The Continuity of Oaks

by Richard Salzberg           7/21/2012

For the ancient Druids, the oak was a sacred thing. As described in Alistair Moffat’s remarkable book “Before Scotland,” when the Romans moved to conquer Britain and destroy the Celts two thousand years ago, after having identified the influence of the spiritual and cultural leadership of the mysterious priestly Druids in what Moffat cites as “a matter not of conquest but of annihilation,” the Romans made a point of decimating countless groves of primeval oaks throughout old Caledonia as a key part of their strategy.

So it may be that when a venerable, lifetimes-old oak is shattered and falls to the ground, it is not unreasonable to consider that subliminal aspects of race memory are part of the great sadness, and, yes – the mourning.

A fierce black storm came through the Roanoke Valley on Friday night, June 29. It blew in quickly from the west at about 9 o’clock, surreal in its power and ferocity and without so much as a single drop of rain.

Among the thousands of trees and limbs that came down that night, tossed and splintered in the dark whirlwind, was a massive oak which had served faithfully for 150 years or more; first as a guardian for rolling pastureland, and later as a massive sentinel at the curve of a narrow neighborhood road.  

The great oak fell in the night, broken into great pieces that took down other large, good trees and power lines, and closed the narrow road for several days. We are told to remember that, as a living thing, a tree has a life span, with a seeded birthing and an inevitable passing. (“When it is time, it is time.”) But the great oak fell, and now is gone; and feelings of great loss and sadness are part of the memory of that life.

With all of its violence, the storm passed quickly to the northwest. The next morning the sun was out, bright and very hot. Birds flew and sang as if nothing had happened. And surely that evening the deer came out as they would, although their paths had been altered by the falling of the trees; and there will no longer be a harvest and feast of sweet acorns for them at this place in the Fall.

Of course, the loss of a single tree is in no way comparable to the terrible loss of lives and homes from past violent storms and tornadoes, such as those that devastated entire communities in other parts of Virginia, the Midwest and the deep South. Beside the inestimable loss of so much by natural conflagrations (and, for that matter, the loss of life and limb for so many of the young Americans who fight our wars), to mourn a single tree might seem indulgent and even supercilious.   

The people of Missouri, Alabama, and western Virginia, and too many other places are having to make the best of their woeful, storm-tossed circumstances. It will take years to adjust and rebuild from the destruction. However changed and continually touched by alternating shades of hope, despondence, anger, musing, and trepidation at the rumble of thunder or a sudden high wind before the sight of a dark pewter sky – and an indelible sense of loss – their lives continue. They will persevere as people have since time immemorial.

In the days following the fall of the great oak, the new expanse of sky and the land now revealed below the ridge seem very harsh to the unaccustomed eye. “It is only the loss of a single tree,” it can be said, but as a symbol for all that this loss represents, for our own time and for uncountable millennia – the great oak remains powerful.      

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