Present Perfect

[published in THE STANFORD MAGAZINE, Winter 1986]

Though it was Friday afternoon, I was in no hurry to get back to the yard.

This was the last day of my part-time employment with the Stanford tree-trimming crew, a job I’d taken during the summer of 1985 to help make ends meet on an English lecturer’s salary. I had enjoyed the job’s remoteness from my regular sedentary occupation, its involvement with the physical resources of the university, and the opportunity to work in exceptionally large, beautiful trees.

So my partner on the tree crew waited below, while I swung back and forth, suspended on the climbing rope, and stared up through the canopy of the tree we’d been working in all day.

When I finally came down, however, I got a reprieve: The foreman dispatched my partner and me to another “short job.” A large oak on the campus property of a Stanford professor was showing some rot at the base of its trunk; it needed to be cleaned and patched. “Marx,” the foreman said, “I think you’ll like this tree.”

The tree in question was hidden from the street by a thick hedge. We walked down a narrow driveway that tunneled though the hedge and came out on a sight that stopped me cold.

Near the edge of a sloping lawn rose a colossal creature with a massive trunk, serpentine limbs, and deliquescent twigs. Its gnarled and attenuated forms seemed to crouch, grope, and stretch, filling every inch of the hedge-enclosed yard.

I don’t know how long I stood, absorbed by the tree’s immense serenity, its pure, motionless life. As my thinking slowly returned, I walked warily around the perimeter of its branches. The tree was a valley oak, Quercus lobata , displaying features typical of the breed: an asymmetrical inclination, a wide lateral spread of limbs, an open scaffolding of convoluted branches. But this was a unique specimen.
The cyclopean trunk, about 25 feet around at its base, roiled in frozen turbid shapes. A few feet up, it split into two huge sections. One cantilevered at an impossible horizontal angle for about twelve feet before spiraling aloft to a six-story height. The other thickened to a diameter of six feet and rose at a slight backward lean, towering like a cliff face of congealed lava bands. The lowest limbs drooped over their 50-foot spans to within inches of the grass and then, in defiance of gravity and expectation, turned their heavily foliated ends upward to bob gently in the breeze.

Someone had counted 170 rings in a limb that had been amputated earlier; comparing its girth to that of the trunk, one could estimate the tree’s age at about 500 years. As I came nearer to the trunk, I felt the haunting quality of that longevity, a reverence for what John Fowles, in his book The Tree , calls ” . . . a time span humanity cannot conceive. A pastness, a presentness, a skill with tenses the writer in me knows he will never know; partly out of his own inadequacies, and partly because there are tenses human language has yet to invent.”

In this tree I recognized one of the tenses for which Fowles was searching: the present perfect. The treehas beenwhere it is since it was born. It manifests all of its past within its present as accretion or as scar. It responds to stimulus not by action, which disappears, but by growth, which remains.

One limb was resting on two vertical redwood crutches that had been put in place after removal of a damaged branch on which it had previously leaned. Since downward stress is needed to stimulate the growth of “reaction wood,” buttressing at the trunk that holds branches aloft in their outward and upward reach toward the sun, the long absence of the normal pull of gravity had rendered it unable to support itself. The sculptured masses of this tree’s central frame were indeed muscular, built up by the process of ongoing work.

The removed limb had been hit by a mail truck a few years back and protective callus was already beginning to creep around the edges of the recent surgical cut. A tree cannot run from harm or heal injured tissue, so it seals up, or “compartmentalizes,” the damaged area on all sides and continues to grow around it. Approaching the trunk, I noticed a round swelling about 30 inches in diameter bisected by a deep groove, the trace of a major branch it must have lost centuries ago.

Not only was this tree a unique individual, but it was one of the few healthy-looking members of its species in the area. For the past two years, an epidemic of leaf mildew and twig dieback had been decimating the blue oaks and the valley oaks on the campus and its environs. Most people were unaware of the epidemic because it had not affected the more common coast live oaks and because the deciduous blues and valley oaks were normally bare during part of the year.

