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Mack Williams: Buried roots

The other morning, I heard the sound of some serious sawing. Leaving for work, I discovered a large oak had been cut down in the “yard” of my immediate neighbors (from whom I never hear a “peep”), the residents of Danville’s Grove Street Cemetery.

This tree was at the graveyard’s corner, which I often pass when heading out in my car. In that spot lie several graves marked with “CSA” maltese crosses.

Even though that cemetery’s last burial was in 1920, a vegetative sort of death returned that day, giving literal meaning to the term “cut down in death.”

I thought back to my childhood concerning a tree in the cemetery of my home church, Saint Paul’s Lutheran. I don’t know the particular species, but it was smooth, “bark-less,” and had been set out as permanent grave ornamentation many years before.

Over the years, the tree had nudged its tombstone from the perpendicular to an angle approximating that of the earth’s axis. (But death was the only season marked by it.) When revisiting Saint Paul’s in 2009, I noticed the tree’s absence. This recently cut tree, pre-dating the graves in the “neighborhood cemetery,” was now just as dead as that past, dedicatory one at Saint Paul’s.

Due to the “hilliness” of the city of Danville, my drive past that neighboring cemetery puts me across from a “rise” in that rock-wall-encircled earth. At that point, the cemetery arches up and the street dips down, putting me, in “my ride,” on an equal level with the cemetery’s silent denizens, inside “theirs.”

Even the decades-old bricks in the adjacent sidewalk mirror that undulation, in micro-version mimicry.

The massive stump from that recent cutting is over 4 feet wide, encircled by great python-like roots, snaking away at ground level to disappear in the earth. The “tree men” left a couple of large trunk slices next to it, giving the look of “table with matching chairs.”

I imagine a couple of “tombstone robbers” could make use of that “matching set” to sit and pause for reflection, or partake of picnic-style repast. They might also decide to play cards or get out a board game. If possessed of sufficient nerve in such a setting, they might even try their hands at “Ouija.”

Another possibility might be that of turning the stump’s growth rings into a timeline of historical, local happenings. Of course, the most recent occurrence would be the tree’s death, represented by its most outer “line” of bark.

With graves close by, the city will surely let stump and roots remain.

I’m reminded of a fossil collecting trip years ago to a little stream by the name of “Lieutenant run” in Petersburg, Virginia.

The stream cuts through unconsolidated Pliocene (2-3 million years ago) sands deposited from the time when that whole area was under the ancient Atlantic. The water is shallow in the stream’s bottom; and fossil hunters can walk there to find hand-size fossil scallop shells, as well as similarly sized shells of ancient clams.

Walking in that stream, one looks up toward banks of earth on either side to a height of 8-10 feet. The stream has not only unearthed fossil shells, but tree roots as well, leading to an amazing sight. Grasped by the exposed great roots’ fibrous “extremities” are the tiniest, most delicate fossil shells, i.e. “turitella,” “astarte,” etc.

The little ancient shells, clutched by the tiniest filamentary roots, kind of evoke “peanuts for the picking.”

Thinking back to my “revealing” fossil trip of 1991, I have seen what roots can do when it comes to taking hold of things out of sight within the earth.

I’m sure the great “stump-table” root system also ends in fibrous “fingers,” with the dexterity to grasp various, scattered, fragmentary, “spindly-things” buried in that cemetery ground.

As previously stated, I have no doubt the city will leave the grave-encircled stump with root system in place.

The old tree is, just this week, gone.

Its roots are long “buried,” and there they should stay.

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