Three Seconds in the Trees

by Katharyn Privett-Duren

The first time I heard the term “rewilding,” images of vines swallowing up man-made architecture danced across my mind. We’ve all seen the photos of castles, homesteads, and even train stations simply taken back by the land without much pomp or circumstance. This slow, steady, and perhaps inevitable overtaking that swallows up humankind’s efforts at civilization just felt right—yet, I must admit, also terrifying. As much as I could dig the concept, it wasn’t an option for my little farm.

It’s funny, the way humans understand things as total and irrevocable, when there’s always a compromise to be had. Here on this plot of land, we had long forced ourselves and our will upon the landscape and its creatures. It was all just so civilized. A pretty sort of project, I must concede, yet rather forthright: we wanted food and flowers, thank you very much. We slashed, burned, and carved deep into the land with our tools, always well within our rights as owners. And the land, bent under our fist, did squeeze out what it could to satisfy our plates. All was right in the world. Or was it?

We had “un-wilded” this land and, perhaps forgivable in our ignorance, had taken away all hope for the trees, the native flowers, the pollinators and the little creatures that had a stronger claim. My husband, a survivalist and bushcrafter, has long adhered to the Survivalist Code. It’s a warning, really—and it applies here. We, as humans, can survive:

Three months without companionship,
Three weeks without food,
Three days without water,
Three minutes without air,
And three seconds without hope.

Of course, these are not hard and fast precepts and do not predict unknown circumstances; yet, they hold true for the most part. It is my contention that hope, while perhaps holding a different connotation for the little creatures of the wild and the growing things of the land, is still a critical component for them to thrive. When I fully grappled with this, truly struggled with the concept that anything unhuman also needed the magic of hope, everything became clear. And from there, I began the arduous process of rewilding my farm.

Most folks do assume that process to be a systematic removal of all human interaction, yet such a wholesale move is simply not feasible, nor does it provide the land the reparations that are due it. In fact, there’s quite a bit of extraction involved here. The non-native, invasive species that we, as humans, have systematically introduced into the ecosystem need to be addressed, as well. For us, this meant that we must tackle Japanese privet, nandina, honeysuckle, wisteria–heartbreaking, in some cases. It’s simply not the plant’s fault. And damn, if I don’t love the smell of honeysuckle on the wind.

Still. The trees were being choked. And so, extraction began. It is here, in this negotiation between farmer and land, that I began to comprehend the compromises that had to be made. 

You know, the land had been telling me what it wanted. My feet crushed native purslane on my way to the high tunnel, and still it popped up cautiously here and there amongst the peppers and beans. Dandelions triumphantly arrived on the scene every spring, oblivious to pavers and pathways, turning their heads to the sun in such joy–only to be ripped up for aesthetic considerations. Chickweed tried, bless it, to decorate the entries of our chicken coops and hothouses, resilient in their war with my proper hardwood chips and landscape tarps. Over and over, they all spoke under the cover of native elderberry and the contented chirps of their feathered tenants, just before we amputated the limbs for easement around the property. And still, the stomp of my feet was noble, I felt, as I ripped and tore through the wild and replaced it with something . . . beautiful.

But then, I started to listen.

It’s remarkable to me that we, as farmers, sometimes forget to do this. Five years ago, a tree specialist handed us a final diagnosis for our fifty-year-old pear tree: she was dying. It was time to cut her down, lay her to rest, and know that our memories of cobbler and cinnamon sauce would suffice. And I, like any educated farmer might have done, began to accept it. That next spring, a late freeze unceremoniously dropped all of her buds onto the ground like snow—and still, the green of her leaves pressed on into summer.

It was her last hurrah, the tree specialist told me, before death. We should cut her down. 

The proposal equated to an extraction of a native life, a move that I had not yet faced in my rewilding efforts. And so, I consulted the farm’s executive board: the trees. It was pointed out that she (the pear) was far away from the others, standing alone in a patch of sun and not a threat to the water-pump house, nor any other structure. While the pines did not seem to desire a vote, and the oak tree was struggling with its own last dance, the redbud did have rather idealistic opinion: leave her be. Strange, that the most native, useful tree on the property would reach to her in that manner, straight toward her frame as if pointing to an elder on the land—although, that tree should know. After all, it was only a stick of a thing when we first arrived. Its magenta buds and wayward spread had struggled against the hardpack of the driveway, and yet: we had left it in place. Today, it is the arch, the entrance, into our homestead in the woods. The vote of the redbud was therefore weighed by the farmer, as according to the democratic precedents of rewilding.

