Counting Rings

Old Oak


While on a walk, I spotted a new posted sign, gleaming yellow plastic covered with familiar bold black warnings, nailed to an old oak. The oldest trees tend to acquire such thoughtless embellishments. Further down the dirt road, another oak bears on its trunk bits of metal embedded in its bark that once held in place warnings from long ago.

There are not many of these great trees; giants standing still above us, that have lived longer than the oldest people on earth and will continue growing after generations of people are gone; remarkable life that should deserve respect.

When I was a child I liked to go wandering through the woods. There was a tree I always went to, an oak that was slowly dying. Its massive limbs gracefully sloped to the ground, a tree so imposing that it appeared to me as a cross between an elephant and an octopus; and hundreds of years ago, was a little acorn. Each spring, there were fewer and fewer leaves on the tree. And then one year, there was not a single leaf. All the surrounding young trees were filled with green while the barren oak now seemed to appear in silhouette. The heavy limbs had begun to collapse. I’d sit on these fallen limbs and look up at the tree. I was still in awe of the oak. Even in death, the tree hadn’t lost its beauty; its beauty had simply changed.

The grandest tree I can recall from my childhood was an elm. It grew a few feet away from a tumbling-down stone wall at the end of our land overlooking a swamp. The trunk was very wide and went straight into the sky. Only nearing the top did branches fan out like a tremendous umbrella. I would rest my chin on the bark and look up until my neck hurt. One day while in the woods, I noticed a neon orange X had been spray-painted onto the largest trees. In the days that followed I would hear the sound of chainsaws and other machines, coming through the woods. I hoped that the elm would be spared. Everyday the sounds got louder. The tall elm was one of the last trees to be cut down. Only a section was taken. The rest was discarded and lay like a prized beast that had been slaughtered only for its ivory.

I stood on the stump that felt as though it had become a memorial for a great and important person. Without a canopy of leaves and branches, there was no more shade dappled in moving light. In a circle the sun shone down on me, and it was warm and I knelt to the elm to count its rings. The center of the tree had some decay. I counted up to where the wood darkened. I don’t remember the exact number. I only know that it neared 300. I felt very sad and my sadness took a long time to leave. When the elm was still standing, I had wondered if Native Americans passed by here. Did they stop beneath the tree and look up into its branches? Had they felt the same way as I?