The Pacific Northwest Forum
Volume 2, Number 4, Pages 23-24
by Michael Hargraves
The author has submitted this description of himself: "Michael Hargraves has been a teaching fellow in the English Department at Eastern Washington University and recently completed his M.F.A. degree in creative writing. He spent his childhood years hunting, fishing, and exploring the plains country around Great Falls, Montana, during the innocent years preceding the Viet Nam War. He presently resides in Eastern Washington with his beautiful wife, Judy."
The trees, like so many things that make up our childhood, were killed by progress. Their deaths were planned forty miles away in the county seat by people who had never seen them; condemned by those who had never stood in their comforting shade or listened to them whisper to the wind in their lisping, leafy voices. They didn't die because of passion, or anger, or prolonged age, or for any reason that would have been understandable. They died because they were in the way.
During my childhood in the plains country around Great Falls, Montana, everything had seemed large, but the trees were the largest of all. And when I returned and saw that the house we had lived in was actually small, and the barn and the silo made monstrous by youth had shrunk while I had sprouted, the trees still loomed at the end of the field as large as I remembered them. By their very continuity, they had the power to reassure that things, after all, hadn't changed that much. They were a link with a past where everything seemed simple and sure, and were undiminished by time or memory.
The trees themselves were sixteen cottonwoods that had been planted in a straight row at the end of the field to serve as a windbreak by some unknown settler. They were bordered on one side by a wide, shallow irrigation ditch, and on the other by the county road that was to be widened in the name of progress. By the time I became acquainted with them they were almost a hundred feet tall and six feet thick, and had long ago overreached their original purpose. Because of their existence. other life flourished in myriad ways and they provided an oasis for nature in a landscape otherwise dominated by the agricultural hand of man.
Protected from the burning prairie sun and drying winds of summer, willows, chokecherries and viburnums grew in random profusion under the dappled canopy of the big cottonwoods. In the rank shade of these bushes grew even lesser plants. Ferns, wild strawberries, and foxtail grass rioted in lush abundance. Mushrooms and toadstools sprouted in the damper spots and competed with the Indian pipestem for the deepest shade. Where the willows huddled too closely to the ditch and made the water shallow with their roots, cattails waded out and defined where the deeper water began by their abrupt absence. There were piles of rocks that had been removed from the fields scattered about and in summer these were covered by thick tangles of wild morning glories. Humped among the trees, they formed verdant mounds liberally sprinkled with fragrant, trumpet-shaped flowers.
There was life of a quicker sort that made a home in this green retreat also. Under the rich, moist, soil, earthworms were always abundant, and on the carpet of leaves above, mice and shrews rustled about on private errands. The rock piles were jointly shared by snakes, ants and chipmunks alike, while an occasional woodchuck made his burrow-home beneath them. Wrens and song sparrows occupied the berry-bushes and competed melodiously with each other against the humming chorus of the bees. In the top of the highest cottonwood, a pair of red-tailed hawks raised their yearly brood in a pile of sticks. During the day, they slid high above the surrounding fields shrieking to one another in their high-pitched voices, while at night, the frogs called throatily to their mates as they squatted among the cattails. Rather than a barren line of trees at the end of a dusty field, this was a green clump, a veritable riot of vegetation; a miniature forest filled to bursting with life and all of it suckled by the sixteen cottonwoods.
As children, my chums and I played among the trees. We caught frogs to take to school there, and it was there that we had our first rueful encounter with a skunk. During the winter, the trees were magically transformed into the Yukon Territory and, huddled around a willow twig fire, we held off wolves and bears with our cap-guns. One summer the trees were the Sherwood Forest. With our home-made chokecherry bows we lurked among the foliage and killed the King's deer at our leisure. The Sheriff of Nottingham and his men-disguised as school girls carrying dolls-were pelted from the safety of the trees with blunted willow arrows as they skipped down the dusty county road. Only a few years later-and yet all of us suddenly much older-these same girls would join us among the trees in the warm Montana summer evenings. As we lay in the grass and giggled, the arrows we had shot at them were returned to us from another bow, and transfixed, we succumbed to the sweet pull of spring while the whip-poor-wills thrummed the dark prairie sky above us.
The day the county road crew picked to remove the trees was one I had also chosen to visit the old homestead and see friends I'd lost contact with over the years. A childhood companion and I were driving down the dusty road and, seeing the collection of yellow heavy equipment gathered in the shade of the cottonwoods, we decided to stop and see what they were about. They were, they told us, preparing to remove the old cottonwoods so the road could be widened and paved. Stunned, we decided to sit in the shade of the truck, out of the way, and watch the demise of our old friends.
With a loop of steel cable about his waist, one of the workmen scaled the first tree. When he had climbed as high as he could with safety, he tied the cable securely around the trunk and scrambled down, his limbing spikes dislodging chunks of deeply-grained bark as he descended. The other end of the cable was then trotted across the road and into the adjoining field and fastened to the rear of a road grader. On a signal, the grader began inching forward, gradually taking the slack out of the cable and applying tension to the crown of the tree where it was secured. When the proper amount of tension has been attained, several of the other crewmen attacked the opposite side of the tree with large chainsaws. As the saws bit deeper, more tension was applied by the grader until, with an ominous crackling, the giant toppled over and slammed onto the road with a whooshing roar and a cloud of gravel and dust. The crewmen with the saws then methodically dismembered the tree and a front-end loader picked up the large sections and dumped them into a truck to be trundled away.
One by one the trees fell, but not without a fight. Once, a large hornet's nest was dislodged from the branches and all work stopped as the men ran whooping among the equipment, cursing, and flailing their arms, as one of the smallest residents of this tiny Eden made last-ditch defense of one of the largest. On another occasion, work stopped when a chainsaw, biting its way toward the heartwood, found one of the large nails we'd used as children to make a ladder to our tree-house. But the chain was hastily replaced and the trees continued to fall.
When the last giant had fallen, bulldozers removed what other growth would interfere with construction, and dynamite was used to blast up the large, spreading stumps. The little vegetation that was spared eventually succumbed to the freezing wind of the harsh Montana winters and the direct glare of the summer sun. Later, a passing motorist would flip a cigarette out of his moving car and the last evidence of this lush haven would disappear in a roaring funeral pyre; a delayed, fiery requim for the trees.
The trees aren't gone though. They still rise beside the dusty road in my mind as majestic as ever. Safe from government officials and lightning, they stand reaching their feathery tips upwards in my past and, through the magic transcendence of memory, loom across the years casting a cool, dappled shade on my present. Somehow, they had taken root in the small boy that played beneath them and there they still grow; tall, stately, and alive.