My latest story to Reedsy about a sycamore tree and what it means to the community. Some see it as an eye sore while other cherish the giant with open arms.
In the Shade of the Sycamore Tree
Westbrook is a small community in the hilly regions around the McKenzie River that came to be because of lumber and the unquensible need for wood needed for a growing nation. The sound of chainsaws and aroma of sawdust characterized this corner of Oregon. The lumberjack camp is no longer there, but the history of this small town was written in logs and pulp used for paper products of all kinds. When restrictions were placed on forests depleted by constant harvesting in the 1960’s, companies depending on the lumber turned a lot of places into ghost towns. Legacies became legends, old lumberjacks told stories of the rugged land yielding a rich harvest as once thick forests became farmland. Through it all, Westbrook seemed to float through it like a log floating down the McKenzie River, developing a rich tradition of people who respected the trees that grew around the area.
Jade Pollard, now into her eighties was the keeper of the stories a hushed wind would whisper as it passed through the top of the canopy of Clatsop Woods. As a member of the Chinook people, Jade wore traditional beaded shirts made of buckskin. Part owner of the Pom’s General Store, she is a vital part of the community along with her three sons Micha, Jed, and Andy, each built like a solid brick building. They were only a couple of years apart from each other in the early and mid-twenties. Unlike their mother, each of them were as taciturn as they could be. Even Mayor Cletus Rumbug could not outshine Jade’s bright star, but he was as round as a man could get, sweat a lot even on mild days, and had a high pitch voice that rose as he got angrier and angrier. While there may have been better candidates for his job, it was his knowledge of the folky ways of Westbrook that made him the Favorite Son. It also didn’t hurt that his father Duane was mayor for thirty years until he dropped dead in his office leaving his son Cletus to take over the mayor’s office he currently occupied.
Between Westbrook City Hall and the Pom’s General Store was a massive Sycamore tree that even bore the name president who came to commemorate the legendary tree back in 1903. The Teddy Roosevelt had spread its branches over the roof of city hall and the general store for over a century. It had come to symbolize the town itself as it had been spared the lumberjack’s ax back in October 1893. The tree had been there for two world wars and several conflicts along the way. There is a special patriotic bunting that Jade and her three boys hang on Teddy when there is a special event planned. Tradition says that the community joins hands at the end and sings “How Great Thou Art” before Mayor Rumbug sends everyone home with “Have a great day, folks.”
“Tree is sick.” Declares Horace Maynard the veterinarian after a Fourth of July celebration. A thin, relatively unsubstantial man with thick glasses and a large bald spot atop his head. His diagnosis came from years of working with furry creatures both big and small, but he was not a botanist and this gave Jade some doubts.
“Why do you say that?” She asked as her boys were taking the buntings off the tree and rolling them up into neat bundles.
“I think it’s fungal, but if it gets into the pulp, it could kill Teddy.” He slapped the thick trunk of the famous tree. Between his fingers, Horace snapped off a piece of the bark and held it out to Jade. “See here.” He pointed, “This is fungal rot.”
Jade took the piece of bark from him and looked at the sample closely, but since she was not a botanist either, she had no ideas of what she was looking at. She smiled and handed it back to him.
“This could very well be the end of Teddy Roosevelt.” He shook his head and put his hands on his hips. His stethoscope dangled around his neck like an exotic necklace.
“I would like a second opinion.” She tilted her head as she often did when she was having a disagreement with someone.
“Wise. I am not a tree doctor, but after all these years of working with living creatures, I have developed a sense. I know I’m right, but it would be good to actually get the opinion of an arborist.” He smiled and waddled away.
Simon Guererra was the closest arborist. Driving up in a beat up 1950 Ford pick up, he greeted Jade with a wide smile beneath a rather thick Zapata mustache and a large calloused hand for her to shake. “I am Simon Guererra, tree specialist.”
“Jade Pollard.” She shook his vice grip hand.
“So, this is the patient.” He stood and looked up at Teddy until his head was nearly contacting his back. “This tree is very impressive, no?”
“Yes, Teddy Roosevelt has been part of this town since its inception.” She could not help putting her hands on her hips and joining him in a gander of the tree whose branches covered the sky as they stood under it.
“Teddy is nearly three hundred years old.” He wiped the back of his already sweaty neck with a red rag he removed from the back pocket of his overalls.
“How can you tell?” Jade tilted her head.
