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Irish News

Column: 
Fallen Butternut Tree

Winter has broken.  The curves and arcs of snow have subsided into gray spikes, and then into sand and debris.  The ground still remains brown and frozen, locking the daffodils and the crocuses underground for another few days until the days turn mud wonderful and something green shoots up.  

For now, however, we remain in the slowly warming margin of time between ice and fog when the ground still looks ready for another few inches of white while the sky stays brighter and brighter, later and later.  In the crystal Canadian air, Orion settles to the west and the summer constellations inch higher in the evening sky.  

We have been smothered by geometry.  Longs arcs of snow built up in the open yards and moors, then spiraled logarithmically across the Polpis and Milestone Road.  The storms knocked us back into the nineteenth century for a week, and then the cold locked up the harbors and the sound.  As a result, the months slipped indoors, put on a sweater, listened for the furnace to burn more money.  

The wind, the snow, the ice have closed off most of the sidewalks and pathways over the island.  The beach is, as always, open to foot traffic, but only those protected from sand and wind.  The beach remains the playground for dogs.  One beast of my fond and intimate acquaintance spend a remarkable hour on the beach chasing a plastic water bottle through gusts and spirals.  With one mighty pounce, he pinned it beneath his paws and mouthed it like a small, plastic duck.  I stood and applauded his success, then bent into the west wind, pulled my hood down over my eyes and sloughed back to the car.  

On a morning that started with dollops of frost, myself and the boon companion started the car and went visiting the summer houses.  Long ago, when the grass was still green and the moors were still red, the cottages had been locked up and sealed for the winter.  They were elderly places, veterans of eighty winters.  Like all of those age, they had had replacements and medicines, therapies and diets to bring them through one more winter.  We covered the furniture in cloth, sealed the storm windows, and dropped the thermostat to fifty.  We left the rooms to the memories and the sunlight.  

Later, we visited in the caesuras of the season, when the sun was out and the roads were clear.  We brought in the mail, checked the vitals, and listened to the Irish news.  The snow heaped up on the east facing bushes, but the rooms were warmish, the windows sound, and the water running.  If we were quick about it, we could visit all of the summer houses before the next storm rose up in the southwest. 

So it was this morning.  The frost had melted by the time we rounded the rotary, my gloves were off at the airport, and someone had his head out the window at the Tom Never’s turn off.  We inspected the houses with our customary caution.  Everything appeared sound, warm, and running in all of the houses.  The rabbits were warned about trespassing on the yard.  

Our last house, however, had suffered a loss.  It remained intact and sound; all of its organs remained in rough but workable shape.  However, in the back yard, the winter upended an elderly butternut tree.  One anonymous gust or another tipped it over and onto the patio.  The great crown of branches splayed over the still brown lawn, while the great arms crushed the hedges and toppled a birdbath.  Those private balls of roots, buried and hidden in the sandy soil, lay exposed for all. Before us, it was an undisputed, permanent, and regretful fact.  Yesterday it stood, today it doesn’t.

Without it, the yard was different.  Where there had once been branches and leaves, there now was sky.  Beneath that sky, even a warming and blue March one, the house looked smaller and shabbier.  It my mind, it had partnered with the house, sheltering it, framing it, and bracing it.  You can’t make too much out of a fallen tree, especially on this island.  The sand of the island wasn’t made for trees, grass, or people.  High winds, ice, snow, and sandy soil make for a fatal concoction that takes down all trees, no matter how fond you might be.  

Now it stretched out like a corpse and work needed to be done.  Phone calls, of course, and photos.  The right words would be said: “Thank God none got injured.  And it only took out the birdbath.” Soon, there would be another birdbath.  Soon, a crew of professionals would take the Butternut away, piece by piece. .  Some would remain for firewood, some would make some sort of art, and the rest would quietly rot at the dump.  Perhaps, some young sapling would get planted in its place.  Ten years from now, the old tree would live only in memories and unopened photo albums.  

For this last moment, the Butternut remained ours; it had been all that it could be.  No more shade, no more foliage, no more clattering in the night.  It had come to an end and the world, and the seasons, moved on.  

Each year, winter takes away.  The wind, the cold, and the dark spirit some unremarked but indispensable thing away and we are left without, be it tree, house, or man.  In the warming spring, we gaze at the vast hole that remains and wonder, how great the giant was who once stood there and why we never noticed the shadow he cast.

Bob Barsanti's novel, Milestone Road, was published in 2012.  His previously published book of essays about Nantucket is Sand in My Shoes.  

[photo credit: https://ajawahnaturalist.wordpress.com/2014/05/14/april-22-2014/]