I own my oak, my oak owns me

Posted Nov. 13, 2009, at 4:35 p.m.

When I moved to Maine from Massachusetts some years ago, I thought I was buying my house because it offered me a room I could make into a library. I knew the skylights in that room would provide the gift of sunshine throughout the long Maine winters. I also thought I was drawn to the house thanks to the tin ceiling and its 9-inch-tall decorative tin molding, which grace the dining room.

But I know better every autumn when I must rake the leaves that fall into my yard from the magnificent oak tree that stands tall and spreads its branches over my home. That tree must be nearly as old as my 111-year-old house. As tall as anything in my city, it is a proud thing in itself — and in my heart.

Every year when I rake this tree’s myriad leaves, I realize again that this tree is really the thing that led me to settle here. Its fabulously strong, long branches; its bounty of acorns that start dozens of little oaks in my garden every spring; its rough bark so favored by the squirrels who use it as a highway to the sky – all of these things remind me of the oak that towered over my home when I was a girl. And when the wind whips through the branches in November, the sound of this is as close as any sound can be to the late-autumn bluster that inspired me to read Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights” every autumn during an adolescence spent underneath the branches of that other oak.

And so, every year, when I must clear my yard of my oak’s leaves, the task becomes something beyond a chore. While I, like most home owners in autumn, begin the work under pressure to complete it, fully aware that there are numerous additional pre-winter projects that beg to be accomplished, I always end the job almost reluctantly. Even if, this year as in all years past, the raking builds up a blister on my hand; even if it takes quite awhile to accomplish, raking up my oak’s leaves always causes me to ruminate in the most satisfying manner on just what it means to have an oak tree on one’s property.

It is a strange concept to think of owning a living thing. Because this oak stands upon the fraction of an acre of land that is mine, this tree belongs to me. But is it really mine? A resident of my land for a century before the tree was deeded to me, this oak was living long before I was born and it will likely live on after I’m gone, too. And so the tree must surely be something beyond deeds and property lines and one person’s possession. In fact, the oak would seem to own the owner of the tree, at least when its leaves must be raked.

And that, I think, is precisely as it should be.

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