The trail isn’t much of a trail, but rather a wavering line of disheveled leaves, turned by the feet of deer and raccoon. I follow along the bluff, away from the creek, eyes on the ground as the land flattens and the woods run out to either side. In the winter, leafless and spare, you can see a surprising distance through the hardwoods. Overhead, tree branches twist and lattice, dendritic fingers that reach at sharp angles toward the sky.
Or most of them do. Where the deer trail branches and braids through the open woods, I see the three oaks, on a slight knoll, like Golgotha’s crosses. Their branches bolt from the main trunk nearly horizontally, extending like the muscle-corded forearms of a Greek god for 30, 40, and 50 feet through the forest. That’s the first clue. Hiking closer, I see that the branches start much lower than those of other trees. That’s clue number two. And from a distance, before I’m close enough to arch my neck to peer high into the tops of their crowns, each tree seems nearly symmetrical. They aren’t lopsided like trees on the edge of a field, the branches on one side stunted by the shade. There’s no doubt now: These are homestead oaks.
• • •
Even before I knew what they were, and what they represented, homestead oaks struck a deep, familial chord. I’m not even sure where I picked up the term. It refers to a certain sort of large, mature tree — often an oak, but not always — that once grew in the open sun of a farmhouse yard or the corner of a field, but has now been subsumed by forest, surrounded by younger trees that grow tall and spindly.
The ancient homestead oaks are silent testimony to the past lives of the land itself.
In deep woods, oaks grow tall and columnar, the seedlings shooting for the sky, racing all the other trees and brush to grasp as much sunlight as possible. But in the open, in a field or meadow or farmyard, oaks are on the slow burn. They grow thick and squat, with crowns that spread in a great 360-degree circle, like giant green cumulus clouds. Trees like this could shade porches and hold tree swings aloft for generation after generation. They might have once given a passenger pigeon a place to roost, or a Native American a harvest of meal-producing acorns, or a field-plowing mule a break from the sun. But once the old farmstead was abandoned, fields didn’t remain fields for long. An open field grows thick with asters and goldenrod, then cedars and pines, and later the oaks and hickories take root. In 20 years, it might be hard to walk through. In a hundred, you might be able to see through the winter-bare forest to the next ridge. In such woods, the broad, spreading forms of the ancient homestead oaks are silent testimony to the past lives of the land itself.
• • •
As I near the trees, the picture of the past becomes even clearer. I see a tangle of rambler rose, grown wild and spindly. Rambler rose was planted along old farm hedgerows, and could grow thick enough to hem in a backyard milk cow. In a few weeks, I’d bet, the warming rays of the early February sun will tease bunches of daffodils from the base of the oaks. Spot rambler rose and daffodils together with a homestead oak, and you can practically hear an old screen door slamming, and long-gone porch boards squeaking underfoot.
I walk concentric circles, each loop around the trio of trees a bit larger in circumference, searching for other clues to whoever once rested in the shade of these homestead oaks, or toiled in the farmhouse yard below their boughs. Homestead oaks have pointed me to many fine discoveries — old enamelware pots that now corral tools on my workbench, old embossed wine bottles that I’ve repurposed to hold olive oil, shards of pottery, and stacks of wormy barnwood. But today, here, I can’t find a single artifact that suggests who might have lived here. Perhaps someone else recognized these old trees and beat me to a motherlode of rusted bedsprings and old chimney brick. Or perhaps my instincts were wrong about those roses and daffodils, and these old oaks marked a property line or a fence row.
So I step back 20 feet from the trees and look up into their tall crowns, interlaced with the branches of younger interlopers. In this modern era, we’ve lost a kind of arboreal vision. We struggle to understand what a truly old tree can be. A middle-aged oak might be 150 years old, and trees of that vintage are no doubt impressive. But before saws and plows and gristmills, oak trees could live for five centuries. For years, the national champion overcup oak soared more than 155 feet above the forest floor in Bertie County. That’s as tall as a 15-story building.
A tree like that looms like a god in the woods, and as I study their gnarly forms — the lower branches alone the size of a lesser oak — I understand why the Druids held such trees sacred. In Norse mythology, there appears a massive old tree known as Yggdrasil, whose branches reached the heavens.
But I don’t think the old farmers who toiled under these trees were given to such flights of fancy. These old homestead oaks anchored their world. They marked the edge of a farm, or the corner of a field. And when a homestead oak shaded a deep front porch, its autumn leaves piling up against the raised seams of an old metal roof, such an old tree would have been the first thing some farmer of yore would have seen as he made his way back home. I think of him, climbing that low ridge, just as I did, the green tops of these trees rising like a vernal sun on the horizon. These days, you have to work a bit to actually see these trees for the rest of the forest. But once, they stood alone and silhouetted against the sky, a first glimpse of home.