The Guardian and the Blackjack

In my early teens, my dad bought about seventy five acres of land in North East Texas. The land was beautiful, rolling hills, a creek dividing the property, and about an equal split of pasture and old growth forest, in the  Post Oak region. The trees were mostly oaks and hardwoods with scattered stands pines thrown in here and there. It was right on the edge of the Piney Woods region, and you could drive south east for just a couple of miles and the landscape would change to predominantly pines.

The middle pasture was the largest pasture, covering the eastern face of the largest hill, you'd have to climb it going west from the creek. On the top of that hill, at just about the highest point for a half mile in any direction, was a massive old oak tree. It stood all alone, the nearest tree to it was at least seventy five yards away.

It was probably a Bur Oak or maybe a White Oak. I never investigated back then, oak was a good enough description, and I haven't laid eyes on it in over thirty years.

The trunk was three or four feet in diameter and the boughs drooped so close to the ground you had to duck down forty feet away from the trunk, to get under the limbs. The lower limbs were as large in diameter as most of the older trees in the woods on the property.

The oak looked to be a little more than twice as tall as it was wide so that put the height at between a hundred and a hundred and twenty feet. Tall but not exceptionally tall for that part of Texas. Some of the trees by the creek were taller, but they were no where near as thick in the trunk or canopy. Those trees were also in the woods with a lot of shade on all sides, so only the top limbs reached sunlight. Trees grow to the sun, and away from darkness.

The tree was as perfectly formed as any I've ever seen, no flat or bare sides, a completely round canopy at it's base. This meant that for most of it's life it had been alone on open ground, exposed  to the elements, no thunderstorm winds, or lightning had never damaged it.

It was a majestic sight, when you stood about halfway up the hill and watched the sunsets blaze behind it. It was especially beautiful in the fall when it's leaves were, red or golden, it would turn through a range of colors, from a dark rich summer green, through golds and reds until they fell in a dark brown carpet, to be blown away across the hill top.

I was mostly into science fiction at that time of my life but in my freshman year of college I discovered J. R. R. Tolkien, and my imagination ran wild.

I named the oak the Guardian, and dreamed up stories about it, I thought of it then as a sentinel standing guard over the lands. Protecting all the life around it... I'll never forgive myself for not writing those stories down. It would have taken some maturity, but maybe today I could have turned them into something great. Now those stories are lost.

To me the Guardian was a symbol of strength and resolute determination, everything a man should strive to become. Standing tall, in the face of all the tempest that would try to defeat him. The weathering of what was undoubtedly centuries, couldn't be denied, it had stood proud and tall, undefeated.

There was another tree on the property, it too was a oak, but this was a Blackjack, a smaller species, but one that has some unique characteristics. You can tell you're looking at a Blackjack by looking up into the canopy, if you see twisting coils of blackened dead limbs inside of a healthy green canopy, you've found a Blackjack oak.

If you ever have to cut down an oak tree with hand tools, pray to God almighty that it's not a Blackjack. Sharp axes feel more like sledgehammers when they strike a Blackjack and cut just about as well as a hammer, too.

This tree was the opposite of the Guardian, gnarled and bent, with only a few leaf bearing limbs, way up at the top, maybe thirty or forty feet, down low it was bare. It grew in the southern fence row, alongside the road. It was old and it could have been really old, but there were dozens of larger trees around it and it probably would have died if they hadn't cut the road through giving it some sunlight. Black Jacks need direct sunlight more than most trees. Shading of their own interiors is what causes the interior limbs to die.

When we rebuilt the fence, we tried to cut it down, but it survived our chainsaw, which didn't survive it. The line about the ax and the sledgehammer, was learned from the experience of trying to chop it down with an axe. I have no trouble believing it's still there because it would take heavy equipment to take it down, I looked up the Guardian on Google Earth and it's still there, even though I've had my doubts about it surviving.

These days with a little more learning and life experience, I wonder if the Guardian was so strong after all. My dad destroyed a chainsaw on the Blackjack, and I couldn't break through the bark with an ax. The machete just bounced off and left my arm tingling. We gave up and strung the wire past the tree, and by now it has grown around those wires too, there were already four strands embedded two inches deep in the trunk from the old fence we tore down.

The old Blackjack, had been bent, and limbs had been broken or cut off, it had been starved for sun and it survived. It survived the same weather as all the other threes on the place, but it was stunted and gnarled, it's trunk and few limbs bent and twisted. At the ground there was a burl, and at least one trunk had been broken away, but it still survived. Whenever something got in it's way it turned and grew in another direction. Whenever something broke a limb off, another sprouted, I don't think it ever had very many limbs at one time, but what it had was enough. It survived.

The Blackjack never prospered, in beauty or majesty, while the Guardian had. The Guardian never suffered from it’s environment, it had good soil, and the water it needed, I never saw a scar on the Guardian. It seemed like that Blackjack had never gotten a break. No that's not right, it's entire existence was just a series of scars from all the breaks it had suffered. In spite of what happened to it, it must have had what it needed. It had grown around the problems in it's life and survived.

Now I know that strength can't be measured in beauty and majesty, as much as we desire to see strength in those traits, strength is measured in the adversities you overcome, and the scars you bear shout a testimony of that strength.

Why do we have so much trouble admiring the bent and scared people in our lives? They've been strong and resolute, they've survived more, they have more to teach.

I've come to believe that one of the greatest problems for most people in our society, is that we let our problems define us, let them dominate us. We let the problems of our lives stop us from living the lives we should, all because we can't have what we want right now. Or maybe it’s going to take too much work to earn what we want. Too often we don’t have the strength and resolve to overcome.

We need to learn how to grow around our problems too.



Scott Nelson 11/11/2014


This was originally written about ten years ago, that text was lost on an old computer that died since then. I hope my memory did it justice. SN