I paused to rest Sunday afternoon beneath a knotted and bent white oak tree.
A mile’s hike from the nearest road, I’ve been seeing that knotty old tree for more than 20 years — nearly as long as I can remember. We’re old acquaintances, the tree and I.
That old tree has withstood droughts that have felled some of the trees around it. It has withstood blights that have felled some of the trees around it. And it’s withstood the timberman’s chainsaws that have felled the most trees of all around it.
Knotty and crooked, it has little timber value and it is beginning to show signs of disease. But it still produces an acorn crop every year, sustaining a lot of the critters of the woods — everything from whitetail deer to squirrels to black bears feed beneath the tree.
And, from its location atop a wooded knoll, it stands sentry over the forest, like an aged watchman. It has seen lots of change: from the days when the skies overhead were silent to today’s jet airplanes leaving contrails across the heavens; from the days when the surrounding valleys were dark to today’s twinkling street lights in the distance. It has seen dozers and track-hoes come and go as coal was stripped around the base of its ridge, and skidders and loaders come and go as timber was cut from the top of the ridge. It has seen seasons change — the new beginnings of spring, the brilliantly-colored goodbyes of autumn, the winters’ freezes and thaws.
The first time I hunted beneath this tree, I was 12 years old, tagging along with my grandfather. In the years that have followed I’ve made a good many trips back to that same spot — more than I could probably count.
As I rested Sunday, I thought about how that tree is a bit like some people. Not worth much, from their outwardly appearance; shunned by some and scorned by others. And, yet, they stand firm as pillars of their community, serving as a steady and stable influence on all who surround them. It isn’t until they’re old and beginning to show signs of their age, when their days become numbered, that we truly begin to realize their worth.
People ask me sometimes why I hunt. Why do I get up hours before daylight, drive a long distance and walk a long distance to sit perched in a tree on a freezing, frosty morning?
Well, for one thing, the forest is a cathedral, where God’s handiwork is on full display and in which all things, living and non-living, play an integral role. If you’ve never experienced the sun rising over a distant mountain and casting its first rays on the frosty forest as it and its inhabitants come to life, you really can’t explain it.
And, for another, I’m driven by the pursuit that drove my forefathers to these same woods. I’m a firm believer that God gave man dominion over the animal kingdom and placed those creatures on the earth for man to respect and use to his benefit, and venison and fowl help feed my family.
But, more than anything else — more than dreams of trophy racks on savvy old whitetails or the sight of a tom turkey cresting the top of a ridge — there are lessons in these woods. Lessons like an old, gnarled oak tree. And when you sit for hours, long enough that the squirrels and the deer and the other critters forget you’re there, the woods begin to speak.
I pay the man who owns the land for the right to trespass on his property. I pay the State of Tennessee for the right to hunt wild game. But these lessons, like the one told by an old oak tree standing sentry on a wooded knoll, don’t cost a dime. Just a little time and patience, and an ear to hear.
■ Ben Garrett is editor of the Independent Herald. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.