The Witness Tree

When I was very young, we lived in a big red farmhouse in Elk. We had a dog named Zorba the Greek, and every day my father would swing me up in a pack on his back and go out into the woods, until I was old enough to trek on my own.

My father was the caretaker–we fed the animals, worked in the garden, and worked in the woods. The property spanned some 360 acres, and on it was a profusion of virgin growth. Whenever the owner got tight for money, she sold a few trees off, and it was my father’s job to work with the logging company in the selection and removal. And later, after the logging company had left, he would go out and plant another tree. It was sustainable logging at a simple and basic level.

It was a good life. I remember the smells and sounds of the woods, ambling companionably with my father through the forest every day. Sometimes he would take his saxophone out with us and play the blues. The sight of a garter snake slithering away through the grass one day spurred the “wiggly snake” song, which was duly sung every time a snake was spotted. Sometimes we would hike up to the spring, and drink the fresh icy water straight out of the ground. Sometimes we would hike down the hill, and could end up in the town of Elk if we went far enough.

We always spent a few hours in the garden each day, and it was there that our ongoing war with the gophers was waged. As I weeded the lettuce, I would watch the peas being tugged underground, one by one. A flower perfectly healthy one day would list and die the next. We set gopher traps, we tried to poison them with road flares (a complicated process, I assure you), we encouraged the cats to hang out in the garden, and sometimes we just hurled things at them. There is nothing on this earth more frustrating than a gopher invasion.

The traps were fairly effective. Every morning it was my job to check and reset them, and I usually ended up with one or two. My father would pile them onto a shovel and hurl them outside the garden for the owl.

We knew there was an owl, because we could hear him at night. And we knew he liked the gophers, because the little corpses would be gone the next morning. But we didn’t know what sort of owl he was, until a mellow June evening when my father and I were sitting out on the porch, drinking hot cocoa and looking out into the dark orchard.

A ghostly shape drifted through the apple trees, and came to rest next to the garden. With a snap the trapping victim of the morning disappeared, and the owl took flight again. A massive horned owl, he was, and he seemed to give us a barely perceptible nod as he cruised by on his nightly rounds.

But we did know where he nested. He lived at the Witness Tree.

This photograph does not to justice to the size of the Witness Tree. It’s a massive, twisted, gnarled old redwood. Utterly useless for timber, it’s been hit by lightning at least twice, and if you go out into the meadow, you can see its forked top peeping over the other trees. It would probably take eight people to encircle the trunk, which is partially hollow at the base.

And, of course, the forest floor around the Witness Tree is littered in owl pellets, the hair encrusted masses of bone and teeth owls spit up after dinner.

Something about the Witness Tree is magical. Surrounded by other trees, its bulk looms through the forest. Everything around it seems hushed, almost in awe of its massiveness. Every now and then I visit the Witness Tree, a long journey down a winding driveway, a walk across a flowering meadow, and a stroll through the forest to the mammoth redwood. I find an odd sort of peace at the tree. I’m not sure how old it is, but I imagine it’s been around for hundreds of years, judging from the size. I wonder if it was around during the war for independence, if it saw Spanish and Russian ships off the shores of California, how many other people visit it, come by to say hello when they return from long overseas journeys. Sometimes I take other people to the tree with me, to be formally introduced and find appreciation for it as well. Usually, though, I go alone. If I go in the spring, the iris are in bloom and I can wander through a field of small, delicate purple flowers. If I come in the winter, the ground is soggy and mushrooms peep out here and there. In the fall, crisp leaves fall lazily through the air, and the forest seems hushed and cool qith expectation. In the summer, the meadow is dry and crackling, insects are poised for action. I sit in silent communion with the tree for a moment, breathing the oxygen it respires, leaning against the massive trunk, and thinking about nothing in particular.

Afterwards, I go to pay my respects to the mistress of the manse, to drink tea and eat scones and admire her lovely and thoroughly gopher proofed garden, and then I amble away into the rest of the day, craning my neck as I leave to catch a glimpse of the Witness Tree, which has been witnessing for quite a while, and will probably go on doing so long after I die, though perhaps with a new owl in residence.