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Our woodlot lies quiet, dying, yet expectant this time of year. Over the past twelve years, numerous high wind storms have snapped trees or uprooted them completely. They rest where they have fallen, a crisscross graveyard of trunks blocking paths and thwarting us on the trails. Years of leaves have fallen undisturbed, settling into a cushiony duff that is spongy underfoot, almost mattress-like in its softness, yet rich and life-giving to the next generation of trees.
We've intentionally left this woods alone for over a decade. When we purchased the farm, cows had the run of the whole field and woods, resulting in damage to the trees and to the undergrowth, so we fenced off the woods from the field, not allowing our horses access. It has been the home for raccoon, deer and coyotes. It has remained undisturbed, rediscovering its natural rhythms and seasons.
It is time to open the trails again. We've been working at cutting through the underbrush that has grown up, removing the maple seedlings that are 15 feet tall yet pull out with our bare hands from the shallow leafy bed in which they have taken root. Cutting through the trunks is necessary to allow passage and experience this woods again.
We bought this farm from eighty-two-year-old Morton Lawrence who loved every tree here. After seventy-nine years on this farm, he treasured each one for its history, its fruit, its particular place in the ground, and would only use the wood if God had felled the tree Himself. Morton directed us to revere the trees as he had , and so we have. When he first took us on a tour of the farm, it was in actuality a tour of the trees: large black walnuts in the front yard, the poplars along the perimeter, the antique apples--Gravenstein, Transparent, Pippin, Dutch Mignon, Spitzenburg, Baldwin, King, Thompson, cherries--Royal Anne and Black Republicans and pear --the "tallest" pear tree in the entire county, the filbert grove, the silver plum thicket, as well as the mighty 70+ year old Douglas Fir, Western hemlock and Red Cedar trees that had reestablished after the farm was logged originally in the 1920's. He proudly showed us the mighty trunk stumps, some 10-12 feet tall, that still stood from the original old growth trees that were cut down 70 years previously. The stumps still bore the carved out 8 inch notches for the springboards on which the lumbermen balanced to cut away with their axes at the massive diameter of the trees.
He led us to a corner of the woods, slowed his pace to stand beneath a particular tree. His eyes watering, he explained that this tree was where his boy Lawton had hung himself, taking his life as a fourteen year old, in 1967. Morton still loved this tree, as devastating as it was to lose his son from one of its branches so tragically and unexpectedly. He stood shaking his head, his tears dropping to the ground, and I knew his tears had watered this spot often in the previous 23 years. He looked at our boys, a two year old in a pack on my back and a four year old gripping his daddy's hand, and told us he wished he'd known, wished he could have understood his son's despair, wished daily there was a way to turn back the clock and make it all different. He wanted us to know about this if we were to own this woods, this tree, this ground, with children of our own to raise here. I was shaken by such raw sharing and by the obvious sacredness of the spot. We grieved too, recognizing what that day long ago, and every day since has meant to this dear old man and family. Though Lawton lay buried in a nearby neighborhood cemetery, a too-young almost-man lost forever for reasons he never found words to express to others, this spot hallowed by his father's tears was his grave, as this tree witnessed his last act, and his last breath on earth. It became a solemn silent sentinel, not forgetting nor forgotten.
We left the woods untouched until now in our effort to let it restore and heal, and to allow that tree to become surrounded by new growth and new life. Our children all have heard the tragic story of Lawton. They are reminded daily of the precious gift of life they have been given and that it must be treasured and clung to, even in our darkest moments. Morton's tears that watered these woods are testimony enough of his own clinging to life, through his faith in God, and in respect to the memory of his beloved boy.
Morton and his wife now share the ground with Lawton, reunited again a few miles away from the home that was theirs for decades. The woods is opening to our feet, allowing us passage again, and despite the darkness that overwhelms it each fall, the woods bear life amidst the dying. This is what Lawton, unknowingly, has left behind to us as a forever reminder. We will not forget.