Road Trip V, Days 21-23, Durham, N.C.: Let Us Now Praise Famous Trees

…or not-famous trees (which was kinda the point of James Agee’s title). Trees that are famous only to ourselves, perhaps. Special. Dare I say sacred? Do you have one in your past?

I do, and I visited it today. Actually, I visited its ghost; the tree itself died many years ago. It’s a sycamore growing by a creek in the woods outside Durham where I grew up, and once upon a time it looked like this:

(Courtesy Wikimedia)

(Courtesy Wikimedia)

Sycamores are special. Like madronas, which I wrote about at the start of this trip, they start unremarkably but show more individuality with each vertical inch. Twisting, curving, pied, spotted, toward the top they gleam creamy, crazy white–so white you can spy them from 100 yards away through winter woods. They also have the quirk of growing solo, so that a single sycamore will stand out amidst hundreds of gray and brown fellow tree-citizens. (I try, but usually fail, to avoid thinking of sycamores as tree royalty reigning over their patch of forest.)

My sycamore was solo. She grew in some woodsy acres my family bought when I was in high school, and we discovered her while exploring. Not only did this single tree stand out, her roots supported the banks of a little creek with tiny rapids and wild violets growing in the crevices. I was enchanted. When my school’s annual Mini-Session came around, one April week for high school students to pursue special projects, mine was to camp alone in our woods, in the company of my sycamore.

This was hardly Outward Bound. I was only a couple of miles from my home, but deep enough into the woods as to be safe from outsiders. I had my tent and a little cooking stove, and I spent my days reading, writing in my journal, going for walks, or just lying on a log watching the creek. (Can you tell my Senior English teacher had assigned us Thoreau and Annie Dillard? Yeah, I was quite the teenage Transcendentalist.) I had to leave the woods twice to attend college classes I was taking, and my then-boyfriend (now my Mate) even came to visit me once. So, hardly Annie Dillard either. But mostly I kept company with my tree.

Years later, The Mate and I enjoyed taking friends, and then our young boys, to look at Gretchen’s Spot and visit my sycamore. We could always sight it long before we could reach it through those tangly southern woods. Then some years went by without visits, until we finally went back to find my tree looking like this:

The ghost of my sycamore--keeping company with our friend's son

The ghost of my sycamore–keeping company with our friend’s son

But in my mind? She’s still a queen, and she looks more like this:

(In Big Sur last year, with our sons)

(In Big Sur last year, with our sons)

Do you have a special tree, or did you? Care to share?

4 thoughts on “Road Trip V, Days 21-23, Durham, N.C.: Let Us Now Praise Famous Trees

  1. I’ve read that the sycamore hollows out as it ages, creating hiding places for animals. They can live over 300 years, and I don’t remember how the oldest is. What a great one in Big Sur. How lovely that you have that special connection to one from childhood. I have a special one outside a tiny library. It’s tall with leaves that shade two benches. I’ve had many long conversations in its shade, bees buzzing in the nearby hydrangeas. The sycamore in my photo is in a neighbor’s yard. It really seemed to glow at sunset, but my camera doesn’t see the way my eye does.

    I’m pleased to meet you, and happy to follow you. I used to work in Durham and live in Carrboro.

  2. Wow, you’re a runner too? We loved that track, except when the jerky women’s soccer coach would stand in lane one and make us go around him…Guess when you’ve won five national titles you think you’re entitled. 🙂

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