THE AUTHOR'S FASCINATION FOR OAK TEACHES HIM A LESSON IN MORTALITY

April 18, 1983

Any man who has lived long enough to be able to read Shakespeare for pleasure and who is mature enough to be able to forecast the secondary effects of his actions has learned a fair amount indeed about relationships. He knows, for example, that it is perfectly possible to have a love affair with something other than a person.

He knows there can be affairs with animals, affairs with power, affairs with money. There can even be a case like my own. I have had a continuous affair with a battalion of artillery for more than 30 years. I held membership in the organization for 25 of those years, in a variety of positions on both sides of the salt, and the relationship was marked by an unflagging devotion on my part the whole time. The devotion remains, though now that I'm no longer a member, it's unrequited and somewhat diminished by distance. But it's still there, it still burns with a steady flame, and it will warm my soul at its coals until I go to the boneyard. In what may very well be a remarkable example of fickle irresponsibility, I have also, during those 30 years, been conducting a simultaneous affair with a tree (SI, Dec. 22-29, 1980).

Luckily, long-standing affairs with trees or battalions, unlike those with ladies, are considered proper subjects for discussion among gentlemen—even in the most conventional of societies. The tree is a cherrybark oak and the affair is not restricted to a single specimen. It encompasses the entire species, and there are all sorts of things wrong with the emotion.

In the first place, for many years I have made a living from pine trees. I have been exposed, nearly all my life, to long-leaf pine, the premier timber tree of the Southeastern United States. Longleaf produces lumber for shipbuilding and construction, among other things, and it is a fine producer of resin, from which turpentine and rosin are manufactured. Longleaf has far more value as a source of lumber than does the cherrybark oak, longleaf has an infinity of additional uses, and in stands older than 100 years, it is far more impressive. I suspect the abundance of the longleaf may be what causes my lack of affection for it. There may be too much longleaf. It could be like those chorus lines in Las Vegas. They so overpower a man with leg and bosom he finds himself unable to concentrate upon a single individual.

Cherrybark is the only one of the oaks with class, but that's no matter. It alone carries sufficient class for the entire genus. It occurs as a single specimen, or in groups of two or three, and the thing that immediately strikes you about it is the purity of its form. With the possible exception of yellow poplar, sometimes known as the tulip tree, most of our other hardwoods have something wrong with them. They branch out too soon, for instance, or twist too quickly. Some of them lean out of plumb too much right from the stump. Some of them, like bitter pecan, for example, have no redeeming features. A cherrybark will stand there, a diamond in the middle of this other goat dung, and tower 30 feet above the surrounding crowns. It will have a bole that looks as if it had been drawn with a straight edge, and it will frequently go four logs to the first limb.

There's a term used in estimating tree volumes called "form class." Stated simply, it's the relationship between the diameter of a tree outside the bark at breast height and the diameter inside the bark at the top of the first 16-foot log. It is expressed as a percentage, and in things like old growth longleaf pine it can go as high as 82.

I haven't scaled enough oak to be much of an authority, but cherrybark must be at least that good. Logs are scaled at the little end and to the nearest inch of diameter, and I've seen second logs in cherrybark oak (the second 16-foot log above the stump) that scaled the same at both ends. Technically, these logs had no little end.

A cherrybark oak, standing on good soil, will make every other tree in the surrounding stand look ragged. You find yourself interrupting the normal conduct of business to look for one, and when you find one, you circle it, making private, nonsensical observations.

The cherrybark has caused me some grief from time to time, because it makes me lose my concentration—the type of concentration that's necessary in intellectual exercises. Back when I played golf regularly—and by regularly I mean three times a week, not counting weekends—I played better when I could immerse myself in the game. Walking from one shot to the next I contemplated the forthcoming stroke. When idle talk of the weather, the shape of the stock market or the shape of the woman wearing shorts on the adjoining fairway broke through my shell, it hurt my game.

Turkey hunting is precisely the same kind of intellectual exercise. You're going to do infinitely better, enjoy yourself more and get to pick a turkey from time to time if you conduct yourself and your business with single-minded concentration the whole time you are out there. Things can happen very quickly. Occasionally, things happen in bunches after an hour of complete boredom, and there's usually no intervening transitional period. If you're out turkey hunting, woolgathering along, and have let your attention wander, you're giving yourself a lot of marvelous opportunities to look foolish.

