The Leaning Trees

In the woods near my mother’s childhood home, dozens of trees are noticeably leaning, a few almost parallel to the ground. Some were bent when another tree or heavy limb fell across. Others have been slowly pulled down by climbing vines which show no mercy.

I’ve cut a few such trees with my chainsaw, but usually leave them alone if they show even slight potential. Several I’ve freed from bondage, giving them a second chance to reach toward heaven. Most are unremarkable in terms of aesthetics, but two deserve inclusion in The Leaning Tree Hall of Fame.  

Native Americans are said to have tied trees down to alter their natural growth. The same sapling would sometimes be manipulated in multiple directions for various reasons, like marking a trail or boundary. Tree bending was probably sometimes done to impress neighbors or young ladies. Whitewall tires weren’t available to line driveways.

Daddy told me that during his youth boys would use a rope to pull a limber sapling over then ride the spring-loaded top. One kid would cling tightly as the others released and launched him skyward. It wasn’t as fun as a trip to the fair but the price was great.

A leaning tree I find especially lovely is a birch whose long roots are mostly exposed. I would guess it’s only a few decades old. During the past several years, as we’ve spent more time in those woods, I’ve gained an increasing appreciation for that tree which refuses to surrender to gravity.

Years ago it was steadily secured on the bank of the stream, but passing water has eroded the soil from its base. The birch is about 30 feet tall yet its top is almost within my reach. A barren trunk is tethered by a mass of open-air roots which eventually pass through shallow water and grab the earth.  

The tree’s tenacity is inspiring and its peculiarity endearing, plus it’s useful. When our grandson, Walt, was looking for crawdads, those twisted roots turned out to be their favorite hiding place. That day’s catch was cooked for Walt’s supper, but now we leave them undisturbed. Even crawdads need a place to call home.  

My other favorite leaning tree is firmly grounded, but suffered an unknown trauma long ago. It’s on a tiny peninsula which has been patiently carved by years of flowing water. The tulip poplar offers an ideal setting for taking photos or escaping from alligators.

We’ve only seen one alligator along the branch. To his credit, he didn’t sneak up on us. We unknowingly walked within a few feet of him before being unexpectedly greeted. 

Jimmy, my late brother, first spotted the huge gator submerged and resting on the bottom near the spring. Apparently he had traveled upstream from a pond on an adjoining property. The big fellow visited a few weeks then left, presumably returning home. We didn’t know he stopped halfway there. 

Megan and our daughter, Erin, were with Jimmy and me taking a relaxed walk along the branch. We were unaware the gator was quietly perched on the bank of the stream. He startled us with a four-foot belly flop into knee-deep water. Megan shimmied up the leaning tree as the rest of us scampered away. I ran because my license for gator wrestling had expired. 

That ancient poplar’s massive base is heavily tilted and grew into two trunks of about the same size. One goes straight up, but the other slopes about eight feet before making a turn toward twelve o’clock. The oddly shaped tree reminds me that neither beauty nor purpose require perfection. 

If I needed timber for sawing into boards, I’d want trees with exemplary posture. For a walk in the woods, however, I love those which are charmingly blemished, which have flourished despite their setbacks. 

Imperfect trees are not so different from life when plans go awry. It may be from self-inflicted wounds or due to things beyond our control. Either way, the weight of burdens can bend us so badly it’s hard to look up. And climbing vines of every kind can steal the sunlight and overshadow our dreams.

Two oddly-shaped trees beside the stream remind me that blessings sometimes come in unorthodox forms. When life doesn’t turn out as expected it can be hard to accept and even harder to embrace. But the leaning trees in my favorite woods show that challenging circumstances can lead to new opportunities. One gave Megan a lasting memory. The other found an uncommon purpose. Even crawdads need a place to call home.       

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3 Responses to The Leaning Trees

  1. Curtis Greer says:

    Neil, we love it, but wish that you had shown some pictures of those
    leaning trees, since they remind us of our lives. We wish for y’all to
    have a wonderful, Christ filled Christmas. May the Lord bless y’all real
    good, pete & Billie Greer, of Warner Robins, Ga., faithful readers of
    your column every Saturday in the HHJ.


  2. Jennifer Pollard says:

    This reminded me of Robert Frost’s poem, Birches. :).


  3. Ellen Hunsucker says:

    Love it! Where’s your dignity, though? I mean, leaving your teenage granddaughter behind to check out the gator while you headed for the hills? Tsk. Tsk.


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