The big white oak was between 350 and 400 years old, the biggest tree in my town, the second biggest in Connecticut, according to a tree expert.
When my parents first bought the land where they would build my childhood home, it was immediately apparent that this tree was the reason the property was special. Our woods were once a farm; most of the trees are only 100 years old or so, but this tree had been growing before white people came to America. My parents bought the land from a farmer; his daughter told us that she used to bring her father lunch every day in the summer, and they’d sit under that tree and talk.
The base of tree was 20 feet in circumference. About ten feet up, the tree separated into three massive parts, two close together, one a little further apart. The gap between the twins and the third made for a nice saddle, and my sister and I would sit there and pretend to be riding horses. Burls made saddle horns, and good hand-holds when you climbed up. There was plenty of room to sit and read, and a hollow spot where you could put your copy of Little House on the Prairie. A vine hung from one branch, and if you ran down the hill, you could grab it and swing out like Tarzan.
Year after year, a pair of raccoons made their home about thirty feet up, and we could see the babies sticking out their sweet faces. Many an owl sat in the upper branches and called at night.
When I was thirteen, the third trunk of the tree had to be removed. The tree had rot in it, and I sat on our deck, watching accusingly as the arborist cut it down. It was like The Giving Tree, except instead of me being the ungrateful brat who abused his friend, I adored my tree, and wanted every branch to remain inviolate.
In the summers of my childhood, I’d ride my horse around our yard, through the woods. One afternoon as the cicadas buzzed and Jenny grazed lacksadaisically, I lay back against her and looked up at the sky, laced through the branches of the big tree. A red hawk circled overhead. It was the first time I remember thinking, “This is a perfect moment. Don’t ever forget this.”
But nature was taking its toll. Oak trees don’t live forever. When I got married and moved back to Connecticut, next door to my mom, McIrish assessed the tree. We cabled the two trunks way up high so if one of the massive branches broke, it wouldn’t come down on Mom’s roof. “The tree really isn’t safe,” McIrish said, but there was of course no way we would take it down.
Our kids sat in the crook of the tree, boosted there, proud and happy and giddy to be up so high. It was like a benevolent god, that tree, lord of the forest, unmatched in every way.
The tree withstood all the storms in recorded history. It survived the Hurricane of 1938, which devastated Connecticut. It endured the ice storm of 1976, when we slept in the family room because so many branches were coming down. Three years ago, a nor’easter dumped a foot of snow in October, and younger, stronger trees all around us snapped and fell. A recent hurricane left us without power for 6 days, trees down all over town, but still the mighty oak stood, watching over us in every blizzard, every hurricane, every thunderstorm.
Until Tuesday. We were sitting on the porch, fully intending to enjoy the thunderstorm, but I had a feeling this one was different. “Get in the house,” I said to my family. “This isn’t normal.” The thunder was right overhead, the trees suddenly waving and bending.
And before we could get inside, a tremendous tearing sound, and the big oak ripped in half, crashing down so hard it shook our house. My daughter wailed; thunder roared and lightning spat and hissed. I was terrified it had hit my mother’s house, but there are too many trees in the way for me to see. I called her, frantic; she didn’t answer. The power went out, and all was black except for the lightning.
When the storm passed, McIrish and I went to see the damage.
In its last act, the big oak fell away from my mother’s house, away from her pool, away from the giant spruce pine, away from the Japanese maple that was my father’s last gift to my mother. Instead, it fell across the lawn, gouging out huge chunks of earth and grass, taking out part of a smaller maple on our property.
It was done.
The next day, we all four got to work, clearing another tree off Mom’s driveway, cutting up the branch that fell in her front lawn. And then, when we were done with the lesser trees, we started on the big oak.
All day, we worked, dragging the branches, stacking logs. McIrish smelled like my father used to, that manly combination of chainsaw oil, sweat and freshly cut wood. I realized I was doing the same job I’d done when I was five years old: dragging the brush to clear the land.
At the end of the day, I asked my family to go over to our house, and I climbed on the fallen oak. Though I am a somewhat ungainly adult, my feet had no problem finding a place, and my balance was sure as I walked up the trunk. Once again, and for the last time, I was in the embrace of my old friend, and I knew I wouldn’t fall. After all, kids know trees. I sat there, some ten or fifteen feet above the ground, and cried, wiping my eyes on my t-shirt.
And I was glad, all of a sudden, that the tree had crashed down in a final, tremendous, awe-inspiring act. I was glad it hadn’t been chunked apart by strangers from a tree service, branch by branch. The old oak tree deserved a mighty end, to go out with a roar, and so it did.
My siblings and I will take some of the wood from the tree and make something from it. McIrish and I will plant a new white oak in the crumbling soil and compost of the original, and maybe someday, people will gaze up at it in awe, and touch its bark with reverence, feeling the life within.