Like I did last season, when I let myself look foolish for the two-millionth time. I had poked along a logging road at daybreak, stopping to yelp through my yelper every 150 yards or so. A turkey answered with one of those very soft tree calls, and before I had a chance to make any tactical move, it pitched out of a tree 200 yards in front of me and sailed down into a hollow that ran south, across the road. There was a moderate amount of yelping down there on the ground, so I decided that the drove was gathering there and that I should press on to the next ridge, run south along the far side of the crest until I got around them and then come back over the crest and scatter them out of the bottom.

I got to the ridge, crossed the crest, trotted a brisk quarter of a mile along it and came back over the top. As I started down into the bottom, a turkey putted sharply off to my left. I heard a scuffle in the leaves, threw up my gun and shot. At the sound a single turkey took off and flew northeast. I had just performed the spectacular feat of scattering one turkey.

Grateful that this piece of stupidity had been conducted in privacy, I spent the next hour and a half exploring two strange hollows for later and then wandered back to the scene of the crime. I went to what I judged was the halfway point along the single turkey's flight path, picked out a place and sat down. That was a mistake.

Fifty yards before I stopped, I passed up a splendid place to kill a turkey from. But just ahead, where I could see it and be tempted, was a cherrybark oak. So I went there instead and sat at the base of it so I could lean my back against it and look up along the trunk whenever I chose and stuck a minimal blind with some convenient brush.

I was only going through the motions. I was in the woods, my gun was loaded, and I knew the approximate location of that single turkey I had flushed an hour and a half ago. But I wasn't really hunting. I was trifling with trees.

I put my yelper in my mouth again and yelped once, took it out and lay it on a leaf next to my left leg. Within 20 seconds there was a tremendous crash in the leaves directly behind my tree. It was so close, and so loud, it scared me. I've never heard a bear fall from a tree. I've heard a 30-pound coon fall, and once I killed a flying turkey that fell lengthwise through an 80-foot magnolia, but this noise was far louder.

Almost involuntarily I stuck my head out around the tree and looked back at the disturbance. The turkey, which had seen my head begin to come around and which was already in the act of wheeling around to fly, was 10 feet behind me.

He had flown directly to the yelp but I hadn't heard him. It was just windy enough to smother the sound of the breeze through his primaries as he came in to land.

I should have killed him with the first shot, ought to have done it with the second and used the third simply to show him whose side I was on. The last time I saw him, he was still gaining altitude through the trees, damaged only in his pride. I probably flatter myself when I say I may have hurt his feelings a little.

I could continue with similar confessions of minor crimes of careless inattention and their minor punishments, but it would make me like Kipling's Tomlinson. Nobody has any real interest in second-class sinners. There was, however, a minor sin that resulted in a major punishment and that one is worth reporting, for it was my 'trifling with cherrybark oak that handed me my first intimations of mortality.

I don't know how much experience you have had along such lines, but you ought to understand that the thing that makes 20-year-old boys such superb soldiers is their absolute conviction that they are immortal.

If you could magically gather a battalion-sized unit of 20-year-olds, cause the Angel of Death to appear before the formation and state that by the next morning every man in the battalion but two would be dead, you would evoke a universal emotion. Every man in the ranks would be saddened. He would begin, hours before the fact, to mourn the loss of his friends.

Reconstruct the same scene. Only this time everyone in the battalion is more than 45 and the Angel says that by tomorrow one man present would be accidentally run over by a tank. Every man there would want to ride the sick book and spend the day in bed. And all day long, until he found out who really got it, he would lie on his cot and worry about runaway tanks with drunken drivers coming straight at him through the tent wall.

Almost nobody would actually do this. Oh, two or three among the weaker soldiers might. But most of the battalion, carried by esprit, or discipline, or the fear of showing fear, would press on—and handle the problem. But the old soldiers would worry, and that is the principal point to be taken from the example. They would worry because they would know it could happen to them.

It comes to all men. To some soon, to some late, and most men are able to handle it, some better than others. But somewhere in that quarter of a century between 20 and 45 comes the realization that you aren't bulletproof. It is, at best, a sobering experience.

It came to me, one winter evening just at dark, in the Alabama River Cutoff, and its causative agent was, as might be expected, some cherrybark oak. The Cutoff leaves the Alabama a mile north of Wilkin Bend and empties into the Tombigbee nearly seven miles above the junction of the rivers. By air, from river to river, it is four miles. By water; through the Cutoff, it's a trifle more than six. In summer, when the water is low, it's shallow enough to wade and almost without flow. Late in the fall, especially when there is a rise on the Alabama and not on the Tombigbee, there's a brisk current. In either season it's narrow, crooked as hell and bristles with stumps, snags and trees that have fallen from the banks.

