A writer recalls what a noble Scotch Pine meant to her childhood and to her family.
By Tiffany Rae Azzarito
The old tree felt the weight of the heavy snow and knew its time was coming. The first twinge of a crack in its trunk gave way to the excruciating split up its middle. When all it could do was fall, it took a last moment to appreciate its surroundings.
Panic overtook it as it sensed the man below, oblivious to his peril. The tree knew it was her father; it was his girl’s father.
Crashing forward, it reached with its wispy, pine-needled limbs in a desperate attempt to sweep the man off his seat. Seconds later, it crashed through the small lawn mower-turned-plow, leaving nothing but crushed metal and splintered engine parts. With a final intake, it felt the man stir on the ground fifteen feet away, where the forceful push had sent him. He was okay. The tree had saved the girl’s father. The tree exhaled and was still.
We moved to the house my parents still call home in Westmoreland, NY, when I was three, and the first feature I noticed was not part of the house, but part of the yard—of the street itself. The tall Scotch Pine stood with pride at the edge of the property at the top of the dead-end road. As our car climbed the hill, I thought we were driving toward the tree.
It was so inviting. Always. And safe. It beckoned me to crawl under the low-hanging branches and enter a world that existed only in its shelter. It asked me to climb its sturdy limbs and hoist myself into its arms. It asked to keep me company and I happily let it. I grew up under that tree; it was the root of many childhood adventures.
The bottom branches stretched down, forming a teepee, and my brother and I would sit on the pine needles under its shade playing games and hatching plans in the summer, or use the snow banks along the driveway and road edge to fortify this fort in the winter.
About a third of the way up was our lookout—a cozy place to crawl into. More than once, I managed to wedge myself in the circular area created by three large and two small branches and take a nap. It was my own little birds’ nest that sat as high as the attic of our house.
But my favorite spot was just below the lookout, on the branch that stretched to the open field. I would read a book up there or just sit and feel the world alive around me. Sometimes I would chat with my tree. It never answered aloud, but I could feel it soaking up my words like it soaked up the sun.
In middle school, the town paved an area past the road for plows and buses to use to turn around, and they deemed my tree an obstruction. They tried to cut it down. Which is when I did some tree sitting and my parents fought with them. An agreement was reached. They hacked off some of its limbs, exposing the base, but still the tree was standing. It still had a lot to offer.
So I decided to build a real fort. I nailed together some planks, fashioning what looked like a medium-sized dog bed with two-inch lips on the sides. I didn’t know anything about construction and also didn’t want to hurt the tree. So I created this base, carried it up, and wedged it in the best I could below the lookout. I halfheartedly struck a nail through to make sure it stayed put. I decided that was good enough. Turns out it wasn’t.
I was sitting there enjoying the fruits of my labor one day when my neighbor—a little tag-along second-grader—wandered under.
“What do you want, Alan?” I sighed, leaning over the edge to look down at him.
Suddenly I fell forward. The whole fixture tilted sideways, coming off the branch. Instinctively the tree and I reached for each other. I grabbed hold of its outstretched branch and the lip of the fort caught on my heels. Taking stock of the situation, I found myself hanging forty feet from the ground with a large wooden structure dangling precariously above a second grader.
“Alan! Get out of the way!” I yelled. Once he was safely on the grass, I lowered my legs, letting my creation crash through the branches and bust apart on the ground. Turns out the tree was enough by itself.
As I got older, I no longer played games beneath it or took naps in the lookout. But I still sat on my branch, reading books or gazing at the field thinking. It’s where I escaped to when I wanted shelter from the rest of the world—where I went when I was feeling unsure or alone. In times others would turn to prayer or seek spiritual guidance, I would climb my tree.
In high school, the town tried again to cut it down. Again an agreement was reached. Again the tree was maimed. But still it was left standing. It still had a lot left to offer.
It stood as my friend, my secret-keeper, and a beacon that led me home after I went off to college and then off to life. On visits, I’d use the ladder we’d placed against it to climb past the bare trunk. I’d make my way to the still sturdy branches of the lookout. Though I was too big to comfortably wedge myself in as I had in my youth, I’d sit on my branch below and find solace there and a connection to the world around me—something greater than myself.
After getting word my dad was being taken to the hospital, I was given assurances it was only a precaution. He’d been lucky; it was a miracle the tree hadn’t crushed him. He’d walked away with only some bumps and bruises. Thank God. He could have been killed.
And that’s how everyone talked about it—it was deemed a miracle, a lucky chance, an act of God. I knew differently. Some say thank God. I say thank Tree. It saved my dad’s life. Its last act of kindness to me.
Now when I visit, all I see is a blank space where my friend used to be. Sometimes I sit on its stump and feel exposed, unprotected. And now I wonder where home is and what will guide me there.