Of the Appalachian Diaspora
Text by Stephen J. Quigley
Photographs by April L. O’Brien
They say the universe is still expanding, and I with it. But my circumference is only tightening. The nephew took my keys, sold my car. He blames my eyes—my eyes see fine. The boy, he’s sixty-two now, told me not to walk more than two blocks in any direction. But I will not miss a walk, a mid-fall day like today when the sun backlights the canopy—a spectacle of flashing leaves. Or a late, dark fall day, the rise and fall of heavy boughs, surprisingly supple. Or the sweeping vigor of the dancing half-empty branches. On those windswept days I walk the street in a meandering path round the treetops’ reach, chancing automobiles over an ironic crash of timber, that what I loved so dearly might kill me.
On my walk, the rhythmic shuffle as it has become, I’ve watched a two-hundred-year-old water oak force a sidewalk slab upward, a continental plate colliding with sky, the force spilling mass into chasms and plateaus. I watched city workers remove that same water oak in a single day. The dismantling of a cathedral. I watched the stump rot. Witnessed those same concrete plates sink back into the earth, submerge in time with the root system’s decay, thus completing the Heraclitian paradox. I remember the timber cutter preparing the final cut. He topped off his gasoline, sat on the tree’s root tine, the saw body resting on the ground, its long bar running up past his thin white neck. Like a cellist, bent round his instrument, he worked his slender file, and just as the rosined bow finds the pitch, he found the note of gentle death and sustained it with long, fluid strokes of his file. I saw the mortal angle he manifested, more square than aggressive, so as to slow the dulling of the blade on a low, dirty cut. He ran the bar through the trunk in one long, level motion while other men pounded in orange plastic wedges. The song of the saw. The taste of gasoline. Let it burn in ritual release—memories long forgotten, long suppressed. The crane levers, cable tensions, then slackens as the last fibers tear.
And with a tear—not a cut—the trunk falls. Falls only a moment before swinging upward, downward, falling into an elliptical pattern of uncertain intervals, its every mass determined to reunite with the earth from which it grew. I watched as it swung back and forth, a delicate corpse at the gallows. The only sound the moaning of the taught cable, a substitute for the widow’s lament.
I still walk most of my old route and can tell you exactly where my dogs liked to pee and shit, where they rolled, where they ran, chased the same squirrel—it is always the same squirrel. Where the dogs stopped at this cherry tree, licked, nibbled, knew more than we about the medicine in its bark.
Everyone I know is dead or moved away long ago. Move away and you stay frozen, youthful, desired.
A decaying leaf in the middle of my street. Reluctant death. Pricks me. Death comes.
My understanding is in the leaves, in my trees. That is why I walk. They are not all my trees—some are foreign to me—not the trees of my childhood, not the trees of my youth. Underneath the telephone wires the neighbors plant crepe myrtle. I don’t understand this tree. So resilient. When they reach too high, threaten the electric wires, the power company comes through, hacks them down to trunk. “Crepe murder,” they call it. I know it grows better when left alone, its branches dancing, darting. It’s nice to look at I suppose. My wife loved the pink and white buds. Fearless. Proud. Decided. Resilient tree. But, like I said, I don’t know it. I don’t know what it does other than stay alive and bloom. There has to be more to life than that. I don’t understand the rhizomatic magnolia either. Evergreen in winter, its aromatic sweet gardenia-like flower. My son loved to climb it, poke his head out the top. Magnolias loved him back, understood him as I didn’t.
I prefer the tulip poplars. Their citron leaves fluttering in the sunshine. This late they start to yellow and fall. Two lips, my son would say. Their alien flowers spread big enough to rival that of a magnolia. As a boy, my father knocked the bark off fallen poplars, bark slides right off when the sap is high in summer. He’d fold the bark same as a McDonald’s French fry box, weaving a berry basket, tying it together with strands from the hickory bark. There are no hickories here. Here we have pecans instead—grown thick with bark as black as a walnut. When he was little, I paid my son a dollar a bucket to collect the shells. He wouldn’t.
Here on the sidewalk are the maple death stains. Sugar maples, the hard maple, dominate all others. Over the course of the year it runs the full spectrum of the color wheel. Shades of green, turning to yellow, to red, to purple. I had two sugar maples in the side yard, good climbing trees, too—not just for my boy, but for the neighborhood kids as well. How all the children and the neighbors glared the day I mounted the ladder and hacked off the bottommost boughs. It wasn’t malicious. I wanted the trees to grow tall, give a clear view, but I glared back just the same, heavier, harder, until they turned away. The red maple leaf is the most human. Its central vein runs red year round, reminding us that even in our greenest years, our veins run with blood. The human leaf. The sanguine leaf. The contrast of optimism and blood.
The sun disappears, the wind increases pace, spreading orphaned leaves across the concrete—scattered reminders . . . ephemeral today . . . nestled in the shades of life and death, beneath haunted spires.
Stephen Quigley is a part-time timber cutter, sawyer, and woodworker currently studying at Clemson University. For more information see www.facebook.com/Greenville-Urban-Sawmill-310056909035539.
April O’Brien is a doctoral student at Clemson University where she studies rhetorics, communication, and information design. For more information see www.youtube.com/channel/UCbFzahR1Wtj4ans6cIStlUw