I saw my first ghost tree when I was 11. A fire had passed over the top of a mountain and through a gap where we went each year to pick apples. That year when we got to the gap the trees were gray bark showing chard spots where the hungry fire had consumed them. The leaves and the twigs gone leaving behind the branches all of which pointed to the sky just as they had before the fire. Now we could see them pointing.
I remember standing at the head of the gap with my Mama in awe of what we saw.
There was a big mountain oak that had been split by lightening when it was young. At the base of the tree about 3 feet up from the ground grew a Throne of Oak. You could still see the scar where the lightening that cleaved the tree and created the throne had struck. Oak trees grow long so that crack of lightening that shaped the future of that tree, and the future of my play space and ultimately my understanding of the world, had lived with its scar for a great long while.
As we returned that spring morning after a long winter when access to the gap was hindered by snow and weather, we did not know about the fire. We came over the rise looking to play in the orchard where the apple blossoms promised apples for the fall. We would take turns sitting on the throne waving an imaginary scepter bringing the world to heel.
There on that broad gap the orchard had been established 100 years earlier. Its tender was many years gone. There was no evidence of his presence other than the apple orchard, the very trees that stood in front of us reaching up imploring the sky for what we could not understand. Perhaps their long-ago tender would have understood. The orchard that was tended carefully was let to grow wild when whoever had the cabin went down the mountain for work, or perhaps the person who established this orchard died among his trees, alone with no one to take up after him. One knew the trees had been loved. Even untended as long as they had been–long enough for the cabin to settle, fall and and become part of the ground–the trees stood in their rows, echos of their comely shapes of the past.
That day their shapes were all to evident. We stood, silent. That morning we left up the trail gaily talking and looking forward to sitting in the throne. We looked forward to seeing the flowers that held the promise of the fall apples. In the fall we would gather the small, tight, slightly misshapen apples that were red on one side and green on the other. When you bit them you had to turn the apple at the same time so that a bite actually let loose of the apple. Writing about them I can still feel the bitter tartness of their skin and the strong flesh of their middles. We came expecting the spring blossoms of the fall apples and and found ghosts who had no apples at all.
We passed through the gap many times in the years after that fire. Each year you could see evidence of the healing of the ground and the forest life. The apple trees never regathered about them their strength. Their imploring hands raised to the air became old and brittle. The limbs broke off in the winter ice storms. After a while only the trunks and a few branches were left, all of them gnarled and old.
The fire had made them ghosts in their own lives without having the mercy to make them true ghosts.
In the years since that time when I was a youth sitting in the Throne of the Oak tree among the apple trees I have spent time with many ghost trees. Their language is eloquent. They speak softly, their cool silver voices dancing faintly on the wind. They can be heard only by those who listen. As time passes, the ghost trees become ghosts in their own families. The younger trees on the forest floor below below reach eagerly upwards in the absence of the foliage of their elders. After a while the ghost trees fall and become deadening. The deadening becomes home to the forest bugs and small animals. Beginning with the twigs and then the branches proceeding to the crevices, openings and cracks in the trees that tell the story of the tree begin to decompose. Soon the once tall ghost trees are released from their ghost-hood to become the rich loam that nurtures the future generations.
We have ghost trees from our fire. We will live with them for many years. Ghost trees frighten and put people off. Ghost trees make us feel vulnerable. Ghost trees remind us that we, like they, can live, present in the world, but without a voice. We can live, present in the world and be unseen. We can be ghosts in our own lives. We have silver voices that dance faintly on the wind. Like they, we have a story to tell.