Wail, O oaks of Bashan

Friday, June 13, 2003

I've been trying all week to think of something good-humored to say about the demise of a good friend. But I can't.

The good friend is a nearly 50-year-old oak tree, which resides in our backyard. As we speak, it is being removed, limb by limb, while the hydrangeas, impatiens, begonias, lilies of the valley, azaleas, boxwood hedges, iris, violets, ivy, forsythia, spirea, honeysuckle, wild grapevines and assorted other nearby neighbors watch in silence.

Perhaps taking the most note are the nearby elderly elm, which has its own health problems and the scars of recent surgeries to prove it, and another enormous oak, a magnificent magnolia and a vigorous ash that also occupy our yard.

The trees are the reason we live in our house. Literally.

Some of you already know about the Sullivan quest for a house after we moved to Cape Girardeau nearly nine years ago.

Are we picky? When we arrived in Cape Girardeau during a Fourth of July heat inversion in 1994, we were fortunate to have lovely accommodations in the spacious apartment above the news department in the Southeast Missourian building. We thought we'd take a couple of months to find a house here.

Three and half years later, we found a house. This house.

The first time we toured the house with our exhausted and exasperated real-estate agent, my wife and I spent a few minutes inside the house and hours in the yard.

When I saw the massive, straight-as-an-arrow trunk of the grand oak in the backyard, I was compelled to reach out and touch its rough bark. My wife came around the corner of the house from another part of the yard, and we said at the same time, "We've got to have this yard." Oh, yeah, and the house too.

So, as leaves of every color found special places to land in our new yard in October 1997, we moved into our new home. I can't tell you how many times I've been working in the backyard and found a reason to give the oak a pat.

The very next year, one of the oaks in our neighbor's front yard began to show signs of stress. The leaves were sparse. Bare limbs reached for the sky. The next year the tree was removed. Then our oak began to show the same symptoms. This year, most of its branches are bare.

The inevitable day arrived. I called the tree remover. My wife was inconsolable. I had a vicious stomachache. I can only imagine what the tree was going through.

Don't tell me trees don't have feelings. Don't even start. I don't know enough about trees to explain everything I sense about them, but I know enough to know they are guided either by minds of their own or the mind of God himself.

To get ready for the tree remover's crew, I have been moving things -- shed, fence, hanging pots, purple martin house -- to create as open a work area as possible.

And I've moved the new squirrel-proof three-in-one bird feeder too. As we ate breakfast Thursday morning -- full of dread over what was about to transpire, weather permitting -- I watched the cardinals and blue jays and flicker and downy woodpeckers swoop down from the oak to the empty pole where the bird feeder should be.

I couldn't take it. I had to leave the kitchen.

I found this in Zechariah:

Wail, O cypress, for the cedar has fallen,

Because the mighty trees are ruined.

Wail, O oaks of Bashan,

For the thick forest has come down.

That pretty much says it all. Farewell, mighty oak. And thanks.

R. Joe Sullivan is the editor of the Southeast Missourian.

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