Small World: Tales of a Tree

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

In the middle of the night a couple of weeks ago, an oak tree came crashing down in my neighbor’s front yard. It was great in circumference, taller than two stories, and green and healthy in leaf. The only thing that set it apart from the other trees in the neighborhood was a mass of yellowish mushrooms that every year reappeared attached to the base. The variety is “edible and popular” when cooked, says the guidebook.

When the tree came down, the cause became easily apparent: a couple of feet down at the roots the tree was rotten through and through. Damp and crumbling to the touch, the root system couldn’t support the superstructure. My neighbor speculated that maybe the installation of a new septic system close by had something to do with it.

That led to the other thing that set the tree apart: it was ripe for metaphor making. During the passing of the recent tornado a good number of nearby trees went down, crushing a house and a garage and leaving mountains of broken branches. But that wind didn’t carry the message that came with the recent tree’s fall. It fell between two houses and a tall pine, on top of a driveway and a flight of stairs, with great care, it seemed, without inflicting more than minor damage — except unto itself.

That leaves us with only our imaginations to figure out the meaning of the crash in the night (which neither my wife nor I heard).

Thinking big, could it be that the great oak represented the U.S.A.? It was, to all outside appearances, great and strong, destined surely for a life as long and as prevailing as its past had been. Yet, at core, at its base, it was rotten, weak, and doomed to fail. Could the tree’s impressive crop of yellowish fungi, tempting some passersby to test bits with pasta, have been sending an attractive message of deadly warning? (Guidebooks can err). The foundation was plainly unable to support the lavish display of healthy trunk and branches above.

Does the rot tell us that over time, small armies or, rather militias, of bacteria can inflict more damage than a massive, direct assault? Does it make you think of Vietnam or Afghanistan? Small, almost invisible armies working underground, then one day the Tet Offensive or 9/11. This line of analysis may appeal to fans of the decline of the Roman Empire — as well as of the collapse of other empires — e.g. the Ottoman, Austrian, British, and Russian. In each one the tribes broke off from the capital, while leaving much of what had been accomplished (buildings and monuments) standing and intact. Thus, the structures (houses and pavements) erected in our neighborhood remain firmly planted and unscathed, if now unshaded.

But wait! Maybe it isn’t national decline that is being prefigured by the collapse. Maybe it is climate change. Maybe nature is telling us that the appearance of outward good health can be terribly misleading. Maybe the story instructs us about bad practices being disregarded, i.e., don’t expect mighty oaks to flourish when a manmade leach field is installed adjacent to it. Take the warning seriously when two houses are narrowly missed. The message is to act sooner rather than later to avert disaster. Today’s foresight may avert tomorrow’s consequences of a disaster too long ignored.

And so the search goes on for the meaning of a great bump in the night.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer

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