The Witness Tree
Mushrooms and history
by Lawrence Power
Where my imaginary line bends in woods, and pile of rocks has been founded,
Off this corner in the wild, one tree, by being deeply wounded
Has been impressed as Witness Tree, and made commit to memory
My being not unbounded.
--adapted from Robert Frost
Cranbrook Park had provided two tasty additions to my omelet the morning I decided to determine where Harold Ward disposed of his fieldstones. His pioneer farm lies at the heart of my neighborhood park, and the stones were glacier rocks that much troubled early growers. Winter's cycles of freezing and thawing would heave them to the surface each spring and threaten to make lame any grazing stock or to blunt any plough. Erratic rocks, geologists call them, abandoned during their slow retreat by long-gone glaciers.
Come spring, Ward would have hitched his smartest horse to a wooden sled with a collecting box (in Frost's New England, a "stone boat"). Together they would crisscross the muddy fields, performing hours of hard work for man and beast. The horse needed a destination point once his load breached tolerance, usually some far corner of a field bordering someone else's land. It had to be clearly visible to the horse, and in Michigan that tended to be a prominent tree--a witness tree. I went out looking for three things after breakfast: a very old tree, remnants of a farm fence, and a duff-covered mound. I found them.
Barely twenty-five years old, Cranbrook Park is what survived of Harold Ward's farm when the rest was built up in the 1980s. It is ringed by housing, with two narrow access paths off Oakbrook Road, but the developers saw the wisdom of grading their adjoining properties smoothly into park grass, and it worked. Visually they doubled the size of the place. A wooded section of soft trails defines much of its eastern edge and shoulders the meandering Malletts Creek. Joggers, bikers, and moms with toddlers are there most days. I am probably
the only fungophile.
My witness tree was hiding in plain sight, not 100 feet from one of the half-dozen benches and picnic tables that line the park's winding central pavement. My arm span--fingertip to fingertip--is six feet, and I could reach just halfway around the great trunk. A twelve-foot circumference means its diameter is almost four. Using a growth-ring count from several nearby chain-sawn windfalls, I make it to be about 150 years old, a Civil War sapling.
It is not a beautiful tree, but old and wondrous with a hardscrabble, woods-wise look about it. An oak, to judge from the leaves and acorns; a white oak from its somewhat corky and layered gray bark. Though hidden among shrubs and younger trees, it looks legendary standing there, the kind of tree in fairy tales where children who are lost in woods encounter devilish limbs that twist and curl around to grasp them. Such a tree would have been treacherous to plank out with the mill power of the nineteenth century, since its low and gnarled branches might easily have jammed a spinning blade. Frost's tree escaped the lumberman by being deeply wounded; I suspect this one was spared to avoid trouble at the mill.
A gentle mound drifts up and away from the trunk's base following a rusting wire farm fence. It took only a few pokes with a stick to reveal the trove of fieldstones under a hundred years of soft forest cover. Their rounded edges, colors, and jewelry patterns reveal the travel polish of an origin hundreds of miles to our north.
More than four billion years ago a lava flow of pink granite emerged from the earth's hot core to become a source of some of the oldest rocks on the planet. Its highest volcanic mountain was taller than anything today at 40,000 feet. Now known as the Canadian Shield, it weathered away over billions more years until inching glaciers formed and descended with a weight that forced great spars of granite up from their beds. Over thousands more years, the ice edged south, tumbling the cracked and fractured rock into millions of abraded pieces. When the climate warmed again, enough landed here to give hard work to farmer Ward.
Probing the tree close to the base of its trunk, I saw a trace of pinkish granite no larger than two knuckles of my hand. It grew with each thrust of the digging stick until a 200-pound antique stone lay exposed ... pink granite from the tall mountain, enfolded like an infant in the bare arms of two great oak roots. A pair of old survivors comfortable in each other's company, I reflected in silent awe, a picture of patience and natural dignity.
It was a Cranbrook Park puffball I had eaten for breakfast that morning in my omelet. Its firm white flesh sliced easily into sections like eggplant, and, fried in butter, it added an earth flavor to the toothsome mushrooms I picked the day before by Malletts Creek.
[Originally published in November, 2012.]