The great tree is gone. She had been dead for quite some time, her branches naked against a leaden sky, while others like her clothed themselves with garments of green, brown, red, and gold. She had stopped providing shade several years ago, but had continued to serve as a sanctuary where robins and bluebirds and mourning doves could rest and create woven works of art from bits of straw and twigs. She had, recently, become a feeding ground for woodpeckers and sapsuckers who, in their constant search for food, bored holes in her bark, bark that had become fragile and soft with the passage of time. Then, the town fathers had declared her to be a menace, an eyesore, and a threat to the safety of bystanders. They had ordered her to be taken down. Burly men had come with crosscut saws and double-bitted axes and within minutes, she lay in the street, her broken limbs scattered like unwanted chaff from a threshing machine. Soon, they would carry her away to the mill, where she would be turned into lumber by the great circular saw that whines all day by the pond that holds the remains of hundreds of her brothers and sisters.
From the beginning, she had been a survivor. She had pushed her way out of the warm damp soil when the place of her nativity had belonged to a strange group of humans who called themselves the Principal People. At that time in her life, she had been too small and too insignificant to have been noticed by them as they padded across the ancient pathway in their soft moccasins, enroute to barter with their neighbors to the north or to wage war against them.
The pathway had been enlarged to accommodate a trading culture, and she had been little more than a sprout when she saw the first two-wheeled cart arrive. The ox pulling it had looked at her with hungry eyes, but she had been too far off the path to reach and the beast had passed her by.
She had been a sapling when other conveyances, these with four wheels, arrived. These carried men with compasses, measuring chains, and range rods. A road had been built and soon, more wagons had arrived. They had come from the south and young women and children walked beside them. Men with beards and wearing black hats pulled low over their eyes had walked ahead of a caravan of emigrants. They carried long-barreled squirrel rifles and cow horns filled with gun powder and they had cast wary glances toward her, but they had not stopped.
She had added to her height and girth when a gaggle of young men, almost a hundred of them, appeared in front of her. They had laughed and poked fun at each other and had talked about a man called Polk and what they were going to do when they got to a place called Mexico. The determined look on their faces proclaimed that they meant business. They had not paused in their journey but had continued on their way. Their chatter and their laughter had faded away when they reached the top of the hill overlooking the place where she had taken root.
She had stood helpless as a farmer came with his flock of sheep and brood of children and turned her companions into dog-trot cabins and barns, corncribs and split-rail fences. She had stood mute as boys and girls joyfully pulled resin from her body and savored its sweetness and aroma. As their numbers increased, so did the distance between her and her kin. Soon, she had stood alone in fields filled with maize and flax and pumpkins that glowed in the autumn sun.
Her leafy garment had hung limp and shriveled in the steamy August heat when the soldiers arrived. The blue-coats had led a mule train down from the north where the mighty Cumberland River flowed. Perspiration had dripped from the brims of their kepis as they tugged at the halters of the mules, but the mules had been tired and refused to move the heavy munitions of war any further. So, the soldiers had made camp. Overnight, the grassy fields where sheep and cattle fed had been covered with a dingy white canvas blanket as weary soldiers set up pup tents and kindled cook fires from convenient wood fences. The soldiers had rested in her shade, recuperating from their long journey and strengthening themselves for the one ahead. Two days after arriving, they had departed amid the rattle of drums and the blare of bugles. When they were gone, the farmer had set about repairing his fences and restoring his farm to what it had been before the liberators came.
The serenity of her pastoral domain had been ruptured by the distant clanging of hammers as section gangs drove spikes of iron into uniform lengths of white oak and fastened steel rails to them. The rails would enable smoke-belching locomotives to carry the remains of her kind to faraway places, never to be seen again. The farmer had been quick to seize an opportunity to enrich himself at their expense, but he had taken no axe to her.
She had been at the peak of her maturity when two men, dressed in dark business suits, sat under her and talked about the future. They had studied maps and legal documents and when they had finished, they had drawn up plans for building an empire around her. She had watched in wonder as an industrial machine replaced the green pastures and golden fields of grain. It’s piercing whistles, roaring engines, and tolling bells had reminded all that a new day had dawned upon the land that had been her home for more than a hundred years. She had adapted and become accustomed to the noise and the turbulence. On sparkling July nights, she had heard the shrieks of children as they were lifted on the magnificent wheel that towered over canopies and carousels. She had watched as those same children stood quietly in line in the December chill to receive their allotment of chocolate drops and oranges and hard candies.
Then, she had become ill. Her decline had not been rapid and she had lingered for half a decade before the requirements for her survival became more than she could acquire. The town fathers had covered the soil around her with layers of brick and concrete and asphalt, depriving her of the water she needed for continued good health. Not until she had failed to green up in the spring had anyone observed that she had died.
No one bothered to count the growth rings on her trunk after she took her plunge to the earth. Was she a hundred years old? Two hundred? Three? We will never know. We do know, however, that members of her family live a very long time and she was a very large tree. During her long life, she had witnessed the weaving of the tapestry that became the heritage of the Big South Fork River region. Cherokee and Shawnee hunters, couriers, and warriors had been the first to see her. English hide hunters had followed them, opening the region to ironmongers, land speculators, wildcat salt drillers, and an influx of landless people seeking to improve their lot in life. The Scots-Irish, the Welsh, the Germans, and the French Huguenots had found refuge in this new land of opportunity. Italians, Slavs, and Americans of African descent had found employment there. Beneath her outstretched limbs had walked the wealthy and the indigent, soldiers and scofflaws, saints and sinners, the righteous and the deplorable. Now, she is no more.
Her proper name was Liquidambar Styraciflua. The people who knew her called her, simply, The Old Gum Tree. She was taken from us on this day, June 22, 1951, at her home in Stearns, Kentucky. May she live on in our memories.