A Family Tree

There it was, covered in salty spray from the waves of the Chesapeake Bay. A tiny pine tree so fragile and insubstantial, enveloped by a formidable mass of vines and branches. It was nothing, dominated by everything.

Just that day the sprout pushed upwards through leaf litter. Its tiny taproot pushed down into sandy loam, gripping rocks as it sought firmer soil. For the next few decades or so the growing pine fought to stake a claim in the thick tangle, finally reaching an opening where it held its own. On that craggy bit of land where forest met beach, the struggling pine withstood seasons of hot, cold, drought, and flood.

Soon enough it merged with the surrounding thicket to become just another part of that coastal snarl of growth. Day after day, year after year, the pine held on in the bad and grew in the good. Raucous seagulls and breezes through needles were the only sounds it knew.   

Until the chainsaw.

It was likely my grandfather, chainsaw in hand, who first pushed his way into dense undergrowth there on the edge of the bay. In the late 1950s, his purchase of a beachfront lot covered in gums, pines, and briary vines was one he was proud of despite its wildness. Surely it took a lot of hard work and hope to get through that first summer of clearing. Eventually he, along with my grandmother and extended family, managed to clear the land and build a summer cottage.

Who can know the decision making employed as they chose which trees to leave, but when all was said and done a handful remained on the mostly cleared plot. Somehow, through chainsaw, truck, and tractor, that scrawny pine at the edge of the beach was left among the standing. Ripped clean of brambles and surrounding scrub, it now stood alone in the open. Watching all.

In those early years the pine watched my grandfather bait hooks. So near the beach, its scant shade probably served as a reasonable place to clean fish. Being a useless pine, it might have been a good place to prop old oars or temporarily tie a small boat. As my grandfather stacked crab pots against its trunk maybe my grandmother handed him the lunch she made, even squinting one eye as she looked up to watch the pine’s boughs wave in the bay breeze.

Taller and a thicker with time, the pine blocked scorching sun from a deck built by the beach. My grandparents sat nonchalantly swatting mosquitoes as their grown children, and by then a few grandchildren, enjoyed the calm bay water. The shading pine watched over splashing cousins as more than one looked up in time to watch an osprey land among its cone laden branches.

But seasons change and later that winter, like every one before, the pine held on through months of biting cold. Blasted by frozen mist and bitter wind, it waited for us. We were oblivious. Last summer was just a memory and next summer was just a dream, so no one thought about the solitary pine. With needles covered in ice and roots holding against squalls, the tree endured the cold.

But summers reappear, and in the warmth, the pine watched familiar faces return. For over sixty years it has witnessed the customs of our extended family as we parade beneath. Many have come and gone, but in their time each walked, sat, or laughed beneath that tree. It has shaded in summer and waited in winter. It has watched old faces no longer return, young faces become older, and little faces join the traditions.

Amidst years of transformations that tree has remained a constant. The people, the surroundings, and the cottage itself have changed. The pine is the same. For years we watched ospreys in its branches and wind in its boughs. We have always watched the pine. Or has it always watched us?

When I last visited the bay it crossed my mind that the pine may not always be there. What if it had already fallen? I parked the car and almost ran past the cottage to look towards the beach. No need to have worried.

There it was, covered in salty spray from the waves of the Chesapeake Bay. A towering pine tree so robust and sturdy, enveloped by blue skies and balmy breezes. It was everything, dominated by nothing.  

Stuart M. Perkins



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146 responses to “A Family Tree

  1. I love the idea of being watched through generations by our friends in nature! Thank you for this.

  2. A beautifully told story. I do hope someone will give this lonely pine a young friend or two to grow old with. Best wishes, Shelley

  3. Thanks for that! I’ve never heard of Vocal? I’ll need to look them up. Thanks again!

  4. oh how lovely!

    “There it was, covered in salty spray from the waves of the Chesapeake Bay. A towering pine tree so robust and sturdy, enveloped by blue skies and balmy breezes. It was everything, dominated by nothing”

  5. Janice

    Beautifully written. 🙂

  6. Daily News

    really good

  7. What a sweet story, and what a beautiful tree!

  8. Steven Smith

    Love this story!!!

  9. Beautiful tree. The third picture is perfect, fabulous. ✍️💙✍️

  10. Beautiful story and beautifully written! I enjoyed reading!

  11. There’s been a big old pine by the Whitefish River that hosted eagles and sheltered the goose pond. It leans. Steven was sure it would fall into the river. We watched it lean farther until one day – after a storm – we saw that instead of falling, it had snapped in half. It still watches over the river and the geese. Thanks for your tree story!

  12. Reassuring story of continuity and endurance in the rapidly changing landscape of today’s world,

  13. Stuart, what a great piece.
    Not only does the tree have life, but you have given it purpose, awareness and identity. I wonder how many, if any, have ever given a thought such as this in this way. When we look upon our lawns does it ever occur to us that though there are countless blades of grass that makes up that lawn and around the world that each blade has its own life and is therefore unique? In that occurring chance loses out to the Divine.

  14. As someone who has grieved a tree, I totally understand the need to “run” to make sure. Glad yours was still standing.

  15. Powerful. Your writing is so descriptive. I envisioned an old, dying tree barely hanging on to its rocky base but was excited to see this magnificent towering tree. Oh the stories it could tell….

  16. Oh my gosh! For some reason, this made me burst into tears! So well done, as always. This very special tree and it’s life pulled at my heartstrings! ❤

  17. This is such touching and fabulous! Very poignant. We have a tree that means the same to me. Thought not as old…yet! But, 35 good years so far!! The love and laughter and hope and transition it has witnessed!

  18. I love trees. That’s why when I wrote The Broken Branches, it started with an entry about the trees in our area. Thank you! Beautifully written!

  19. Beautiful writing. I grew up in Annapolis and spent many hours in Chesapeake Bay.

  20. Early in the story I thought you were speaking of the Monterey Cypress (or “Lone Pine”) in Pebble Beach, CA. However, the Lone Pine is more of a tourist attraction while your story is clearly one of personal connections. Nice to know your pine lives on. Love how you saved the picture until the very end!

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