There’s an old oak tree down on Miss Frances’s farm that requires more than a few minutes of inspection every time you lay eyes on it. You need to be a good 100 feet away from the thing to see its top, and when you sidle your back next to the massive trunk and tilt your head up, not one speck of the sky trickles through the gnarled branches and acorn laden leaves. It’s one of those natural wonders that makes you feel small in all sorts of ways.
“I figger that tree’s been aroun’ longer than anyone’s been by to see it,” Miss Frances notes, turning subtly in her rusted metal rocker to deposit a lip full of brown spittle into a 7Up bottle she’s been carrying around. She’s 91, her face wrinkled by too many years working the farm in the hot Georgia sun, yet still more than able to climb up on the old blue Ford International tractor and bush hog the property when it needs it. “How many years old you think that tree is?”
I’m tempted just to take wild guess, say 150 years or so and sit in the peaceful contemplation that would surely follow. But before I can get it out, Tucker says “Dad, can’t we figure it out? Isn’t there some formula or something online?” He comes over and takes my phone, and without prodding, Tess seems to know she’s going to need to find something to wrap around the circumference of the trunk. I look over at Miss Frances and shrug my shoulders, and she gives me a smile in the midst of her gentle rocking.
“I think there’s some string hangin’ in the old coop,” she half yells to Tess as she points the 7Up bottle in the general direction. Tess pulls back the wood frame door to the cage, seems to bat some cobwebs aside and carefully reaches in among the loose hanging chicken wire as I wonder when her last tetanus shot was.Â She pulls out a yellowing loop of rope and runs toward the tree. “You have to wrap it six feet up the trunk,” Miss Francis says. “See if you can reach it up thar.” I approach to help, but Tess shoos me away. She’s 13 now. She can do it. And somehow, she does, walking the rope around the bottom of the trunk before shimmying it up with both hands until they’re over her head, marking the length with her fingers, letting go, and then laying the rope out in front of us so we can pace it off.
“I think I found it Dad,” Tucker says, looking up from the phone as I’m toe-heeling next to the rope, “but it says we need to have the width in centimeters.” I’m thinking they should know the conversion (don’t they learn that in school?) and I can see Tess trying to call it up to do the math. But by the time I get to 15 paces down the rope, Tucker says, “Nevermind, here it is in English.” I have to chuckle.
I let the kids do the calculating, and it turns out that the old oak is almost 200 years old, give or take a decade. Might even have been born in the 18th Century. “Whoo-wee that’s an old ‘un,” Miss Frances states, craning her neck upward. I look at her, then back up at it and for a second try to imagine the storms, the heat, the drought, the stresses it’s survived, but 200 years is hard to fathom. There’s not a dead branch on the thing that I can see. The tree, at least, will be here a few decades longer. “Hey Dad,” Tess says, “maybe we can measure it again next year.”
“Absolutely,” I say, hoping we’ll get the chance.