28 January 2011

Ode to an Old Friend

Across the street from where I grew up, a field faded into forest. In fact, for most of my childhood, forest surrounded our home on three sides. But we always called this one, “across the street.” The meadow contained a hill, which became a magnet for sleds and saucers during the annual snow day that the upper Napa Valley would receive, but otherwise the entire area was the domain of my friends and me. The forest proper was set further back beyond the crest of the hill, preceded by a ring of thick Manzanita brush. Access into the darkness of stately pines and oaks was either by established trail, or on hands and knees. If you pushed through the forest, you would eventually come out into another sloping field. Down across that, you would pass over a winding road to reenter an even larger stretch of forested land. Once upon a time this second forest had been a vineyard. Overgrown and abandoned, nature had long ago reclaimed the land. Later in my life, machines came and reasserted the dominion of men and this second forest became vineyards once again, but that is not today’s tale.

Today’s tale focuses just to the left of where you would be standing if you stood atop the second sloping meadow and stared out over the forested expanse of the abandoned vineyard. Because there, lying out of sight and off the beaten path, was a hidden vale. With friends I would roam the entire expanse of the surrounding lands, but the vale I reserved for myself. Maybe others came there as well, I don’t know. I do know that in all my visits, I never encountered another human being. It was a secret place where two hills overlapped, a widened draw in geographical lexicon. But to me it was another time and place.

The vale sloped downwards with the hills that formed its borders and right at its apex, sat a giant oak tree. Gnarled and rambling, the tree probably predated permanent human settlement in the area by quite some time. Maybe it was lonely, or maybe it initially suffered my presence in silence. Either way the tree became my friend. The oak stood guard over the vale and all within the vale acknowledged its mastery. Down near the bottom of the slope a dark hole opened into nothingness. A place of evil to my young imagination; whatever lurked there was kept in check by the sentinel oak and his nearby companions.

Over the years the vale and its lordly oak were many things to me. It became a refuge in times of pain or sorrow, a fertile ground on which my imagination could run free, or a sanctuary to retreat into with book and food in hand. This latter scenario was happily the most common and I spent countless hours, curled amongst the roots of the oak, visiting worlds whose only access was through the turn of a page. Depending on the topic of the day, I came to the vale as a wide variety of characters. Knight, forester, woodsman, archer, hero of old, or scared child; the tree welcomed them all equally and without judgement.

The vale changed very little with time, but it was far from static. In the early mornings, dew would drip from fog shrouded trees, the silence broken only by the impact of water on ground. In the heat of midday, the oak offered shelter from the glare of sunlight, a cool shadow that invited one to lie silently, listening to the hum of insects and the calls of songbirds that came to feed on them. As dusk descended, shadows fell across the vale, lengthening and distorting the familiar shapes that it held. On summer evenings I would lie against its trunk, listening to a chorus of frogs and watching the brilliant colors of the sunset succumb to the velvety purple of the night sky. If I had no other place to be, I would peer out between its limbs, book set aside in the dark, waiting for the first stars to pierce the sky. The stored heat of the oak warmed me, almost as if warm blood ran through its veins and no cares assailed me there.

As I reached adulthood, I went out into the world to turn imagination into reality. The images of books became the scenery around me; the deeds I once acted out became duties I must fulfill. In my darkest hours, in times most challenging, I retreated within the confines of my mind to the embrace of my old friend the oak. The vale endured as my sanctuary no matter where I stood in the world. When deeds were done and oaths completed, I returned to my childhood home, the boy who had once set out now faded forever behind me.

At long last I stand once again at the top of the second sloping meadow; I stare out across the once abandoned vineyard, the forest reduced again to orderly rows of vines, their fruit ripening in the sun. I stare with different eyes upon a vastly different scene. Turning from that, I move towards my sanctuary, the vale and my old friend the lordly oak. There at the apex of the veil, I encounter a house, its foundation hewed from the soil that once nurtured my friend. A winding stretch of pavement cuts down through the veil to a gate at the edge of the road. I turn and trudge homeward, not through stately forest but across fenced and posted property. No remnant of the familiar to guide me.

I often wonder how my old friend the oak died. Did he go out fighting, dulling the blades of machines, fouling the steel cables and eliciting the curses of his killer? Or did the oak pass on alone, with none but his longtime subjects to witness the cycle of nature completed?

In extreme flights of fancy, I imagine that the oak sprang into being; patiently gathering his power across centuries until the exact intersection in time where our paths crossed. Then, with his power shared and that time passed, the oak slipped back into the embrace of the cosmos to await a new whisper of need, a new child foretold. In that time I imagine the old oak will reappear, young, strong, and regal as ever; patiently biding his time until this new friend appears, roaming alone through hidden vales in search of something they cannot quite name.


  1. What a brilliant way of expressing yourself now and then. There is an oak in all our lives somewhere in our history...


  2. Friendship whether with a tree or an animal or a person from our youth is something to be cherished.

    I personally think that mighty oak sprouted legs and has found a new home to be with someone who needs it..

    Cheers A

  3. A beautiful story... and so masterfully written.
    Paul, you have immortalized your old friend. I can see this tree waiting for his boy to return...

  4. I had an oak on the edge of a brook that we spent many hours swinging from, then as years passed it became a private sanctity where I could escape and just be me. That oak was deemed dangerous and removed. However 27 years later I took a trip back and there in it's place is another, smaller but quite as defined and determined and will be just as magnificent after all Fromlittle acorns come great oaks ;)

  5. THE ENT FROM LORD OF THE RINGS!!!!! You speak Entish!!!!!!

    LOL... OK seriously, this post has a very nostalgic feel, paints a vivid picture of temperate forests --- (Damn, I'm having my own Little Red Riding Hood moment in imagine-nation here!) --- of comfort in solitude, of befriending and bonding with a supposedly-inanimate object of nature... I loved this piece!

    Slightly reminds me of the "Mango Tree" story (Indian folk tale) --- sharing it here: http://lifeinmoscow.wordpress.com/2008/07/09/the-mango-tree/

  6. Expressed so well. Such tenderness yet without judgment of the path.

  7. ThreeInfinity, I WISH I spoke Entish! Did manage to teach myself to write Elvish at one point, but it's a lost skill now...:)

    YogaSavy, thank you for the kind comment.

  8. i really enjoy your writing paul, i certainly had a bushland of great mystery when i was young, the trouble is - it's were i learnt to smoke cigarettes, meet girls and get into trouble. great memories none the less. good one !!

  9. Your form of writing is inviting, creating the image in a person's mind. It is so great that we have the capability to hold on to precious memories, such as this.

  10. Thank you Mary and Tbaoo... Tbaoo I got into plenty of trouble innother places, but that'll have to be in other posts...:)

  11. You are a beautiful writer. Solid as oak :-) Looking forward to reading more of your posts.