I got up the other morning and was quickly scanning friends’ posts on Facebook before I went to the gym. There was a picture of a huge tree that had been blown to bits by lightning a few hours before with the caption “This is why you don’t want to stand under a tree during a lightning storm.” It was really pretty amazing. It never occurred to me that a tree would actually explode into chunks and bits and broken branches that were scattered all over the place. Then again maybe I just don’t know much about lightning.
The thing that was really interesting for me is that I had paid no attention to where the tree in the picture was located. A few hours after I saw the picture I drove to a coffee shop in Fort Collins to meet my friend. I pulled into a spot next to the CSU flower gardens, which were full of brightly colored blooming plants.
There was the smell of freshly cut wood, a pickup truck full of branches and a big tree surgeon’s truck with a bucket arm tucked down tight like he’d finished his work.
I sat down with my friend and she proceeded to tell me all about the tree that had been hit by lightning and how she and her husband had come to see it before it was cut down and that they had each found a small piece of the splintered tree to take home and keep. It was the very tree in the flower garden I had just parked my car next to.
After our coffee I walked around the flower park, and along with several other people inspected the remains of the stump and the few scraps of wood and limbs and leaves that were all that was left of the big tree. I found an appropriately nasty looking splintered piece and picked it up to take home for my personal souvenir. I think the tree must have been a big old Cottonwood. The wood still had a living smell, though it wasn’t strong.
When I was in college I wrote a poem about a tree that had been hit by lightning that my father had taken me to see when I was a teenager. He was a landscape architect and one of the things he did was document the location, type, and approximate age of cool old trees he found around the City of New York. The tree he took me to see that day was not that far from where we lived. If I remember correctly it was a huge old oak that had been hit by lightning and split in half. One half of the tree was totally burnt and blackened from fire, and the other half of the tree was untouched, its green leaves waving in the summer breeze.
The poem was about betrayal and how my heart had been broken by something that had happened to me as a young kid. It also talked about how that experience flavored the rest of my young life at the time with the remnants of that experience. It was a pretty good poem, actually, and my class mates mostly really liked it. My professor, a man I really liked and admired, seemed to take exception to it. “You are much too young to write such a dark poem,” he said. “I don’t want you to carry that kind of blackness yet. You haven’t experienced enough life.”
My professor fell off his pedestal a bit that day. I felt chastised for daring to speak my truth, and questioned about the sincerity or depth of my experience. “Who is he,” I questioned, “to tell me what I have or have not experienced in the time I’ve been on this planet?” He made me feel like I was listening to my mother.
“You’re dreaming,” my mother would say.
I had kind of liked writing poetry before that day. It lost some of its appeal as I sat and listened to him. Mostly I wanted to argue that he was pissing all over my poem. I understood at the time that maybe what he was really saying in a backhanded kind of way was that he was sorry I had that experience. He was trying to be protective, maybe even loving in his assessment. Instead I felt dismissed.
The image of the actual tree is etched in my memory. I remember the smell of the burned wood and the color of the carbon on my fingers where I touched the blackened trunk. The green leaves hissed as they blew in the wind and the undamaged part of the trunk was rough and grayish. “The park service will come in a few hours and cut this big fellow down,” my father said. “Too bad, this tree is over 200 years old.”
The poem? I don’t even remember the words, or the way I wrote about the event. I just remember the tree, black against the startlingly blue sky and the fluffy white clouds.