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  • Susan Gallagher

Tale of the Happenin' Tree

I am a creature of habit.

I get a little twitchy in the morning if I can’t find my coffee mug with the moose on it, I never rearrange the furniture, and I’ve been wearing the same brand of sneakers since 1982. Change and I aren't exactly what you'd call pals.

Every night at exactly quarter past six I leash up the dogs and take them for a walk in the woods. No matter the season, no matter the weather, our route is always the same.

I like it that way. It’s like looking out a giant picture window on a regular basis. When the backdrop remains the same, you get a feel for subtle changes in the landscape.

In the summer of 2010, I made it a point to watch the development of a milkweed plant, as round clusters of tiny pink flowers gave way to those alien-looking seed pods.

I saw the monarchs surrounding those plants go from the carefree butterflies of summer, to a population preparing to migrate all the way to Mexico. There was more purpose, even an urgency to the flight of these later generations—something I wouldn’t have noticed unless I’d been watching them every day.

I noted changes in animal behavior brought on by the hot, dry weather. Shrinking puddles became increasingly active places for wildlife. By late August, they were crowded with tracks and scat from a host of species.

Little observations like these turn my well-traveled path into a trail of discovery. So when my neighbor invited me to walk the dogs on his property (keeps the deer away, he said), I initially declined. But his twelve-acre parcel of sloping hemlock woods called to me anyway, and eventually became part of my nightly loop.

Along with my canine companions, I’d spend about a year exploring these woods. For reasons I’ll never understand, the dogs would often fixate on a single stick in a forest full of thousands as if it were the last one on earth. Each would grab an end in their slobbering jaws, trying to wrest the prize from the other. Until a victor was declared, I’d find some shade under a tree, sit down and take a break.

Again, for reasons I’ll never understand, a particular tree in these woods kept drawing my attention. A towering red oak that seemed weirdly inviting.

After several visits with the oak, I noticed I wasn’t the only one who liked it there. All around were signs that animals had been spending time in, on, or around this single tree.

Prey remains were common on the ground below its branches: the cleanly severed leg of a cottontail, a colorful pile of jay feathers, shreds of chipmunk or squirrel fur—signs that the woodland foodchains were all in working order.

Rarely did I stop by and not find something new. So busy was the space around this tree, that I did something I’d never done before. I gave the oak a name—I called it the Happenin’ Tree.

I talked to the Happenin’ Tree a lot. Silly stuff like “Hi, Tree!” and “Don’t you look just beautiful today!” People talk to their houseplants, right? So why not at least be cordial.

The weird thing—and I’ll understand if you don’t believe me here—is that at some point I began to think this tree could hear me. That on some frequency where only plants function, it understood I was there, and maybe even enjoyed our time together.

This realization wasn’t a welcome one. I mean, it strayed into the same territory as ghost hunters and pet psychics. I’m a woman of science! Plants can’t be self-aware! If they were, what would vegetarians do for food?

It was crazy.

Regardless, I did some internet searching on trees and other plants as “sentient beings”, and found mention of a few outdated studies. There were also references to Buddhist philosoph and an episode of MythBusters. But hard scientific proof was lacking.

Still, my belief in a connection to this tree persisted, and was reaffirmed one dreary spring day as I made my way to meet it.

The narrow trail I’d worn through the ferns was gone, replaced by a newly-cleared road, twenty feet wide and muddy from the day’s rain. I stared down at a massive set of tracks, evidence that a bulldozer had come and gone. I kept looking down, afraid of what I might see if I peered into the woods, ahead to where the Happenin’ Tree should be.

But it was gone. I already knew. Like I said—that tree and I had a connection.

It lay dying at the end of that muddy track. It hadn’t been chopped or chain-sawed. The bulldozer had simply pushed it over. Most of the bark had been scraped from one side, I guess where the dozer had given it a good shove. Its roots were still attached, pulled from the earth and splayed in the air like torn arteries.

I knelt next to it in the rain and cried. I apologized for not having been there for it when it fell. I ran my fingers along its battered flank, felt the sap oozing from its cuts. In that moment, we weren’t woman and tree—we were two living things who’d once shared some pleasant days, taking in the sun while growling mutts fought over twigs and branches. We were together one last time, so one could bear witness to the passing of another.

Keep in mind, I’ve worked with injured wild animals for decades. I’ve been there for births and for hatchings, through all manner of suffering and death. Many a dying creature has breathed its last in my arms, often with me sending up prayers on its behalf. Surely some feathered or furry soul could have brushed passed me on its way into the Great Beyond. But I never felt a thing. Nothing—until that day in the rain, with my cheek pressed against the bark of an uprooted red oak.

A few days later, my neighbor cut the Happenin’ Tree into firewood, explaining he’d bulldozed through the lot in hope of selling it. I do my best not to think of him as an axe murderer, but I no longer walk on his property.

My other neighbor runs a Christmas tree farm, so the dogs and I now frequent there. It’s much harder to connect with a tree when it looks exactly like the hundreds of others that surround it. For right now I think that’s a good thing. It’s too soon for me to get emotionally involved again on a botanical level.

I did go back once, to where the Happenin’ Tree used to stand. I found an oak seedling there, just short of where the bulldozer had passed. I dug it up, took it home, and christened it Happenin’ Tree Junior.

When it’s old enough, I’ll plant it outside—maybe in a place where someone could visit it night after night to enjoy the shade of its branches. Maybe someone will befriend it, and come to know the joy of an unexpected, deep connection with another living thing. Maybe someday they’ll have their own Happenin’ Tree tale to tell.

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