Her Majesty Weathers the Storm

I don’t remember when we began referring to the tree in our front yard as “Her Majesty,” but clearly we understood early on that this was a tree worthy of veneration.

A towering oak with strong, proud limbs, it dominated the open lot we explored 18 years go in a hilly Southwest Eugene neighborhood.

For two decades, my spouse and I had lived amid towering firs on a forested site across town. Our tenure in the forest had carried us into the twilight zone of light perception that accompanies age—a process professionals call senile miosis.

Simply put, the pupil of the eye does not open as wide to capture light. By the time we reach 60, the average person’s light perception is estimated to be about one-third what it was at 20. No wonder our house in the forest was growing dimmer every year. We launched a quest for light.

Months of Sunday open houses left us in the dark. Uneasily, we pondered the option of building.

That’s when we met the tree—a prominent presence on a lot that seemed to offer both nature and open skies with trees that dropped their canopy when winter days grew dim.

A second large oak stood near the front of the lot. A cluster of three smaller oaks flanked a boundary. All of them showed up as circles on the site map we were given. All of them but the crowning oak—the central tree on the property.

Ah, an oversight, the developer assured us. The tree had been marked for removal to open up the building space. No problem. He’d have it cut down at no charge.

No, no, we protested hastily. The tree had worked its charms on us. Any tree with the power to disappear itself from a site map on tree-falling day was a tree we wanted sheltering our new home.

Maybe that’s when she became Her Majesty. We deferred to the tree with a house design that acknowledged its central presence. We chose landscaping that addressed the ecology of an oak savannah.

An arborist groomed her branches and trimmed out signs of previous injuries. A table and chairs settled in below her limbs. We put our own roots down in the house that rose behind the courtyard tree.

From my upstairs writing space I can look out on her branches and slide into mindless meditations on the metaphors that emerge from twisted limbs and gnarled bark. From leaves that live a season and die.

We began to learn what's in a name

Gradually, the towering oak at the front of the lot claimed a name as well, emerging as The Sentinel in the shorthand of family language. It seemed to fit the tree’s frontline position against winds that swept in from the south. It honored his awkward, asymmetrical profile—the battle scars of nature and nesting raccoons.

It wasn’t clear to us, at first, that these designations were more than fanciful nicknames. In time, we realized we’d given personalities to these trees.

Characteristics evolved as we weathered years together. Her Majesty was regal and perhaps a bit vain. The Sentinel, loyal, strong and brave. Gradually, they attained kinship as beloved co-inhabitants of the space we’d claimed as home.

You might be wondering where this is going.

For three days in December, I stood at a window and tried to protect Her Majesty and The Sentinel—hoping that by sheer will power, by determination and unceasing vigilance I could hold their branches up as a thick robe of ice cloaked the limbs.

In the night, the terrible skitter of ice on the roof woke us from restless sleep. We peered into the darkness for signs of damage to the tree at the center of our yard.

Nothing we could see out there in the blackness eased the chill of uncertainty. What fell just then? Where did it land? How long until another branch comes down?

In the morning light we saw a limb as big around as my middle, sprawled awkwardly beneath the courtyard tree. It had dropped 30 feet, just missing the bedroom windows but splitting in half a Japanese maple at the edge of the drive. Another limb, slightly smaller in girth, hung tenuously from a splintered base, its tip braced on the frozen earth just at the edge of the walk.

I took photos of our wounded giant and mourned my helplessness in the face of destruction I could not relieve.

Comfort inside Brings no Relief for Pain outside

Inside the house, we had heat and light. I should be grateful, I told myself. And I was.

The courtyard tree, though wounded and ragged, was still standing. I should be thankful. And I was.

The Sentinel seemed to be holding his own. I should feel fortunate. And I did.

But I was grieving too. Paying the price of treating names lightly—the price of kinship with ancestral trees. Those casual nicknames had built relationship—the risk of pain as well as joy.

For three days I rode the seesaw of grief and gratitude. Of hope and hopelessness. By day three, two more limbs hung perilously from broken joints on Her Majesty.

When the thaw came we assessed other damages: The top half of an aspen tree. A splintered katsura in the back. The Sentinel lost no more than a cluster of twiggy brambles. Our home was unscathed. Our two grand oaks still standing.

She who escaped the chain saw 18 years ago had worked her magic once more to stay erect through an attack that toppled scores of her peers. The canopy above her limbs has opened here and there, with jagged stumps still bearing witness to the storm.

A yard crew sawed chunks of firewood sufficient for at least two winters as they cleared the wreckage. Freed of the debris of disaster, Her Majesty regained stature in the courtyard—a mighty oak as regal as it had seemed when we met 18 years ago.

Then, when it finally felt safe to release a sigh of relief, a second storm discharged its icy threat. As temperatures dipped last weekend the seesaw dipped again as well.

Gratitude shared the ride and held firm through the ups and downs. Gratitude for the courage to give a tree a name—to take the risk of kinship with nature.

Carolyn Kortge of Eugene is a former Register-Guard editor and writer.

Contact her at spiritedwalker@gmail.com


Not the Retiring Type

by Carolyn Kortge

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