Just something I typed up tonight, maybe you can relate?
People often ask me why I run around the country chasing big trees. They ask me how I can “hunt” something that cant run or move. They ask me why these giants of the forest are so important to me. The answer is not really a simple one. I believe I was destined to find them. I believe this because there were many incidents in my life that led me in this direction.
When I was a small child I had a vivid, translucent, dream. I was lost inside a thick forest of sky scraping trees. I had no direction or purpose. Tangled in thick and thorn I struggled on until I came out into a clearing, a grassy glade of soft sunlight. Before me, upon a plateau, was a giant tree, a true “father of the forest”. Its gnarled, twisting trunk, seemed suspended high in the air. It was a species no longer found in our world. Its girth still matches the largest redwoods I have seen in person to this day. Its un-tapering height still has no earthly rival. As I gazed upon it, a deep peace came over me. I felt found. I had answers and justification for the wilderness I had traversed. An ancientness covered my soul. Over the years I have had thousands of similar dreams but none like the first.
My first reality based experience with a large tree was when I was 11 years old. Two of my friends and I were trying to blaze a path to a fishing hole through a second growth tulip poplar forest. We went astray and came upon the edge of a farmers field. When we climbed the fence, there was a massive tulip poplar standing before us. I had always carried the memory of my dream and this seemed eerily similar to me. All three of us stood there for a minute admiring the tree. It stood around 140' high and 22' around the base. Its trunk only seemed to increase in size as it rose. It was definitely old growth and many times older than the trees around it. When I mentioned the tree to my father and other locals in the area, they all knew of it. Many of them had played inside its hollow trunk as children. Even my friends 85 year old grandmother claimed it to be a giant when she was a child. This experience didn’t change my life until I took on a new job many years later. A job my sister had found for me when I was out of work and desperate.
As an employee of a tree trimming service and a subcontractor of the power company, I spent my days high in a bucket, cutting branches away from power lines. Sometimes I was on the ground chipping the logs and branches that fell from above. It was hard, dirty, and dangerous work, but the pay was fair and for a twenty three year old without a college degree, it was a blessing. Sure, poison ivy year round, dog bites, reckless drivers, possible loss of limbs to chain saws and wood chippers, falling logs, and risk of electrocution isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but there is something about one of the worlds most dangerous jobs that assures a young man that he is a man. The crew was filled with real men; burly, hairy, strong, yet mostly uneducated specimens of manhood. This is why it always impressed me when the men began talking about the trees they were trimming. They knew everything about them. Most of the men were veterans and knew how to identify over one hundred different types of trees. They knew their size potential, could estimate their ages, identify their flowers and fruits, and most of all, knew the easiest ways to chop them down. You see, most of the job was in fact trimming, but there were always jobs when felling was required as well. I never minded felling a tree if the job called for it but one job in particular made me uneasy. Next to a road, wedged between power lines and a golf course, was a gigantic Silver Maple. The foreman placed his hand on the massive trunk , turned to the crew and said, “Boys this the second largest Silver Maple in the state, and today she has to come down. “ The tree had been trimmed many times before but was growing too large to be in its location, so the decision was made. I stood next to the bucket truck and watched as one of my crew removed the top branches. Later two of the more experienced men sawed through the trunk and felled the giant. After I helped cut the downed tree into smaller pieces, I walked over to the stump. I got down on my hands and knees and started counting the rings of the tree. One, two, three…eighty-five, eighty-six, eighty-seven…two hundred ten, two hundred eleven, two hundred twelve …Two hundred and thirty years old, or at least that’s what I thought I counted. This tree was alive before the Declaration of Independence and it took less than two hours to bring it down. Although it didn’t change my opinion on felling trees, it did put a tinge of sadness in my heart, and more importantly, peaked my interest in the history of New Jersey’s largest and oldest trees. The rest of my time on the job focused on saving trees rather than destroying them. That summer, I would call up my friends, return to the woods, and rediscover my ancient tulip poplar once again, this time with a whole new admiration.
Over the years I made a point to visit this poplar on the most important days of my life. Through grief and joy, I was looking for answers. I sought the peace I remembered from that slumber so long ago. My girlfriends knew her. My family saw her. The day my grandmother died, I visited her. The morning my first child was born, I sat beneath her branches. When I had a big decision to make, I meditated there with her.
One morning in late 2012 I made my way back through the forest and found that the tree had fallen in a storm a week earlier. Several smaller and weaker trees were shattered in the fall. I had lost a friend. I took one of her last live leaves home with me. It is nestled inside an album next to my first photo of the tree.
Over the years I have beheld some of the worlds largest, tallest, and oldest. I have found lost and forgotten giants and wandered through secret and hidden groves of enchanted trees. I may have dreamed, but I never dreamed anything like this. Wide awake and full of wonder, I’m still amazed at the natural treasures in our world. In spite of this, people continue to ask me the same questions. Why search? Why the trees? Why carry around my childhood dream? I answer with this...
I’ve always found peace in the quiet and solitary places. I’ve drawn my inspiration from the forest and mountains. I have learned that the most perfect peace one can find is alone, surrounded by the arms of nature and God. I can only imagine what it would have been like to explore America when it was an untamed and wild forest. The great unknown and the possibility of discovery has always enchanted me.
I have lived so many places and I have lost so much; my dearest friends, my closest lovers, and myself at times. The changes I have experienced have led me to believe that nothing in life is secure. Friends and family die and lovers leave. Dreams are blown away like dust and precious times slip through our fingers like sand. Uncertainty rages like an angry ocean and the future rises like a tidal wave to wash away the happy moments that we cling to. We are only left with memories. We are only left with ourselves.
I guess in a way I can relate with my giant trees. Some have stood against all odds through a millennium or more. Standing tall and weathering a thousand ferocious storms, steadfast and determined. Countless others smaller and some many times greater ripped away from the earth only to return to dust in their presence. Some were alive as many as two hundred years before the founding of our great nation, watching the children of many generations play beneath their branches.
I too know what it is like to see those close to me die and to weather the storms of life when it seemed as though I was standing on my own. I know what it is like to stand alone, in the middle of a forest or the edge of a field wishing someone would pass by and see how strong and beautiful I was. I have also felt fragile in times of uncertainty and wished to be mighty and everlasting. This is why I admire these old and quiet giants. I stand in awe in their presence and somehow relate to their old and scared trunks. Some have lost their mightiest and most prized branches as I have lost so many important pieces of me. As I sit beneath their shade I am reminded that only the strong survive. Something within this tree and something within me has weathered these storms, and that is why we both stand here today.
In short, I realize now that the tree in my dream as a child was in fact......me. Once I endured the storms of life, I became the tree and I was found. Peace had to be realized through trail and fire.
John D Harvey (JohnnyDJersey)
East Coast and West Coast Big Tree Hunter
"If you look closely at a tree you'll notice it's knots and dead branches, just like our bodies. What we learn is that beauty and imperfection go together wonderfully." - Matt Fox