Ideas with roots

No question about it, trees have a presence. There is something about a tall, living structure - rooted but moving - that embraces with its shadow and whispers with its leaves - there is something alive and mysterious in the dancing branches - or so it seems to one who is not a tree. A group of trees on a high place has always accentuated the sense of something set apart. And even now people set aside such places as sacred groves, as they have done for thousands of years. It wouldn't surprise me if cathedral builders had it in mind to create approximations in stone.

I don't live in a sacred grove, but more than one visitor to our house has remarked on the effect of our guardian pines (especially in the noonday stillness). Long before the house was built, these trees were planted for future use as timber, and the subsequent thinnings made openings in those regular column rows to produce the cathedral-like space in which we now live. Matins and evensongs are sung by the birds. The squirrels deliver sermons during the day, and raccoons and skunks patrol the precincts at night, muttering to themselves. Crows occasionally hold a caucus, rather like tourists flocking in and out. When it rains, the house's roof angles pour forth more fountains than any gargoyles ever spewed; and when it shines, we rejoice in the tree-framed, tinted light as we breathe the resinous incense.

But there are disadvantages to living in a cathedral. This natural sanctuary can be rather dark and dank and closed in, with not quite enough air circulating through its intriguing spaces. I yearn to see the sun and the clouds, and to feel the expanse of sky and earth. That, too, is essential to a sense of well-being. Shelter is not always desirable when there is a need for adventure, for openness, for wider contact with the world.

Yet I must admit that, after a day in the stone canyons of a big city that reverberate with the deafening racket of modern enterprise, I am more than grateful to come back to the peace and quiet of our piney woods and to reestablish contact with the real world. It makes me appreciate the instinct to sanctify a grove or to build a cathedral, even on something less than higher ground.

Our place is hollowed out of a lowly gravel hill left by the melting glacier of the last Ice Age - not a very dramatic situation, though it has its charms.

What enchants me about our ''hollow'' is the proportion of girth to the height and spacing of the tree trunks. I enjoy the tall, narrow avenues illuminated by slanting colored light. It pleases me to contrast delicate tracery with massive supports. And I am compelled to draw those things. By drawing them, the harmonious geometry of the landscape is revealed to me; and I suspect that harmony to be part of the sense of peace and security such tree-filled places afford.

So, after having arduously arrived at a deep appreciation of what had at first looked like an unappealing place to live, I awoke the other morning to an ironic alarm - the unholy roar of gasoline saw and bulldozer behind the house. I flapped up the hillside in my kimono, my heart a-flutter each time another huge tree went over with an earth-shuddering boom.

I discovered that several neighbors had had enough of cathedral darks and damps and had contracted a logging company to remove their trees. In true Yankee fashion they had found a way to be paid for the felling instead of spending a hundred dollars per tree themselves. I could see their point, but that didn't quiet my alarm. During that day and the rest of the week, various abutters and I regularly paced their property lines and indicated concern lest the loggers get out of hand and over the boundaries. Finally the desecration was over, and the enormous truck hauled away load after load of timber to Maine.

Yes, there is a poetic justice in sending the trees to the fate for which they were planted by our predecessors. And now that we have settled back into normal tranquillity - and twittering bird talk and squirrel grumblings as they all redefine their territories - we find we are not unhappy with the result of our neighbors' landscaping ideas.

Now we have more afternoon light. The intervals between the trees are more interesting. A young oriole moved in to inspect a slightly buggy deciduous tree important to our privacy and remained.

There may be poetic justice, too, in the brutal manner by which an illusion was shattered. Painting and drawing helped me to find the beauty, saw and bulldozer may have helped me to shake off the enchantment. Writing this piece makes me reconsider once again and return to a fundamental truth. Obviously, it is not the trees which are sacred, but the life they represent. Did the ancients know this?

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