The swale field lays west of the house, down low in the corner near the big woods. Spring growth would offer plenty of grass for the milking herd, but by late summer the grass yielded to tall thickets of goldenrod, a perfect refuge for cows seeking privacy while calving. When the expectant mother didn’t return to the barn with the rest of the herd, the first place we looked was down by the swale. Jumping to her feet when our rustling through the weeds deemed us a threat, she would pump her head nervously up and down, warning us to stay away while commanding the calf to remain motionless. A long trip back to the barn ensued, either carrying the calf or helping it walk, while the mother cow circled us anxiously. Neither was sure who was predator or who was prey!
Silently watching this drama from the entrance of the swale field was the big oak tree. One of my ancestors, likely in the 1860s, decided not to clear the field of this oak sapling. Perhaps stone piles surrounded the young tree and they saw no need to cut it. Alone in the open field, the oak tree stretched its arms till they could reach no more, becoming a massive sphere. At eye level, the trunk measures twelve feet around, craggy branches extending forty-five feet in all directions.
I am the seventh generation of my family to farm this land—four Gillette and three Bresee. Since the tree’s birth near the time of the Civil War, centuries have changed twice and wars have never ceased across the earth. Nor has love. An ever-changing procession of Holsteins and Jerseys have passed beneath its limbs to deliver new life into the safety of the goldenrod. The oak tree has watched, hearing all and saying nothing, reaching for the brilliance of light, gripping the darkness of earth.
Across the pasture and up on the hill from the oak tree is the farmhouse where now it is my turn to live. Here generations of farmers, in whom I was a seed, awoke each morning to face whatever events life offered. Fulfilling everyday barn chores, washing dishes, feeding the stove, eating a tired supper, listening for the first wood thrush in May, marveling at how low the December sun rests over Cow Hill, joyfully preparing the house for a wedding, grieving a death in the parlor bedroom, longing for those far away—we have all passed under the oak tree, each immersed in the private world our thoughts created. I am one with my past.
My faithful oak friend is showing signs of wear. What just a few years ago was a dark stain working its way down the center of the trunk has become a widening split. The heavy limbs are pulling the tree apart. Someday ice, wind, or lightning will bring the tree down with a crashing sigh, to rest its arms upon the earth. Someone, maybe me or those who follow me, will cut the limbs for firewood.
To look deeply into the oak tree is to understand everything. Heraclitus (6th-5th Century B.C) said that in change there is rest. I sense the oak tree knows this already.