Three of us were spending the weekend working and hunting on a houseboat tied off near Seaboard Bluff on the Tombigbee. We had gone in a skiff through the Cutoff to the Alabama side early in the afternoon hoping to scatter a drove of turkeys for the next morning. Somebody did, and for the life of me I can't remember whether it was Jim or Bill, but I know it was not me because I remember hearing the shot just at flying-up time and then relaxing. On the way back to the skiff, with the pressure off, I stumbled across a group of four cherrybarks, all in the 30-inch diameter class. I spent an undue amount of time wandering around them and patting the bark and admiring their form and doing all those other pointless things fanatics are apt to do.

It was a raw, gray, cloudy day in the middle of December, I didn't bother to take out my compass and check my position—professionals do thickheaded things like that all the time—and so I started out a shade too far south and came to the riverbank a quarter and a half below the boat, already late. When I reached the boat, my two friends had been waiting there for 20 minutes and, with a pointed politeness that was actually painful, carefully refrained from asking where I had been.

We were using an open skiff that afternoon because all the bigger, more comfortable workboats had something wrong with them. They always seemed to in the wintertime when you want protection from the spray and the chill. In the summer, when the breezes would be welcome, the workboats seem as sturdy as the pyramids, and there's no legitimate reason to use a skiff.

Bill reached under the seat at the stern, produced a bottle of bourbon, and suggested that to help ward off the cold wind, we drink one on the way back to the houseboat. The bottle went the length of the boat, twice, and its contents hit the three of us like hammers. I've had that happen before, but only when I was cold and tired and wet. There seems to be some sort of catalyst in the combination of those three circumstances that doubles the proof and results in instant hilarity. The Distilled Spirits Council ought to look into it.

When we turned out of the Alabama into the Cutoff it was nearly dark and the Alabama was six feet higher than the Tombigbee. The current in the Cutoff was swift, crowding eight knots. There are two courses of action open to you in such a situation. The sober, reliable and responsible thing to do is to poke along and accept the gathering darkness as something you cannot change. Then after it gets dark, if you do run over something, you are far less likely to damage the boat or throw its occupants into the cold water.

If you were born dumb, and not only stayed dumb but worked at it all the rest of your life, you do it the way we did. Safe behind our shields of immortality, we went the whole way, wide open and half drunk, so as to get through quickly before it got dark. Every time the boat slid sideways in a turn, or Bill had to fight it off the bank on the outside of a curve, we whooped in exhilaration. The whole experience was purely and simply an addle-brained scandal. If you had a teen-aged son and he pulled such a stunt, and you caught him at it, you would whip him till his nose bled.

At something beyond the halfway point, I happened to look down and see a snag go by the side of the boat at a distance of almost six inches. Bill and Jim had, at the time, eight children between them, all small, and the thought popped into my head that these guys were irresponsible and ought to be ashamed of themselves. They could go a long way toward populating a moderately sized orphanage with actions like this. I remember thinking that I hoped the widows would arrange to have the funerals on different days. Since I would undoubtedly be asked to bear both palls, I didn't see how I could manage to jump from church to church and from coffin to coffin, and I certainly didn't want to leave either of them out.

Right in the middle of these sobering and gloomy realizations, there came an even more sobering one. I, too, was in the boat. And then it occurred to me that the lids of coffins close just as solidly over the faces of the childless as they do over the faces of fathers. No bells rang. No trumpets blew. But right there, right then, I crossed the line.

We got to the Tombigbee end of the Cutoff—undrowned. Because the river at that point is nearly 300 yards wide there was a trifling bit more light, even at 6 p.m., and we made it the rest of the way downstream to the houseboat without running into anything. But when we tied up to the cleat and unloaded the skiff, a third less stupidity came out of the boat than had gone into it when we first started out.

Since then I flatter myself that I have handled this knowledge of my mortality as well as any man, but I know that my immortality is gone. And I know that I have to handle it, every time. It has to be reloaded after every incident. It's no longer automatic.

We still do a lot of work in and around the Cutoff. I still hunt and fish, my forestry company has logging crews there and plants hardwood there, and I go there frequently to visit several kinds of operations. On either business or pleasure, I go through the Cutoff a dozen times a year. Every time I come to that curve now, precisely as I have done every time since the incident, I look out of the boat and down into the water and see something. You wouldn't be able to see it, but I see it every time. There on the bottom, aged and moldering and partially covered with mud, is somebody's immortal shield.

It has a nasty, jagged crack—right through the middle.

ILLUSTRATIONNED LEVINE
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)