The next Monday, although I was no longer with the tree crew, I returned to see the tree again and to find out more of its history. Professor Hadley Kirkman and his wife, who have owned the property since 1950, told me that the tree may well have been responsible for the location of the university president’s house across the street and the faculty settlement in the area.

At the tum of the century Professor William Durand, the founder of Stanford’s Aeronautics Department, and his wife fell in love with the tree and its grassy hilltop location and declared, “Here we will build our house.” The house, completed in 1904, was designed by Arthur Clark, who went on to build, across the street from the Durands’ house, the Lou Henry Hoover House, home of the university’s president since 1944.

Over the years the Kirkmans have treasured their proximity to the noble tree, observed it closely, and made it accessible to whoever would appreciate it. They have offered it as a setting for university functions, weddings, and children’s parties. Art classes have often met there to sketch it, and a television production filled its limbs with actors for a large ensemble scene.

Thc Kirkmans and I persuaded the head of the university’s grounds department to accept responsibility for the tree’s maintenance and to officially name it the Durand Oak. (The university is normally not responsible for grounds maintenance on privately owned or leased properties on campus.) Two expert consultants determined that the decayed area was no cause for alarm and that all the tree needed was spraying and pruning.

To prune the Durand Oak! It was a tree trimmer’s chance of a lifetime. I asked to do it; my request was granted. Late on a Friday morning in early October, following my freshman English class, I returned to the tree. With saddle, steel-cored safety lariat, and braided climbing rope, I would climb to the top of the tree and work my way down.

As I ascended, the trunk narrowed, the bark smoothed out, the tree grew younger. In hollows along the way I scooped out raccoon and owl droppings and little piles of soil growing saplings and flowers. What an idyllic vocation, I thought to myself, above the roofs and streets of the world, heeding the call of simian ancestors, of childhood recollections, of poets’ fantasies:

Meanwhile in the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade.

Casting the body’s vest aside,
My soul into the boughs does glide
There like a bird, it sits and sings
Then whets and combs its silver wings.

(Andrew Marvell, “The Garden”)

The light brightened and the view widened. As I got higher and more exposed, I hugged the trunk tightly and felt my heart pound against the bark, as if it were pumping sap along with blood. At the topmost fork, I tied in my two ropes and relaxed. I was suspended by the waist, so both hands and feet could swing free.

At first, the work was not far removed from play, “our delightful task/To prune these growing Plants” says Adam in Milton’s Paradise. I slapped off the decayed wood that was dangerously ready to drop and hacked at heavy clumps of mistletoe that tore loose easily and tumbled down below. But when it came to removing live branches that had been diseased by the parasite, the going got rougher.

Hanging in a gravity-defying position for maximum extension and leverage, I had to find the angle of the cut that wouldn’t damage the branch-bark ridge, support the ten-foot pole saw’s weight while making the undercut, and push-pull endlessly through the top cut until the tenacious oak fibers would finally crack.

The unshaded sun was making me sweat. The twist of my waist, the bulge of my forearm took on the contorted shapes of the creature with which I felt locked in struggle. It was time to use the chainsaw.

Once the eye targets a cut, there is a fierce desire to carry it through and see the form it leaves. I welcomed the shrieking noise of the saw and its fifteen-pound weight in my hand. They provided the surge of power I needed to get on with the job. I had to restrain the rush of adrenalin with two memories from previous tree-trimming assignments: a sliced kneecap and the jagged edge of a climbing rope.

As I worked my way down the tree that afternoon, I pondered my experience at the top. Rather than pastoral gardening, it was a dangerous effort of creation. Like most artisans, arborists labor both for and against the media in which they work. While the dead wood and the overgrowth “seem to long for a change for more ordered forms,” the pruner’s “love for his arboreal element makes him, as all real lovers do, become merciless even to the point of hurting, wounding and amputating so as to help growth and give shape” (Italo Calvino, The Baron in the Trees ).

I realized that the drama of my encounter with the Durand Oak did not contrast but instead connected with what I did in the classroom, the library, the study. For the perilous risks of going out on a limb and the “merciless love” that helps growth and gives shape are as much a part of teaching and writing as of trimming trees.

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