Path Before Giants
Cassiopeia appeared, low in the summer sky. I first saw her in my youth, when I stood on the vast Dakota plain with a calf in my arms and tears smeared on my face. Daddy pointed up to the stars, telling me how Poseidon banished Cassiopeia to the heavens for selfishness. “She reminds us of our duty to those in our keep,” he said. I looked on while Daddy took my sick calf and put it down.
I always searched for her. I oriented myself around the ancient constellation instead of the North Star like the rest of mankind; her sweeping arc through the heavens showing me how I moved, how I changed, and I judged my derelictions against her willful breach. I was miles and years away from that little girl, but Cassiopeia’s points of light still dictated her eternal repose. I wanted to be up there beside her.
Coffee warmed my hands and I stretched my feet toward the fire, the flames an adversary to the slight chill of the mountain air. John sat next to me in our forest campsite, high up on a hill and overlooking a tall grass meadow. The stars fanned out below us over the tops of the distant trees and I felt peace at seeing her again.
Camping was never my favorite thing, but the parts I loved, the stars and the quiet of evening, would usually make up for sleeping on the ground and waking to the cold of early morning. I promised John long ago I would go with him, wherever he wanted to go.
In the morning, we decided to go for a walk among the trees of Calaveras Big Trees State Park. I was impressed on the drive into the campground, and up close they were surely giants. The high canopy overhead was like a cathedral: bright, peaceful, inspiring worship.
We walked in silence, far apart but not distant, the kind of closeness in space that long marriage brought. We came to a trailhead that had markers and a delineated path, but the first thing on the trail was a stump of a tree. It was not the most encouraging start.
“The Big Stump,” John read aloud.
“The Big Stump? Who named it that? Seems a little obvious. And why is a stump the beginning of a trail?”
John finished reading the marker at the base of the stump while I walked up the stairs and stood on the large expanse that was once the base of an enormous tree, “It is so large, a small building once sat atop it.”
I could dance on it the way I danced at my wedding.
“Sequoiadendron giganteum.” John read. Made it sound like a dinosaur. “The species has been traced back fifteen million years. It is the largest living thing on earth. Only fractions of one percent of the seeds ever germinate. It takes a specific water content, sunlight, and depth for the seed to sprout into a tender beginning that looks like a blade of grass. It is the sole species in the genus Sequoiadendron.”
On day seventy-three I knew I would marry him.
I descended the stairs and we walked into the forest. I got dizzy when I put my head far back, trying to see the tops of the trees all around us, the full scope of height elusive. In the stillness, my breath sounded loud and even the slight elevation of roots beneath my feet had structure. We reached another marker and a majestic specimen stood before us. Blackened edges on the bark showed were a fire touched this giant, but he withstood the threat. “Look John, this tree is like us. Big and strong, scarred but still standing.”
John continued his narration. “The Empire State Tree. In 1907, Galen Clark wrote: ‘The bright cinnamon color of their immense fluted trunks, in strong contrast to the green foliage and dark hues of the surrounding forest, makes them all the more conspicuous and impressive. In their sublime presence a person is apt to be filled with a sense of awe and veneration, as if treading on hallowed ground.’”
On day four hundred fifty-two, I said yes.
We began to wander more than walk, our purpose of getting to the end lost in the detail of really seeing majesty up close. Ahead of us, two trees touched at their bases and the marker named them ‘Mother and Son.’ There was an invitation on the marker to touch the trees here, the others on the path were guarded by words and short barriers. The softness of the bark surprised me and I petted it like a puppy, ran my hand slowly down, then back up and down again. “I wish I could be a tree.”
John laughed. “Why?”
On day one thousand four hundred forty-seven, our son was born.
I didn’t answer him about why I wished to be a tree, but right then, I did want to be part of them. We passed ferns and moss-covered stones, shoulders touching briefly now and then as we followed the path sedately.
“Really, why would you want to be a tree?” He looked at me like he did when we didn’t know everything about each other. I walked a bit more before I answered, letting the seconds emphasize the words. I didn’t want the timbre of complaint to overburden the idea.
“Everyone would see who I was; no hiding behind social customs, no worrying about hurting someone’s feelings. Just me. Beautiful on the whole, even if up close the flaws show, soft on the outside, but ultimately strong because I stand with others.” I said these reasons out loud because they were true and right.
There were other reasons I kept to myself. I knew they were not so generous.
I wouldn’t have to go where I didn’t really want to. I wouldn’t have a burden of duty to others. My child would always be close by.
John said nothing, just smiled and walked on. I wondered if he would like to be a tree.
After a few silent steps, I added softly, “I wouldn’t have to change. I would always and forever be just that one thing, a tree.”
He moved closer and put his arm around my waist. “But Julie, you would still have to grow.”
Growth and change are not always the same.
Another giant loomed ahead, but this one lay on the forest floor. Broken. Dead. The path led beside and through The Father of the Forest. Though it fell hundreds of years ago, only the interior decayed. The resulting tunnel was large enough for me to walk through. John noticed graffiti carved into the strong outer bark and he sputtered with anger at the defacement of something so beautiful.
“How could someone write his name on this? Who’ll care that they were here? They’ve ruined this wonderful tree.”
