Growth Rings

growth rings

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By Franklin Burroughs

Some random geezer stops and peers into your face. You peer back. Something familiar about him. Are you? Frank? Mark? Yes, you both see it now — you resemble your former selves as prunes resemble plums. You shake hands, happily call back friends and events from — 30 years ago? More like 40. Dear God — seems like yesterday: everything sharply detailed and in focus, more vivid now in memory than it was then in fact.

On the day they married, my parents’ neighbors wedged a brick into the angle formed by the trunk and limb of a churchyard oak. They soon moved off into their lives, checking the tree on their visits home. No parishioner ever saw it grow, but it did. And as it did, the trunk and the limb slowly enveloped the brick. The last time our neighbors — Bev and Willard, dead these many years — stopped by their tree, they were nearly as old as I am now. The brick was invisible, not even leaving a bulge in the trunk.

Willard was a quiet, intense man who loved sitting alone, with the shades drawn, listening to Mozart. At those times, Bev walked over for a cup of coffee with Mama. She would already be talking as she came in the kitchen door: her natural habitat was mid-sentence. Mama, no slouch herself, said little old Bev was the talkingest woman on earth, bless her heart. What had become of the young love that wedged the brick into the tree? “About what became of the brick,” I imagine my father saying.

After Daddy retired, my parents spent their summers in Maine. He and I would go up north whenever we could, to fish. We fished the river in the mornings, until an upstream dam opened, flooding out the rest of the day. Along the way to one pool, we would crunch across a gravel bar as we headed upstream early in the morning, then skirt around it on the way back, when the gravel bar had become a sloshing, foam-churned eddy.

In that soilless medium, how had a seed ever germinated, a seedling taken root? And how did it survive the daily inundation?

At the upper edge of the gravel bar, a spruce, no taller than a seedling, although thicker, grew in the gravel just at the cusp of the woods. We wondered about it — in that soilless medium, how had a seed ever germinated, a seedling taken root? And how did it survive the daily inundation, which submerged it completely?

We walked that way five or six times a summer for 20 years, until Daddy was too old for it. Each year, the spruce was still there — more than knee high eventually, very dense, perfectly conical, its trunk as thick as your thumb. He frequently commented on it: “tough little joker,” or “bet you’d need a microscope to count the growth rings.” Something like that.

Now, 25 years later, I still walk that way every summer. Same gravel bar, same daily inundation. But there must have been a micro-eddy created by the stem of the little spruce, causing fine silt to settle out from it, because the spruce soon stood in shallow soil of its own making and began growing in earnest. A second spruce soon rooted itself behind it, then a third, then a dozen or so, making more and more soil. The forest was colonizing the gravel bar. Last year, the tallest spruce — not the original pioneer, but one farther out from the woods — was 7 feet high. You wouldn’t need a microscope to count the growth rings.

There are costs to being human. I’ve borne less than my fair share so far. When the past surfaces — a chance encounter, a long-dormant memory — it is generally benign, a happy occasion. Nevertheless, I am, let’s face it, a random geezer. For decades now, I’ve found something like a role model or a consolation in the growth of trees. For the life of me, I can’t explain why.

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Franklin Burroughs

Franklin Burroughs is a retired professor of English at Bowdoin College.