Knot

I wrote this yesterday afternoon.

Above and below the Road to the Far Field, the wreckage of a woods. Big sugar maples, black cherries, red maples, shagbark hickories – all ripped down by the ice. But the view! On this clear, cold day, Sinking Valley is a glaze of white between ridges that mix brown and blue: the brown of tree trunks, the blue of their shadows against the snow.

The giant chestnut oak at the bend of the trail casts a peculiar shadow, though. Its stumpy limbs bristle with last year’s sprouts, and fresh tracks in the snow show that again this winter the ridgetop porcupine has returned for more pollarding of her favorite tree. There are thousands of chestnut oaks on the mountain, but for some reason it’s the very oldest ones that seem to draw the porcupines. The sweetness of age, perhaps? Or is it simply that, being old, they are less efficient at producing tannins in response to overbrowsing? An absence of bitterness in itself can seem plenty sweet, I know.

Now here’s another misshapen shadow: a cherry the ice storm didn’t touch. Most of its branches have been truncated by the fungal infection that foresters call black knot. I wonder if this thorough amputation of twigs and smaller branches isn’t what saved it, preventing the ice from reaching critical mass? In such extreme conditions, a handicap can turn into an advantageous trait. The chronically ill sometimes are the fittest, the ones who survive the longest, bear the most young. Pain is their legacy, and it is the most precious gift imaginable. Without it, imagine how brittle we’d be – how terribly unequal to the task of love.

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