By Bonnie L. Phillips
Susan had difficulty breathing when she reached the hilltop and saw her old friend standing alone amongst dead brush and a stump-strewn moonscape. Sunlight glinted off the crooked metal plaque erected next to the tree.
Early this morning, like every other morning when Susan hiked with her walking stick in hand, and unlike every other morning, knowing it would be her last day at the assisted-living apartment, she took a cab to the nature reserve and spent two hours hiking through brambles and Scotch Broom. She knew it was time.
It had been years since Susan’s health had allowed her to visit the tree she’d saved by living in the one-hundred-plus-year-old Douglas fir canopy.
She approached the old one, touched its limbs and felt its weak life-energy. The old woman cleared her throat. “They’ll be coming, you know,” Susan said to the ancient tree. She groaned when she shifted her arthritic hips and leaned against it. Pine needles fell around her. She shielded her eyes and looked up between the red-needled branches that reached out like the hands of a drowning person asking for help; they outnumbered the healthy limbs.
“Yes, it will be soon,” replied the last of the old growth trees in his deep raspy voice. “But we have lived beyond our expectations and during a time when people got involved. Some protested, others called their politicians, or, as you did, put their lives on the line for what they believed in. Nature mattered back then.
The forests got a reprieve. I educated school children and reminded older generations of a time when the land was green and lush. And you were honored by many. Now our story is obsolete. We are forgotten. It was difficult being the last of my kind. I had to watch the chain saws kill off my family, one by one.”
The old woman moved slowly to a small patch of green grass growing between the tree’s roots. Then she sat with care. She laid her head against the rough textured bark, looked up through the branches and smiled.
“I seem to remember your not being all that enthusiastic when I first climbed up into your canopy,” Susan said with a chuckle. “And when I brought up platforms, supplies, and tents I felt the tension in your limbs. We ended up being a great team but if I remember correctly, in the beginning, you were not a willing partner.”
The tree made a shushing sound with its branches. “True. I thought you’d come to chop me down with strange new tools.” They laughed.
Susan chewed on a grass stem. “What was it forty, or was it fifty five years ago? I can’t remember. What I do remember is how much I learned from you during the 400 days we lived with one another, and kept the logging companies from culling you and the rest of the forest. Remember the spotted owl family that lived above my tent? You seemed quite amused when I got shat upon—and the squirrel that stole my food? The birds that lost their fear of me? How I treasured the view of the forested mountains and valleys from your uppermost branches.”
The tree sighed.
“So long ago,” the woman murmured. There was a long pause as both the old woman and the old tree shared peaceful silence. “You know, at age 82, I ‘m the last of the tree sitters.”
“Your tenacity and dedication impressed me,” the tree said. And I learned that some humans were trustworthy.” The ancient tree extended one of its lower branches toward Susan.
She saw the bright orange tie, with writing on it, wrapped around the tree’s girth—its death sentence—scheduled for the following day.
Susan felt old and tired. Tears trickled down the wrinkled contours of her parchment paper-thin skin. “We out lived a lot of those greedy bastards, though,” she said.
“That we did, dear friend. I may cheat them out of my chain saw death, yet. My sap has dried up, my limbs tremble and I can barely stand.”
A sharp crack echoed throughout the barren valley and was followed by the top twenty feet of the tree crashing to the ground. Smaller limbs cracked, snapped and followed the larger limb to the ground next to a dried up stream bed that once escorted wild salmon to their breeding grounds.
Susan rose, walked over to the fallen sections of the tree and saw how diseased the old one was. It was time.
In the golden glow of sunset Susan curled up next to the tree, laid her head upon the natural cradle where the lowest branch connected with the heart of the tree and inhaled pine scented needles. Dusk enclosed the two friends. The old woman closed her eyes, exhaled and heard the long dying sigh of her friend.
For more information about Lake Chapala visit: www.chapala.com