both are that he is well and recovering his smile.
I caught part of the TED radio hour the other day. They were talking about aging and time. As we age we become more positive, yet joyful occasions often bring a tear to our eye. We find ourselves experiencing the past, present and future simultaneously. Surely holding our grandson for the first time will trigger a montage of feelings; all the way back to Emily as a tiny girl, and fast forwarding to imagine little Nolan as a grown man.
This is why I visit Carl in his special place. To think, remember, imagine, let go, connect, rejoice and weep. Carl seems to understand, he never questions. He just stands there with his cigarette and looks off across the ages.