“There are many ways to tell.” He chuckled. “And this tree shows the maturity associated with great age.”
“So is he dying?” Jade tilted her head the other way.
“No. Three hundred is not that old for some of these trees.” He shook his head. “But if the fungus has gotten to the center, it will die soon.”
“Is there any way to save him?” Jade asked hopefully.
“We shall see.” He grinned, “We shall see.”
“This tree represents our community.” She added.
“It is very beautiful.” He patted the trunk of the massive tree.
For years electricians and plumbers had warned the City Council the root system of this giant could start to invade the buried pipes and wires that kept the water running and the electric lights on. So far that had not been a problem. Teddy was a model citizen of Westbrook.
Mayor Rumbug watched Simon climb and descend from his wooden ladder after taking samples using a simple knife, leaving the mayor to wonder just how skilled he was at his job. His old truck would belch clouds of thick smoke when he started it up and would continue to smoke as he drove it down the street.
“So, what do you think of Simon Guererra?” Mayor Rumbug asked Jade who was sitting at the counter of the Chicken Roast Cafe with Jed her son.
“Seems to know what he’s doing.” She sipped her tea.
“Do you have any idea what he’s doing?” He asked sitting in the vacant stool next to her at the counter.
“He is testing samples.” She tilted her head.
“Any idea of what he has found?” Mayor Rumbug was getting agitated.
“Nope.” She sipped her tea as if his question had no weight.
“I don’t want to pay a bill and not know what I’m getting.” He exhaled as if he had been holding his breath. He stood up and shot her a glance, “We need to know what is up with Teddy by two weeks.”
“Why two weeks?” She asked while sipping her tea.
“I don’t want that eye sore here if it’s on its deathbed.” He slapped the counter with his open hand.
“Deathbed? Are you serious. That eye sore has been with us since the start which is a trifle bit longer than the rest of us can lay claim to.” She shook her head and held out her mug so the waitress could fill it with more hot water.
“Two weeks.” He huffed as he walked out the door without ordering a single thing.
“Mama, you should run for mayor. You’d win easy.” Jed pointed out.
“Why on earth do you hate me so much, son?” She was dunking her tea bag in the hot water. They both laughed. “How was your sandwich?”
“Good as always. I’ll pay, mama.” He reached for his billfold.
“You are a good son.” She smiled as he put cash on the counter.
It was April 1893 when Chief Halamaya sat beneath the Sycamore long before it had got its name. He was wearing a very elaborate Chilcoot blanket so that the government men he was meeting would know he was the chief of his people. He would also become the great-grandfather of Jade Pollard, but at this point of time, he was going to sign a document that would allow his people to fish for salmon as they had for hundreds of years.
Accompanied by a troop of cavalry troops, the three government men dismounted and approached the chief. One of the men carried the treaty he was to sign. His brother sat to his right and was his trusted advisor. Chief Halamaya put on his reading glasses that the eye doctor at the Indian post had given him. He knew how to read English since his parents had sent him away to a mission school. He carefully read the document, but stopped suddenly. He turned to his brother and they spoke in their own language before Chief Halamaya turned to the government men and said, “This treaty prohibits the fishing of the river.”
“It is a minor oversight.” The man who gave him the treaty assured him.
“Minor?” He peered over his glasses at the man. “It is our people’s way of life.”
“We will provide all the provisions you need. You won’t need to fish anymore. We will provide.” He smiled as if this was the deal the chief wanted.
“No! I will not sign.” He shoved the document back at the man who had given it to him. A few of the soldiers lifted their rifles and pointed them at the chief. He was no fool. He had full knowledge of what they had done to Sitting Bull at Pine Ridge three years ago. He knew he had no choice. He turned to his brother who shook his head and shrugged in futility.
“The river will no longer be a part of your way of life as there are plans to build dams to provide power for our factories.” He handed the document back to the chief who was carefully watching the soldiers. Tears stung the chief’s eyes as he and his people would no longer fish in the river their ancestors had used to sustain them. He picked up the pen and signed.
The years that would follow was like the rape of their lands as lumberjacks cleared the forests and the rivers became clogged with dams. Dams came from the whitemen with little regard for Nature of her ways. The provisions were never enough and anyone complaining about it would be denied services. Corruption became common and Chief Halamaya’s son Chief Stoma proved to be a weak leader who allowed the corruption and bribes to take place.
