• ashirk@gmail.com
  • Kijabe, Kenya
On Trees

On Trees

A Collection of Stories

What shapes our lives?

Sights, sounds, smells, feelings, emotions.

Not only rational thoughts, but the endless intangible contacts with the world.

I grew up in a ranch-house in Georgia with a glass door facing west. Each afternoon brillant light streamed through the towering pine trees. The golden light shaped the way I see the world. Eventually I became a wedding photographer, and I always took pictures “the wrong way,” shooting into the sun.

The true art of photography is capturing not only the visible reality of what is, but the emotional reality of how a moment feels.

Even now, when I feel the African sunlight hit my face, my mind plays tricks on me, and I can hear Georgia: mourning doves in the trees, the soft white noise of the air-conditioner near the back-door, the creak of tree-houses as the pines shifted in the wind, planes reaching altitude as they streak north from Hartsfield-Jackson, and the ever-present hum of traffic on I-85. The mind is a strange thing.

This morning as I walk Annabelle to school, the tree with camouflage bark along the path is brilliant.

I see it not only today.

I see my friend Adam months ago, on his mountain bike, yelling “watch this,” as he sped toward the tree in a wheelie, tapping his front tire to the tree, then trying to ride backwards, laughing richly as he loses his balance.

“Did you see that?”

Strangely, Adam, I still do see it.

I also still hear the screeching of the hawk family in the nest atop the camouflage tree, though the birds moved on a year ago.

The screech was a familiar sound, because the cry of these hawks is the exact same sound that the Nazgul dragons make in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies.

I would feel a momentary tinge of terror each time I heard the shriek, my heart overriding my mind.

Then the sensation of amazement arrives, that this dragon sound was in fact the real call of a bird of prey.

There be dragons, after all.

The mind itself might be the worst sort of fire-breathing dragon, capable of such power and destruction.

As my mom began to lose her mind to altzheimer’s, she cut the trees of my childhood.

It started the day she stepped on the bottom rung of the tree-house my father built. The rung snapped, she cut her leg on a nail, and subsequently called an arborist to remove the “dangerous” house and all the surrounding trees.

The rung had been broken for years. As kids we imagined it some sort of adult-proof booby-trap, which turned out to be reality. But now I was off at college and without it’s trap the tree-house was defenseless.

I came home to a pile of chain-saw shavings on the ground.

I wept.

When my father died, his things followed. The sailboat that spent years parked in the garage disappeared, along with it imaginary journeys across the sea and the seemingly endless hiding places for tic-tac packages. The VCR, the old TV, the red recliner that served as a refuge in games of hot-lava. Tools were sold, lost or forgotten. The treehouse might have been his longest-standing legacy, were it not for the bottom step.

Mom struggled with how to parent through the pain of loss, and two or her core strategies were to take us to speak with child psychologists (not great) and Home Depot (genius!) to purchase as much lumber as we wished. In its heyday, the original treehouse was a structure three-stories high with a rope-swing that could only be used to full fun (aka danger) with the assistance of other children. One would climb on the roof of the tree-house, then onto the upper-deck, level with the roof. And in times of true bravery, a climb to the upper-upper deck above that one for a legendary swing into the dogwood trees, which at night glowed like the stars and gave the illusion of actually piloting the Millenium Falcon into hyperspace.

The original tree-house went, and eventually the other five constructed by my brother did too, along with the trees that held them. Eventually, even mom went — to a nursing home. And I went, with my family, to the Carolinas, then Alabama, then Africa.

But the trees of my childhood still exist in my mind. I still make B-52 bombers in the pine straw. I construct a legendary fort in the fallen branches of the backyard. I hang ziplines and ride rope swings.

One morning in Alabama, I awake to a huge BOOOM! The first thought in my mind was, “I’m dead!”

The second thought in my mind is, “If I’m dead, would I really be thinking this thought?”

Satisfied by the promise of my continued existence, I roll over and looked out my bedroom window to see not yard and sky, only green.

A massive oak had fallen inches away from the roof above my head. Somehow the branches went through the open gate of a deck I had built three weeks before, and nothing at all was damaged.

I call friends with chainsaws (the best sort of friends), and we spend the afternoon cutting the oak into firewood sized chunks.

By the time Arianna arrives home the next day from a long shift at the hospital, there remains no evidence of the event save for a massive pile of logs, rock-hard red oak that must dry two years before I can split and burn the pieces.

Lord of the Rings, as we call it, is a favorite tree in my present life — a massive fig tree with symbiotic vines growing downward from the top. I am still cautious in climbing, only willing to go some twenty feet up the solid vines. Baboons often hide in the topmost branches, though it is unlikely I would be surprised by them as they are very loud, social creatures. More alarming is that I might reach a high point and encounter a swarm of bees, as happened to my friend Michael’s son on a belayed climb.

I am not scared of heights, and I am not scared of bees, but I am terrified of bees in high places.

If a tree falls in the woods, and no one is around to hear, does it make a sound?

think whether or not a tree makes an audible noise as it falls is irrelevant. The greatest sound we make is not in dying, but in living, through the resonance of emotions and memories as we encounter the world and the world encounters us. Trees are no different, in this regard.

Do we believe that life is stronger and more significant than death? Do we have a sort of object permanence with regard to the world, believing that things — humans, animals, and all created things have a value longer and deeper and greater than their present lives? Does deep beauty and truth live inside and all around us?

It must be so.

(View on medium with big, pretty pictures – https://medium.com/@davidshirk/on-trees-and-stories-6e1373a5904c)

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