Tempting Fate

Ominous swords of Damocles have leaned out over my daily path for years — first three, then two, now one; same species, same size, same menacing presence. Yet there we were last Dec. 1, my friend and I, with the help of an aluminum, 24-foot extension ladder, harvesting five pounds of late oyster mushrooms from what is today the last man standing.

I’m speaking of three mature poplar trees with deeply furrowed bark, all of them once standing in solemn, simultaneous silence along the perimeter of a familiar Green River floodplain, all of them girdled around the base by beavers and condemned to slow, tedious death. I knew from the beginning they were doomed to tumble, and have indeed entertained daily caution on my approach. Obviously, if  any of those trees twisted and fell as  I passed, I would  likely  be erased from this planet. But why, I ponder daily while  accelerating  out of harm’s way, would such a tree fall on me? What have I done to deserve such a cruel, random fate? Plus, I guess, I’ve  always tempted the fates and lived to tell about it.

I am reminded of those three threatening amigos when traveling to Montague’s Bookmill or taking the back way to Sunderland and Amherst. On my way down the hill from Poet’s Seat Tower to the Montague City bridge, I pass the flowered, white-cross memorial at the big roadside maple down by the old Kells Farm. There, many moons ago, for reasons beyond human comprehension, that tree decided to shed a muscular overhanging limb onto a passing car, instantly killing the unfortunate, unsuspecting young lady driver. The site to me symbolizes that random tragedy can strike you down from the heavens at any moment. What did that young woman ever do to deserve such a sudden exit? Not a thing. Purely a wrong-place, wrong-time phenomenon. The kind no one chooses or even suspects.

But, let us not digress. Back to my personal conundrum, one that flicks my cranial wheels a whirl daily, and has done so for some 10 years. It all started with a burgeoning beaver colony that eventually passed and left the three ominous, outward-leaning, softwood threats. Two of them, about 10 feet apart at the base and more than a foot wide, leaned out of a marshy backwater over my perimeter path as it neared the lower, southwest corner of a Christmas-tree farm. The other, girdled more recently, was along the riverbank in the opposite northeast corner. I knew that sooner or later, all three would fall out into the tree farm. The question was when and by what force of nature?

Then, maybe five years ago, during a windy, overnight, summer rainstorm, down came one of the big twins in the southwest corner. The deadfall destroyed Christmas trees and necessitated clean-up chores by a hired hand with whom I often spoke. That tree’s partner, girdled shallower, still stands, bark and limbs dropping to the turf now and again. Sooner or later, it too will fall, hopefully when I’m away.

Noontime Tuesday, I’m running a little late due to phone calls and emails discussing an interesting Friday Northampton Meadows archaeological excavation I visited. I’m walking the first leg of my daily ramble with the dogs under cloudy skies, through a lush, shin-high hayfield, the dogs bouncing and looping out in front, heads high in search of scent. Approaching a manure pile and parked farm equipment behind a roadside greenhouse, I notice a young woman sauntering out greet us. I stop to exchange pleasantries and introduce her to Lily and Chub-Chub before wading into a spontaneous political discussion about the sad state of national affairs. Her youth, long black hair, tattooed left shoulder, warm brown eyes and Vermont smile told me she was cool. So, why not engage in brief political/philosophical discourse before parting ways? I am quite familiar with and friendly to Vermonters’ refreshing state of mind. You gotta love it. Why couldn’t Hillary have just stepped aside for Bernie? He would have won.

Our meandering conversation over, and I walk away, take a short path into the upper Christmas trees, circle them and take a deer run through a thin slice of woods between fields, stepping over three strands of grounded barbed-wire. I break into the open and follow the tree-lined upper escarpment edge a couple hundred yards before dropping down into the lower river meadow where poplar danger looms.

I get to the big, girdled poplar in the southwest corner and pass it without incident before swinging east to the riverbank and following a small, rectangular, riverside woodlot, the floor colored green with a deep ostrich-fern shag carpet. About halfway to the northeast corner, near a Christmas tree stripped of its branches last fall by an antlered buck, I notice something out of sorts. The beaver-girdled poplar there has fallen to the ground among Christmas trees, blocking a farm road hugging the edge.

No lie, just the previous day I had stopped and looked into the woods at that familiar tree, examining the trunk all the way to the crown before moving on. Next day, there it is on the ground, broken and battered. I thought it would be the last to go. Not so. Two down. One to go. I do hope that lone wolf soon crashes down to eliminate potential danger.

In fact, I wouldn’t mind being there to see, hear and hopefully not feel the crash.

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