Ah, the wisdom of the young.

All around us, folks were telling tales of blight—pear trees were going down, forced to the ground by a chainsaw, or heavily pruned and sprayed. In light of her geriatric condition, we refused to make such amendments. She was dying, and that was that. 

But no one had informed her that all hope was lost. That next spring, ten bushels of Alabama Ugly Pears[1] fell to the ground, overwhelming our canning closet and feeding most of the local deer in the area. One day, as I kicked through the bitten, juicy cores buzzing with ground wasps, I found a sapling shooting up from her base. It was unlike her own kind. Its bark was reminiscent of the old mulberry tree, just on the other side of our property line, that I had long loved and wished was stationed within this side of the boundary. It, too, was old, and the landowner on that side had been clearing his woods. I remember standing there after the equipment had quieted for the day, asking that mulberry to leave a seedling that I could offer safe harbor. And here, under the pear tree, it had landed: a wayward gift from a bird that had stopped for rest and release in the crooked branches of our old gal. It occurs to me now that, if she had not have been still standing…

But she had been. The mulberry tree had weighed my offer and sent a purple seed to the root bed of another to nurture and to protect. Our pear tree had become a refuge, rebelling against her practical diagnosis, in a bid for a life not her own. She is the grandmother here, and in our rewilding efforts, we nodded to her wisdom and let the young evacuee beneath her be. Grandmothers, of any land, have learned to balance their own needs against the greater good. Her arms wrapped around his scrawny stance against the wind, his flighty, delicate fruit staining her feet in tiny stamps of purple blood. She had never known her own offspring, but here was something . . . beautiful.

The local tree guy is crystal clear about this development: the sapling (fruiting already at such a young age) will only accelerate the death of our pear tree. Cut it down, he tells me. It doesn’t belong here. And so, I again consult my executive board. 

Upon review, they have determined that the land has been seeded with hope. There has been a motion to accept the pear tree’s sacrifice as thoughtful, justified, and wholly inarguable, as she knows what she’s doing in leaving her rightful territory in the sun to this vigorous upstart. 

The motion carried.

Some days, while walking through the fairytale landscape that has become Little Halawakee Farm, I remember a time a little less wild here, a little less magical. I had been a dictator, the strong arm really, of a place that already wanted to work with me—if only I would get a bit out of the way. Today, as news of the Ukraine sent me spiraling into the sanctuary of the farm, I placed my hand upon the trunk of our native Eastern Redbud and thanked him. After all, he had spoken for another, for the right to live and die on one’s own terms, and it was heroic. He had, himself, once been in the way of our driveway and easy access to what we wanted to own and tame. And so he had been firm, relentless in his beauty, arguing for the rewilding that would benefit us all.

Of course, I do not know how it will all end. Perhaps, our beloved grandmother tree will fall this year of her own accord—and in that moment, I will know it was not at my hand, nor due to a mandate from neighboring kin. Her embrace is rough, gnarled against the bark of her young friend as if offering armor for a war he cannot imagine. Not quite yet.

I wonder at the stories that might be transferred to a generation that she will never know. She doesn’t seem to mind. After all, the young mulberry that braces her bones will carry those memories within root memory, rising from the soil of all that has been. He has become part of the farm, and when I ask my executive board: how long before his roots are no longer alien to this place? When will he know that he is safe? Their answer is undeniably unanimous.

It was done before the neighbor dropped his ax, and well before that plot was ever destroyed. It was done before the tree surgeon drove under the redbud in his exit down our dusty driveway. It was done, they tell me, in the moment that a bird took flight over our country house and stopped to drop hope from a dying branch. 

And it only took three seconds. 

[1] Regardless of extensive research, the only name we have been able to locate for this species of pear tree is this one. Apparently, it is the cultural proper name. We have accepted it as truth.

photo credit: Joanna Stikliwicz, Unsplash