How Well Do We See?

What a thrill to be in a part of the world for the first time. The Colombia River was no exception. Everything about it was a natural delight. Our domicile was on the Colombia River where we spent our family vacation listening as it carried the sounds of people and nature along its watery darkness. There is a circle drive that took us from Portland, east to Bonneville Dam, one of 13 man made features along the river and then lead us back to our evening’s lair. The drive is nothing less than a visual cacophony that was the very trail blazed by Lewis and Clark. The view was a sobering one of Mt. St. Helen, Mt. Hood, towering waterfalls, and streaking Peregrine falcons.

As a naturalist and arborist I am stricken with a disease whose pain can only find relief when in the presence of trees and birds. I know many of you have the same disease, and to this point I find it incurable.

At the end of one of our days, we passed a lone sign along the highway that I quickly interpreted in a blur as saying, “Champion something or other”, with an arrow pointing left. I hollered, “Bonnie, turn left”, which she did, along with a few cars behind us, which were now very close behind us! It was a state park, just a small parking lot, and above this parking lot were the largest hemlock and spruce trees I had ever seen. Each conifer seemed larger than the next and all stood as they did for one reason, to stand guard around the largest, documented, Sitka spruce in the United States. Now let’s put this tree into perspective.

The largest tree I have ever seen was a tulip poplar in Annandale, Virginia. It had a 30-foot circumference, that’s a full circle around the entire trunk, pi-r something or other. Now let’s measure the spruce. The circumference of this spruce is 60 feet. In a straight line that’s one-fifth of a football field. This old gal emerged sometime around 1253AD. Let’s put that into human terms. When a person reaches the age of one hundred we put them on the 6:00 news and talk about how noble, honorable and wise they are. They are special and have earned our respect. Through the process of core sampling, foresters know this spruce is 750 years old, that’s 14 times older than most of us. Should this tree be revered? Should we hold it up and call it special? Has it earned the right to live out its life, die with dignity and become a big pile of rich, organic earth? I think so, and I don’t think I was the only person that day who thought so.

Around this tree the park has built a boardwalk upon which people can walk comfortably and be close to the tree, but not to close. Arborists everywhere have learned the importance of keeping compaction to a minimum around old trees while the deck has also cured an odd, romantic behavior some humans have with trees and their pocketknives.

Trees, especially ancient, majestic ones, can bring out the ethereal in all of us. I believe trees cause extraordinary behavior in people, such as chaining one’s self to a tree or lying in front of tracked vehicles during a construction project, all for the sake of a particular tree.

As we stood on the deck surrounding the tree, others came by to admire the giant. Some were whispering as if we were in church or standing in a library. As I looked to my left I noticed a man and woman trying to get as close to the tree’s trunk. To do so the man used his walking stick to investigate the tree curiously but gently, then moved around the trunk and repeated the process. During this time his companion talked to him explaining the myriad details about the tree. He would look up and down, side to side but never in one place for too long. Suddenly, he backed away from the tree and proclaimed loud enough for everyone to hear, “this is the most beautiful tree I have ever seen”. He saw the tree as I never will, or more importantly, never could, and he saw it clearly, with no eyes at all. I was, and am now moved to tears as I recount that moment. He was enjoying his experience as much as I, and he would remember it as long as anyone that had ever stood in the presence of this friendly giant.

I sometimes get angry with myself when I think the whole world revolves around me or that what I am doing is so important. I sometimes get angry with myself when I forget the Golden Rule or fail to wonder how it might be to walk that proverbial mile in someone else’s shoes. Sometimes when I think of my sightless friend I wonder which one of us was more blind than the other. I’d like to thank my friend for reminding me that this is a beautiful, wonderful world filled with different people all trying to do the same thing. We’re all trying to see the big trees, in our own particular way. That day on a deck in Oregon, it took someone with a special gift to help me see a tree just a little clearer. Thanks friend, wherever you are.

Copyright 2008 by Peter Deahl. All rights reserved.

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