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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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