Jefferson Weaver • Where the Squirrels Cuss
Sometimes I find myself missing the Prayer Tree.
It’s been gone for a few years now, harvested or just gnawed down by the ever-rapacious machinations of modern forestry, a fate which was ordained decades before, when the plantation around it was set out in tender white pine saplings, an investment for a future generation. Contrary to popular belief, I am not against professional tree farming, and this particular forest was meticulously maintained, almost groomed, in preparation for the day when someone would lay a sturdy platform of roughcut gum and oak across a ditch, open the gates, release a mechanical landbound Kraken and begin the inexorable process of sawing, topping, stacking and shipping the trees away to become lumber, paper or diaper fluff. It always saddens me, of course, when a forest is cut, but those pines ain’t nothing more than a cornfield, when you take the broader view.
This particular tree was a rebel. It was a loner, and violated the symmetry of the pines. It was a scrubby, stubborn, bent little oak that forced deer, coyotes, bear and fourwheelers to make a bit of dogleg turn. The landowner told me once why he didn’t cut it down, but the reason was so improbable or innocuous that I have since forgotten.
It fought with the pines for daylight, and shared its produce with the things that lived in the forest. They in turn roughed up the soil around it, providing a little extra fertilizer that allowed for a patch of soft grass to burgeon. The grassy spot was just large enough to allow a hunter, trapper or wanderer a place to settle for a quick rest, or to talk to God for a few minutes in relative privacy. After all, the Bible instructs us to close ourselves away from the distractions of the world when we want to have a real heart to heart with God.
I didn’t have an altar or a prayer closet. I had a Prayer Tree.
It was a place of peace and quiet, both very precious commodities in this day and age where we are constantly tracked by the devices in our pockets, which pre-program us to share everything from deep thoughts and silly jokes to what we had for lunch. I miss that wizened warrior of a tree; it was a good place to stop when I was running the trapline or trailing a deer, or sometimes just when my heart was troubled. I can’t say I really ever had an epiphany there, much less a Saul-to-Paul type experience, but I usually left feeling a little bit better, a little less troubled.
There’s a lot of talk in recent years about safe spaces, kind of a voluntary timeout room where people who can’t handle the world can go hide, and I guess suck their thumbs or nap. I cannot imagine my employer creating such, but it is kind of surprising to me how many businesses that I thought were managed by reasonable, level headed professionals fell into this weenie-woke trap. And I’m not talking about big plastic and glass corporations with espresso bars instead of coffeepots, places where nobody is really sure what anybody does for a living. I mean comparatively small and medium size businesses that require a modicum of common sense. I have never expected mu employer to provide a place of quiet and solitude. I guess I am too much of a grownup.
On my own time and volition, however, I have always tried to have a quiet place tucked away somewhere. There was my Prayer Tree; years before that there was a huge oak surrounded by rusted hogwire and decades of debris, a forgotten tangled island in the middle of a middle class neighborhood that had long since consumed an old farm.
There were others as well, many of which involved a tree or two. A particular driftwood log beside the Cape Fear River, where the squirrels cussed and complained that I was bothering their solitude. The porch of an abandoned house that faced what was once a public road surrounded by tobacco fields. My favorite deer stand, at the base of a tremendous longleaf pine shadowing a field bordered by a thicket alive with rabbits, turkeys and even occasional quail, a place where the afternoon sun put on a light show that was absolutely designed by God, the colors and clouds coming together in such a way that an artist would weep, knowing he could never replicate such an image.
There was another quiet place I used to visit, usually in the winter, where the last of the ships that helped defeat Nazism lay rusting in the mud and shallow brackish water, now crewed only by ghosts and crabs, birds and otters, with the occasional lost possum or coon to remind a boy from the swamps that he hadn’t lost nothin’ in the city, despite being so close to the beach. The river whispered through those old steel skeletons with just the slightest current. I admit I avoided the Graveyard, as it was called, during the spring, summer and fall, since the mosquitoes and alligators were zealous in their claim to the water stained with rainbows created by the oil leaking from those old ships. My johnboat with its fate-tempting name was perfect for puttering quietly around the hulks, looking for forgotten brass or relics that still qualified as antique rather than rusted junk – or sometimes just drifting quietly and being homesick.
One of my strangest quiet places was on the roof of a building. I had a small weekly newspaper on the third floor of a beautiful early 1900s building, and the structure outside my window was a johnny-come-lately built in the 1950s. Sometimes I would take a folding chair and just sit for a while.
I thought of my prayer tree, the Graveyard, and my deerstand the other day. There were decisions to be made, drama to be quashed, and dilemmas that simply couldn’t be solved. I was short on sleep, long on worries, and desirous of simply running away for a little bit.
My prayer tree is gone now, as is the big old oak in the forgotten hog pen. The westbound lanes of a highway ate the old abandoned tobacco farmer’s house years ago. My log by the river is now just another post-flood obstruction, or else a relic-in-waiting under a couple feet of mud in the bed of the Cape Fear.
I’ll find another quiet place one of these days; I have a good candidate in mind, and it’s none of your business, since prime real estate is hard to find.
Mayhap it’s a place where the river whispers and the squirrels cuss. A place where there’s no cellphone service, so there’s no reason to even bring my electronic leash out of the truck.
Perhaps there’s even another prayer tree, promising just a few minutes of peace in a world that has forgotten the meaning of the word.