By Otha Barham
The Meridian Star
Did you ever have something, an important or inspirational part of your life, and then have it go away leaving you feeling more alone in the world? Of course this happens when we lose persons. But it happens with inanimate things too. Often you regret that you never took a photograph to help you carry the memory.
One of these inanimate things is what I am missing in my life today. I have been missing the old tree for a long time now, actually over half my life. It stood more than double the height of the largest mature timber that surrounded it. And I never took a photo of it that I can recall. Just a tree? No, not just any tree.
I wrote about this huge pine tree years ago by looking back on its likely life experiences. It stood in the woods of the Bailey community north of Meridian. Mr. John Carpenter said in the middle of the 20th century that it was dead when he first saw it as a youth. He was born in 1891. This means the giant pine had to have sprouted from a seed in the 1700s, long before Meridian was an unnamed settlement.
Early loggers with crosscut saws skipped it because it was crooked and its grain spiraled from ground to crown. Such trees were hard for the mules to skid, and lumber cut from spiraled trunks was weak and practically worthless.
So the old tree reigned over many 20 and 30 year loggings. The two-man crews with crosscut saws spent their energies on salable timber, leaving the aging tree to grow larger and larger.
Lightning began to strike the tree often once it loomed high from its roots that reached out to the cool and nourishing water of Bailey Creek. This caused its top to spread out and send damaged limbs in every direction. The years piled up and lightning and logging came again and again.
More than a dozen years before the end of the1800s, an enormous bolt of lightening tore into the tree’s jagged crown and stripped bark in spiraling twists all the way to the ground. This was the final blow from the stormy skies that would at last take the life from the magnificent old tree.
It would take several years for the tree to stop pushing water and nutrients up to the highest limbs, but one spring over a hundred years after it had sprouted and well before the Wright brothers left the ground in their flying machine, the landmark leviathan died.
As the tree weathered, it shed many more limbs and eventually all its bark, tons of which now lay rotted three feet deep around its base. Perhaps about the time of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency the tree’s bole had become shiny gray and the remaining limbs reached out to the sky like the tentacles of some threatening swamp monster.
The years that saw the first automobile and telephones in homes and the Great Depression were the years that squirrels and birds made holes in the scarce remaining sap wood of the great dead tree. What had held it upright for over 150 years was a solid core of heart pine or, what locals called it when gathered from fallen trees, lighter wood. The rich heart pine is used to light fires.
I first saw the tree while squirrel hunting along Bailey Creek about 1951 or so. My friend, Ivan Chisolm, and I soon expressed our awe of the giant tree and were moved to attribute spiritual qualities to it as people are prone to do with one-of-a-kind wonders. Chiz gave me a photo of the tree which showed it towering above the forest. Years later I lost the photo and searched for it for years.
I had become resigned to the fact of its permanent loss when Chiz presented me with a much better photo of the tree which he ran across in some long overlooked files. The picture was taken from near the base of the tree Some time in the 1960s, Chiz sent me word that the tree had fallen. It was an emotional time for us. In 1996 I got the courage to go learn if there was a heartwood log remaining or any trace of the old tree. Logging of a mature forest had occurred perhaps twice since it had fallen and there was no trace. But strangely the spot where it stood was devoid of timber, not even young trees.
Had it been burned and the heat damaged the soil? Had the tree’s spirit enshrined the spot somehow? Contemplating the answer will go on. But my impassioned ponderings of this tree that stood in three centuries will not continue to be burdened by lack of an image. I now have a photo to take me there beneath my favorite plant; the one that I only knew long after its death. But in its afterlife it spoke to me and continues to speak volumes.