This morning while writing a University President's Thank You video to the worldwide university community for its continuing support through the most trying worldwide economic downturn in seventy years, a low rumble filled the air. I was hungry, and my mind didn't distinguish between an almost tectonic scraping of geologic plates outside my window and my own stomach. At first anyway. Then there was an eery groaning of great forces surrendering to an even greater force. Then all hell broke loose: wood shattered... birds shrilled... squirrels chattered... monkeys wailed... alright, maybe I imagined the monkeys.
I arrived at the window in time to see the grandfather red oak on my property fall fifty feet from its dominant station overlooking a steep cleft in the hilly terrain where I live. It arced slowly into the woods formerly in its shadow. Squirrels flew through the morning light in odd trajectories to the left, to the right, and as far from the falling giant's muscular and now lethal branches as their stunned instincts could catapult them. Birds moved outwards from the center of the chaos like clouds from an imploding building. And still the giant swung heavily outward and downwards. There was nothing anyone could do to manage the destruction descending upon the surrounding woods.
As the reality of the event finally penetrated my thoughts, three things occurred simultaneously: I swore. Questions battered down the ordered routine of my otherwise quiet morning. And I bolted outside in a rush of adrenaline-fueled dynamism that will impress me later when I have a chance to consider it. I passed my wife on the way to the door. She was engaged in her own emergency response, rushing to identify what it was that has upended our sense of peace and security. Neither of us were panicked, only resolved to meet the facts squarely, and do what we could. From her expression, it was clear that she too was realizing that this was big, and whatever our plans had been for today, this year, this life, priorities might be about to change. Were the neighbor's children playing under the tree? The tree had not fallen on either our house or Ed's, but was there collateral damage?
Outside, the woods were still swaying, hissing, and crackling in the aftermath of the giant's fall. There was no wind, yet the surrounding trees were responding as if there was a stiff breeze and wind shear was pressing down on the crowns. At the base of the fallen tree, a five foot deep hole lined with severed roots the size of my thigh, snapped clean as if sliced by a razor. The soil was black and wet, loosened by three weeks of daily rain. Looking down the length of the tree, broken limbs were pretty much everywhere. High in the surrounding trees great lengths of the giant's branches hung wedged in the crooks.
Down to the left, I saw my neighbor Ed with his young son looking on.
"Are the kids alright?" I asked.
He smiled, nervously. "Oh yeah, just us here. Birthday party for Davis in a while, but just us now. Yeah, we're good."
I breathed my first in the what seemed like the last hour. It had probably been only seconds. Crisis, adrenalin, and recognition of how one event can alter everything - landscapes, relationships, families, lives, personal histories - including, it seems, the time-space continuum.
Alright, the largest tree on our property - a fifty foot red oak that is one of the elder natives in these woods - has fallen. Like the economy. I would eventually realize and find inspiration in the metaphor. Miraculously, the oak's collapse did not injure any of the neighborhood residents, damage property, or create a situation by falling into our neighbor's yard. It fell precisely along our shared property boundary and in a barely accessible, steep terrain wood. Now what? A summer's worth of clean-up. A winter's worth of firewood. Two or three other house maintenance projects delayed. And an indelible sense memory that suggests that when a tree falls in the woods, yes, it makes a mighty sound.