The Transience of Place

Holidays inevitably become times of contemplation when my thoughts run the gamut from appreciation to apprehension, from memories of the past to the uncertainty of the future. The past couple of days have been no exception to this lifelong trend.

My wife, son and I spent this Thanksgiving holiday with my mother- and father-in-law. Although Thanksgiving Day was cold, damp and blustery, warmer air followed and treated us to a beautiful, crisp day on Friday. We took the opportunity to walk in the wooded area along the lakefront surrounding my in-laws’ home. In the late fall, several species of oak and hickory stand as thin spires among a carpet of brown leaves, dotted with bright green mosses and deep red of raspberry and wild rose cane.

When my wife and son decided to return to the house, I continued down through a ravine that empties into one of the many coves that form the fingers of the lake. I worked my way up to the top edge of a bluff that looks out across the cove toward an area that is just teeming with wild aster, goldenrod and liatris in the summer months, but today was colored only by the earth tones of the wildflowers’ drying flower heads and stems.

I looked down to see the evenly cut stump and trunk of a tree that had been felled months earlier. Nature had already begun to run its course. The oak’s deeply furrowed bark was covered in moss, its ridges lined with  rounded white fungus. A slimy black mold weeped from the center of the stump. Although the past six months had changed its appearance, I knew this was my place.

Last spring during our Easter holiday visit, I sat on this same tree trunk. I was in the middle of what is best described as my atheism immersion, when I mistakenly became so militant against religious evangelism that I became equally evangelical for the opposing viewpoint. Sitting on this fallen tree, surrounded by renewed life springing forth from trees and shrubs awakened from their winter slumber, I felt an emotion unknown to me. I felt one with that place, no longer an observer, but an integral part of my surroundings. I felt the wonder in the plants, in the animals, and in the earth that fed both. I may have rejected the belief in an intervening, personal deity, but at that moment I could not deny an underlying connection with that place.

When I returned to that place yesterday, I sat perched on the fallen oak, looking out over the lake. My thoughts returned to that Easter morning, and confirmed the emotions of that day. I can’t claim to be any closer to understanding that connection I feel with this place. It is a place of clarity and escape, where my mind can focus on the past and the future, while simultaneously being in the present. It is a place where I can transport those from my past and present who have come closest to knowing me, and feel their presence next to me on that decaying, yet solid oak.

There is a danger in assigning to much importance to a single spot on this earth. It is the transience of place. There is a reason the tree was felled by chainsaw, instead of the natural cycle of growth and demise. The bluff where the tree grew is slowly being undercut by the motion of the lake. Over time, perhaps just within a year, the soil that surrounded the roots anchoring the oak would be gone, and the tree would meet its fate at the bottom of the cove. Whether nature took its course or by human intervention, the tree’s fate was sealed.

Soon, the stump will fall into the lake and the tree will be harvested for firewood, and the location will change forever. But long after I no longer recognize it, I will always have my place.

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