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I absorbed the very little I know about trees from living beside them, beneath them and seeking their shade on a hot summer days, invading their fortress of darkness, where a boy could pretend he was hiding from the good guys or hunting the bad ones, and later enduring those cursed magnets that lured his errant golf balls to their deep, dark, deadly jungles.
I am no arborist, know little about botany and horticulture and express no great insights into these giant, majestic, colorful and breath-giving towers that spring up around us, planted either by God or by man, to bestow us with grace and wonder for all our days.
The great poet Shel Silverstein cuts down man’s relationship to trees with the humble homage of The Giving Tree: From acorn to sawdust, the tree serves man, and man does little to return that undying, loving commitment.
I plant my own little seedling here because we are in the full-blown blaze of autumn, and there is no better time to speak reverently of trees and the great beauty they bring to our world.
I opened my prayer book this weekend on a U-turn trip to Knoxville for a family wedding – a wonderful, tearful and everlasting celebration of eternal love – and was able to spend six hours of travel studying the landscape hues God is painting for us this season.
My, my, it was awesome, and we have not yet arrived at the summit of leaf season in these parts.
I can only imagine what another week or 10 days may add to the color wheel that spins across the mountains and valleys, cast to glory in the angle of fall light that artists and photographers covet for inspiration and mere mortals such as I can only just study with finger-pointing wonder from the top of Jellico Mountain, the canyons near Stinking Creek Road and the hollers of Renfro Valley.
This is a an excursion that I had not made in autumn for many years, usually relegating treks at this time of year to airports, which in all their greatness of efficiency steal from us one of those smell-the-roses opportunities.
I saw old sites in new lights, a chance to see chiseled limestone framed by fiery-red bushes and golden leaves, a different angle of sunlight spraying from on high.
And the trees were the centerpiece of this canvas.
Let me be clear that not only am I no student of trees, I’m not really all that intimate with their types, varieties, species and fruitful reasons for being.
As a boy, the back and sides of my house were protected for a few bountiful hickory trees that shared their nuts and leaves with us.
We knew walnuts, maples, oaks, elms and poplars as numerous and impeccable sentries along the fences that bounded our farmland and our waterways.
Willows emerged along the lake beside my home, and in the afterlife of our old farm, they gave name to the Saddlebred factory that now owns and nurtures its rolling fields.
We rode tractors to the back acreage and chopped down cedar bushes every Christmas, bringing their numerous but spindly needles and wonderful scent into our homes for a couple of weeks at a time.
During nearly a decade of studying, playing and working in the south of Mississippi I became intimate with pines and live oaks, mostly because they dominated and lent their names to the golf courses where I practiced my frustration.
To be certain, the pine trees were better friends of the errant golfer – their thin trunks and spindly needles much more forgiving than the ground-touching majesty of the ancient and awesome live oaks – but they were, mostly, just two different forms of evergreens whose serendipitous placement and karma often added strokes to my score.
For the nearly three decades I lived in Florida, palms of various sorts, tall and waving or short, snake-hiding and eye-gouging, danced in cozy and complementary cruelty along the edges of fairways and backyards.
But in none of those places was autumn celebrated with any great flourish or sense of wonder or expectation.
So it was on my return to Kentucky a few years ago that I was able to learn anew how trees – especially trees in the fall – bring rainbows to our world without ever requiring a rain cloud to pass.
I was humbled by all I had forgotten. Despite what science teachers tried to press between my ears, there is so much I simply do not know.
I have been blessed to have seen the golden Aspens of Colorado in a snowy October morning. I’ve flown across the country on clear days and been rewarded a bird’s-eye view of a quilt of many colors. I have toured New England, am intimate with North Carolina in the fall.
But I can tell you that in recent years I have seen few more awesome sights than those taken in along the wide ribbon of I-75 as it snaked south from Berea to the base of the Smokies.
The love story of the couple married there this weekend – underscored by an all-in dance to “Rocky Top” – includes a pluck-your-heartstrings testament about how they became engaged by the side of the road on a looping trip from Knoxville to Chattanooga.
The groom, who engineered one of the great romantic moments of our time, pulled this off despite his well-known hatred for road trips. His love won the day.
So maybe his sense of romance can help him understand this: My road trip was the perfect entree for his beautiful wedding, and I hope his marriage is as sturdy as an oak.