One day some lumberjacks came to take down the tree Chief Halamaya had designated as the tree of his people. Many believed that the souls of the ancestors inhabited the tree. When the tree cutters came to take down a tree that would provide them with a lot of lumber, a human chain formed around the tree that included the daughter of Chief Stoma who held her grandfather’s hand.
“Move aside.” The foreman demanded the natives to move, but they would not and through some miracle, the lumberjacks were told to leave the tree be. Two years later in a cross country tour of National Parks, President Roosevelt came to officially dedicate the tree. Many of the Chinook people decided to build a town like the white people did and Westbrook resulted in their efforts. Because of the remoteness of the town, Westbrook never really grew very much which was just fine as the citizens were concerned.
“Tree is fine.” Simon declared. The Fourth of July was just a few days away and Mayor Rumbug had contacted a tree removal company to take down Teddy before the Fourth. Taking the document from Simon’s hands, Jade ran over to City Hall to personally hand the document to the mayor.
“Tree is healthy.” Jade panted.
The mayor put on his reading glasses and read over the document, he smiled and said, “Here. Right here, it says, and I quote, ‘Tree could develop fungal diseases if not properly cared for.”
“We will care for it.” She averred.
“This tree means that much to you?” He was a bit surprised at her vehemence and firm resolve.
“Yes. My people consider that tree sacred.” She explained.
“It is an eye sore.” He huffed.
“To whom?” She tilted her head.
“To all the citizens who have to live with the pollen and the root system that prevents us from building new structures or repairing old ones.” He stood and looked out the window. All he could see were branches and leaves and not much else.
Then she remembered, his brother had a building company not far up river. He wanted to build some new buildings and keep his brother’s company employed. Westbrook was not really in need of new construction, but making some improvements on old structures might not be a bad idea. Still the mayor wanted progress even when progress was not called for. Just to be able to look out a window and not see the leaves and branches was enough to remove the eye sore. Her great-grandfather sat under that tree and signed a treaty, President Theodore Roosevelt came all the way from Washington D.C. to dedicate this tree, and the very center of the town was built around the tree where the souls of their ancestors dwelled. Was a sunken battleship that had leaked oil since it sank in 1941 an eye sore? They built a memorial right over it to commemorate the crew of the USS Arizona who had perished with their ship. Was that tree any different?
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Pollard, but my mind is made up. I have contacted the R and R Company to remove that eye sore.” He handed her the document back.
He had already made up his mind.
“They will be here first thing on Monday.” He put his hands behind his back and rocked on his heels.
With only two days left, her sons Micha, Jed and Andy went around to all the citizens of Westbrook, handing out fliers about what was to take place on Monday morning. In the pamphlet was the story of the sycamore tree named after Teddy Roosevelt.
Monday morning at around eight, two trucks rumbled into Westbrook with the intention of removing the eye sore. The R and R trucks came to a complete stop in the road that ended at the base of the tree. The crew stumbled out of the trucks and could not believe what they were seeing. Clyde Kruger walked out of the truck he was driving.
Nearly every citizen of Westbrook was there. Each of them holding hands, forming a human chain around the base of the giant tree.
Taking his bullhorn, Clyde spoke to the crowd, “Please disperse. We have been contracted to remove this tree.”
“We are not budging.” Jade stepped away from the crowd.
He got on his cell phone and within minutes Mayor Rumbug was standing next to Mr. Kruger.
“Go home.” The mayor yelled into the bullhorn, but not a single person moved.
Jade tilted her head and said loud enough for everyone to hear, “We are not going to budge.”
And they didn’t. They conversed, they drank and ate lunch, they remained until dusk when the R and R trucks finally retreated. The mayor addressed the crowd, “As your mayor, I am so disappointed at what you have done. You have stood in the way of progress. You have turned your back on making this town a welcoming place to come. This tree represents blocking the future with rustic values and old fashion ideas. How can we move forward if we allow things like this to stand in our way? The Fourth of July celebration is tomorrow. There will be a parade on this very street, but must stop here because of this roadblock.”
The citizens stepped away from the tree. Around the trunk there were three buntings tied in place. A cheer arose from the crowd.
The election that followed the voters chose a different mayor; Jade Pollard beat the incumbent by a two to one margin.
Progress can be a tricky concept. Sometimes progress can happen under the peaceful shade of a sycamore tree.