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Magnetic North by Vicki Biggs Anderson

Magnetic North by Vicki Biggs Anderson                   10/23/18
When a Tree Falls
 
Welcome back to Magnetic North, where recent high winds took a toll on nearly every road and property. I was out of town during the storm and got home so tired from travel that it was almost a week before I notice the 60-foot poplar lying along the back edge of the yard... And but for my five goats clambering among its limbs, I might well have missed it until the spring.
 
The poplar, which stood throughout its life in obscurity among the spruce and jack pine by the old dog kennel, now became a fabulous treat for a small herd of bark loving goats.
 
Watching the goats clamber among the now-reachable branches of the downed tree made me think about how, depending on a tree’s place, either in the landscape or one’s history, it’s falling can be cause for so many emotions, from annoyance, to fear, to grief. And for goats and deer, celebration.
 
During the 28 years that I’ve lived, nestled on three sides by typically tangled Northern woods, and looking out on a six-acre meadow to the south, only once has a certain tree fallen to earth and left a permanent bruise on my heart by its absence. It wasn’t even the most iconic of the trees on the acreage; The one where all the critters are laid to rest when their time comes. It stands at the East end of the meadow. One towering White Pine, which is, as far as I know, the only one left standing by the subsistence immigrants who claimed this land, living by logging, fishing, hunting and farming little more than root vegetables.. And although I call this lone giant “mine.”  I know better. So many times over the years, wind, fire and even human carelessness let me know that all I call mine is merely on loan.
 
The big pine came close to being felled by a lightning strike during a ferocious storm right before 9/11. Paul and I watched a pin cherry tree take a bolt of lightning and burn like a torch, even in the pouring rain, The next strike was within feet of the white pine, but a birch took the worst of the fiery blow, while the pine to this day bears a scar over 30 feet long on her trunk. “If that tree goes,” one of us said watching the smoke across the meadow that night. But that night, it stayed and so did we.
 
The first fallen tree that truly hurt my heart was a gnarled and spreading red pine that stood behind the chicken run. The axle and wheels of an old buggy were so deeply sunken in the loam around the tree trunk, that roots had begun entwining the buggy wheel spokes. Paul and I would sit there watching the chickens - chicken videos we called those times - stroking our barn cat Mitten, one of the East County14 six-toed clan. I think Mitten got taken by an owl one winter night, but the tree survived her for years ....until one night, it fell. 

The morning after it fell, I carried water and feed in buckets to the coop as usual, only realizing that the massive branches and trunk were now horizontal behind the run, instead of standing guard and swaddling it in its limbs. 
I know Paul would have grieved with me that day for the loss of the chicken video tree, but his time had come too,  just months earlier.

Of course, when most trees fall in a place like this, no one notices and only a few feel bereaved by the absence of any one of them. And then there are ones like the Washington Pines white pines, senselessly downed by vandals, that everyone seems to know and care about deeply. The chainsaw downing of some White Pines in the beloved stand on the Gunflint Trail was grotesque and senseless. Some saw it as a finger in the eye to all “tree huggers.” Others chalked it up to intoxication. And though the perpetrators were caught and punished that didn’t put the trees back. That didn’t take away that hurt.

All this happened in the year before North House Folk School had their first class, a kayak building, taught out in the Coast Guard building off Artists Point. I covered the class for the local paper and discovered that the butchered Washington Pines trees were being used. Instructor and folk school founder, Mark Hansen, salvaged much of the wood for use in those first handmade crafts. The pines got a second life, many second lives, really,  through all the people who used that beautiful wood in their kayaks. The sheer perfection of that outcome still makes me smile.

However, sometimes in a county of trees and can-do folks, a tree falls and someone gets hurt... Earlier this month, this is what happened to a friend of mine and many others, as he tried to cut down a poplar behind his workshop in the town of Grand Marais. The results were many. For our friend, a brain injury and physical pain for a man used to great health an agile mind. For his family, the absence of normalcy, of just another day-ness. Precious things taken for granted, until normal seems like something only other people enjoy... With hard work and time, the prognosis is good for our friend. Best wishes for all good things to Jeff and Jenny and their beautiful boys in this new, unexpected journey.

John Lennon lamented back in the day, that “life is what happens while you’re making other plans. So it was with my brilliant idea to use a downed tamarack branch to make a wreath for the front of the house. Making it took me three hours and wire puncture wounds on both hands, but at last the big golden circle was done and I hung it between the garage doors, a thing of beauty and a joy forever; Forever, in this case being one night. My five goats found it and finished off their poplar lunch with a tamarack late night snack. But did I get angry? Not me. I got even. I made another Tamarack wreath and doused it with hot sauce. Let’s face it, Mother Nature isn’t the only one who can dish out the surprises.

For WTIP, this is Vicki Biggs-Anderson with Magnetic North. 
 

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