As I drove back from a delivery Saturday evening a disk of sooty cloud cut across the sky. When I turned off the interstate a wispy finger drifted down and the air itself took on a sickly cast. The trees tossed their leaves about, silver underbellies flashing like a school of fish, and though rain obscured the distant hills only a few drops spattered against the windshield. It wasn’t a tornado, but it wasn’t so unlike the premonition of one as I would have wished. Then the wind and rain hit at once.
First one and then a second oncoming car flashed headlights at me, and as I white knuckled the steering wheel I wondered why the police would bother setting a speed trap when anyone on the road was driving well below the limit. A moment later a dark, thick-needled shape resolved out of the lashing rain. The massive white pine had fallen into the road, and only by pushing the truck almost off the shoulder did I manage to creep around it. Like being tumbled by a wave or buried by an unexpected blizzard, it was one of those things that’s kind of scary but secretly enjoyable for shocking you with a static spark of risk.
But beyond making me feel pleasantly alive seeing the fallen trunk reminded me of the lone pine that towered over the small patch of woods on the land where I lived as a child. My brothers and I had made it into the vaguest sketch of a fort by leaning branches against its base and nailing a board ladder to the first branch. We moved, and when I returned a decade later the tree was standing dead. It even had a few perfectly atmospheric vultures perching on the broken off branch stubs, stretching their wings out to dry in the rising summer sun.
That was the last time I saw it standing. Its fallen trunk didn’t dramatically block a road or cave in a roof, so I don’t know why I would remember it clearly, coarse crown overtopping the deciduous canopy around it, when I recall much of my childhood as little more than a mildly pleasant haze. The temptation to reduce it to a memento mori or even a reminder of change more generally would be an oversimplification.
It’s a complicated thing that probably can’t be described directly. Instead, picture it as I last saw it. The trunk had shed its bark and had whitened to bone. The vultures lazily stretched out their wings, and the heat of a Pennsylvania summer began to rise. Brambles had started crowding the clearing at its base, and the last branches, propped up years ago by boys’ hands, lay rotting on the ground.