The tree north of Leland that would not die

Published 7:56 am Tuesday, December 29, 2009

There is a tree lying in a field in Iowa between Lake Mills and Leland just a mile or so southeast of the intersection of U.S. Highway 69 and Iowa Highway 9. It’s been lying there for nearly two years. Before, it stood in that field, solid and upright at the edge of a brook.

I had noticed it standing there long before it became a fallen tree, because it is the only tree in that field. There are copses and groves of trees dotting the low hills on both sides of the highway, but not right in that spot. That tree stood alone. And thrived. It was gorgeous: a vibrant green in the spring, a mellower, muted green in the summer, a lively yellow-orange in the fall. Not being a romantic, however, I took note of the tree mainly because it was useful in signaling me that the morning’s drive to work in Forest City was nearly at an end.

Then there came that summer day when the tree was down, lying on its side, its green leaves already starting to lose their color and shrivel. I noticed it right after passing the intersection with 9 and, without thinking, hit the cancel button on the cruise control.

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There were no clues, so it was unclear how this had happened, whether a windstorm or the landowner had pulled it down. It could have been intentional, as I could see an exposed tile line, which ran into the brook directly through what used to be the middle of the tree’s roots.

There being nothing really remarkable about that event, other than the potential loss of the tree’s usefulness as a landmark, the “non-romantic” me quickly reset cruise and continued on to work. From time to time in the weeks following, I would glance over at that field, expecting to see the tree’s dismemberment into scrap for a burn pile and firewood for somebody’s stove or fireplace. But that never happened. The leaves fell off. Fall passed, then winter. The tree lay there, a corpse of trunk and branches.

The next spring, however, something unexpected did happen.

One morning, driving to work, I noticed the tree — well, that’s not exactly true. What I noticed were the leaves: green, vibrant, filled with life (and chlorophyll, obviously). The tree was still alive! Or half alive? Or — I’m not sure what it was, or is, actually.

The skeptical, scientific part of my mind thought about the last gasp, the last desperate attempt by what remained alive within that fallen tree to make food for itself. I had seen, years before, how sucker branches had erupted from the remnants of a giant willow, still lying on the ground a few weeks after it had been cast down during a windstorm. That was an obscene kind of display, looking more like a tumor than life. The lying down tree didn’t look much like that cancerous willow.

All the branches I could see during my daily commute eventually had leaves; even the branches themselves appeared to be growing, stretching themselves out toward the sky. Under the sun of summer, the leaves darkened to their normal steady green, then shifted to that beautiful yellow-orange in the fall. Grass started growing over the ground where the tree’s trunk had once been attached to its roots.

Now it is winter again, and the trunk and branches are laden with snow, looking very much like its nearest neighbors on the other side of the highway. Will it come back again, next spring, my miracle tree? Will it finally disappear into a burn pile and cords of firewood? My heart hopes for life for this fallen tree. But my mind is still the seat of skepticism: How many winters can an exposed root bundle survive? How many subzero days can a fallen tree handle, before what remains of life is finally crushed?

Whatever happens, I’m glad I noticed this tree and its fight for life. Life is tenacious, isn’t it? It holds on, whether we’re talking about trees or people. We don’t have to be “standing” to find a way to grab hold and live. Ultimately, the victory does go to the dusty dark, but not without glorious, lying down battles toward the light, toward life.

Albert Lea resident David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea. His column appears every other Tuesday.