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The Pines

Alabama Pines Photo credit Carol Highsmith, Library of Congress http://www.loc.gov/item/2010640176/

Alabama Pines Photo credit Carol Highsmith, Library of Congress http://www.loc.gov/item/2010640176/

The colors of autumn in Vermont where hundreds of Mattesons fill a graveyard, the citron medallions of Colorado’s aspen, the Emperor’s crimson of a Japanese maple in the garden, all make their claim on my admiration. But give me, instead, a pine tree, or—better—a whole woodlot of evergreen prickly posts smelling of balsam and pine-straw-needle mulch. This is the tree that is my brother, or at least a close cousin.

Our little house in the swamp was built of pine, each board branded SPIB for “Southern Pine Inspection Bureau.”   The studs I knew intimately from when they were installed like soldiers on guard duty, silent, attentive, their feet toe-nailed into the plate. Later they were hidden with camouflage of sheet rock and siding. They were out of sight then, but I knew they were there, standing still and silent, faithful like the trees they had been. I could see the floors, made of pine too, only sanded, varnished and polished to the shine of a yellow mirror where you could see your face when you hung your head over the edge of the bed. And I could smell them. Their balsam scent waffled to me like a balm of Gilead that always soothed my soul; it was the smell of home.

A Boy Should Have A Wood

I came naturally to this affection for the needled citizens of my life from rambles, aimless and free, in the “woods” as we called it. Every child should have his woods, though a “hundred acre wood” is a more immense space than most neighborhoods can afford. Some must do with a mere thicket like my son’s “Bamboo Forest,” fifty feet on a side. The important thing is that you can lose yourself in it and set free your imagination to swing abound without breaking out into the sight of everyday. But I had my woods that stretched from a few yards from behind our lot to the edge of the world, I supposed, since I never reached its far border.

There were other trees about to be sure: oak, and chinquapin, hickory, black walnut, sweet gum, wild cheery, and sassafras, of course, but mostly there were pine trees. They were of all sizes from infant bushes to a giant mama tree that challenged this boy to reach around her trunk with a complete hug. Many others challenged him, too, to climb. The wind would make each one sing, and the lyrics sounded like, “Come up, boy. Come up and brush your hair against a cloud.” So I accepted one invitation after another; often it was an easy climb with branches near the ground, better than Jack’s bean stalk ladder to the sky, but sometimes the only way up was to shinny: to grasp the body of the tree with its rough red-brown bark in a two-handed hug and place a dirty bare foot on each side pincering the trunk. Then push up and hang on with your arms until you can get another toehold. Up and up, each minute higher and more perilous. It can cost to climb a tree; I recall intense maternal scoldings for torn shirt pockets and rosin soiled shorts. I never fell like my brother once did, though I do bear scars on my chest and abdomen from breathless slips and bark-burn descents. Mostly, I ascended without fear or incident.

The View From Above Is Worth The Climb

You knew you had gone high enough, though, that you had reached the zenith, when she began to give way to your grasp, when your perch swayed with every breath of air and when the earth beneath seemed far away. When you are high in the crown of a piney wood, people, viewed from high above, become tiny and curious circles of flesh, and their cares shrink in significance, as well. On days when my cares press in, I sometimes go again to the needle nest and see me down below in a true out-of-trouble experience. All seems different when viewed from far above, even if only in the imagination.

I am partial to pine trees. Not just because they were kind to me and gave me a fragrant gymnastic diversion but also for what they still can teach us if we pay attention. Perhaps their patient steadfastness grows out of a difference of perspective. Life looks different when viewed from above. Often we can see no way out while we stumble about in the understory of brush and bramble. But from above a reason for hope is easier to see.

Sammy Gene's boyhood home in rare snow fall. Photo credit: family photo.

Sammy Gene’s boyhood home in rare snow fall ca. 1964. Photo credit: family photo.

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