As I stepped inside, the sounds around me were muffled. The bark soundproofed the tunnel and my ears felt deaf in the few seconds it took to walk through to the end. It was a strange and new sensation of a physical barrier, of something damped down over me, isolating me from the outside world. Communication silenced.
We buried our son on day seven thousand sixty-two.
I came out the other side. The world reached my ears again. Wind blew through the leaves, and the scrunching of John’s shoes on the path brought comfort after the silence.
“John, in a few hundred years, someone may think it’s interesting. They won’t be offended then. Remember the graffiti in the pyramids? You thought that was fascinating. Remember?”
He grumbled to himself, and all I caught was “. . . still not right.”
The next stop on the path was in front of The Abraham Lincoln. It was mature when he was president and gave the Gettysburg Address. I thought of the rows of graves facing Lincoln that day, and marveled at his ability to speak those words with such a weighted grief as the loss of his own two sons and the war of a nation hanging over him.
“Rate of Growth,” read John. “They continue to grow throughout their lifetimes. The oldest known currently is three thousand three hundred years old. The trees gain two feet of height per year for the first fifty to one hundred years. After that, their growth is outward and upward. Rings of one-half inch thickness are common.”
“See Julie, always growing.” His words were kind, not chiding. He seemed to know I was fragile. He took my hand and we continued on. Up ahead, I could see the path going through one of the trees. We walked a bit faster, and I fleetingly thought I might run. I saw two old women standing inside the tree, touching the sides tenderly. We stalled at the marker and read about The Pioneer Cabin Tree. “A hole was cut in the base of the tree in the 1850’s for wagons to drive through.”
I wanted to give the ladies privacy, not push in and rush their enjoyment, but we couldn’t help drifting in beside them; it was big enough for us all. As I passed them, I realized they were searching for something. Here too were names and dates scratched along the tunnel carved by hand over a hundred and fifty years ago. They touched the names, carefully going over each one as if it were Braille for their fingers to read. I stopped and asked one of them, “Are you looking for someone?”
“Yes, my great-grandmother, Louise Marsden. She traveled through here in 1882. She was just eleven and carved her name in the tree when her father wasn’t looking. I wanted to find her.”
I decided to help look. I was shorter by inches and so more easily inspected the names below. A few well-spent moments found “Marsden 1882” underneath my fingers. “Oh, here!” I called them over and the same gentle touch greeted this name.
“I just wanted to touch her again.”
Like I touched Jared’s name on the cold granite stone.
I left them. It was not my memory. I rejoined my husband who was waiting patiently as always on the other side. “See John, someone loves the graffiti.” I was pleased to be right, but not in my usual smugness. The sunlight danced down through the leaves.
His hand slipped into mine again and we walked together, as we had for so many years. Around a turn, we found three giants standing majestically before us. The marker named them: “The Three Graces. Aglaea (Beauty), Euphrosyne (Mirth), and Thalia (Good Cheer).” We stepped back, side-by-side, and gazed from trunk to crown and back again.
I was humbled, amazed at these living things. They were graceful, beautiful, and strong; all the things I wanted to be. I looked at John and realized he was more full of grace than I. How could he be?
On day ten thousand two hundred fifty-two, the doctor said he didn’t have much time.
I looked more closely at his face. “What?” he asked.
“Nothing. Just looking at you.” I kissed him, silently thanking him for being strong.
As we wound our way along, a clearing opened up to show a section of tree that lay on its side, taller than our house. The marker proclaimed it was The Discovery Tree. “This is the first tree discovered in this grove and felled in 1853. The ring count gives an age of one thousand two hundred forty four years.”
This very tree started growing in the year six hundred nine. There were two hundred rings when Charlemagne ruled, six hundred when the Magna Carta was signed. It had nine hundred rings when DaVinci painted, and a thousand when Shakespeare wrote.
I was left, again, searching for words but this time due to awe and not for calculated effect. I was captivated by the idea of discovering something so grand, something that was here all along, but not seen by human eyes, not acknowledged to the world. My reverence was profound in front of this tree lying in repose.
It was day fourteen thousand six hundred.
John stood a few feet from me. “You know this is the tree to The Big Stump, right?”
“It is not!” I protested immediately. The idea took a moment to settle in. I peered down the length of the tree on its side and I saw, over there, the stump of its past. The Big Stump. “This is the same tree we saw when we first started on the path? But it looks so different from over here.”
“We’re just on the other side, nothing’s different.”
In the silence of the forest, I understood the faint whisper of meaning in my husband’s words, calling me away from the stars and back toward earth. Cassiopeia could wait. Maybe duty was service, and grief, and solemn watch, without regard for how it all turned out in the end. Self-recrimination didn’t fulfill a duty to anyone. The tree’s repose mirrored Cassiopeia’s, but the tree didn’t intend to be cut from its base. It merely happened.
My hand felt the tree in a different caress, newly aware of our common tie, and I breathed in the scent of the wood.
Jo Taylor is an ER nurse with twenty-one years of experience. She’s recently left the ER and found work from home doing chart reviews which is a bit boring comparatively but it allows her time to read and write daily. She writes fiction and poetry.