Trees: Links to the Past and Messages into the Future


Last year my wife and I spent a week or so vacationing with family, visiting Civil War Battlefields. The time was well spent, although sobering to be on the actual soil where so many people died, not that long ago.

This article is not about the Civil War, but about two things I found there that came back to me early this year and reminded me a little bit of why I do what I do. I would like to share a bit with you. I know you are busy… Will you stop and sit with me for a moment?

Cannon shot and metal shrapnel from the Battle of Gettysburg buried in the tree trunk

The first is an object I saw in a glass case at a museum at Gettysburg. It was a portion of a tree five or six feet tall that forked into two limbs. Buried in the tree at regular intervals, all along its surface, were round cannon shot, pieces of metal shrapnel, and musket shot. It was an actual piece of a tree preserved from the battle site. I had already seen some split rail fence sections with musket balls buried in the wood, but for some reason seeing the tree riddled with metal, so much metal, hurled through the air so randomly, and with such force, made the reality of the battle crystallize in my mind. How would it have been possible for anything living to survive under such conditions? The glass case was in the middle of a walkway between two galleries, and people streamed past me, some going one way, some going the other way. I stood, transfixed by this portion of tree so full of metal. It meant something to me, many things perhaps, but thinking this through would have to happen later.

A couple of days later I found myself in one of my favorite places to be: an old house that had been repurposed into a book store. Used books upstairs, new books downstairs. I did what must be done in such a place and began to meander. Eventually I found myself looking at two books very near to each other on the same shelf: Thoreau and the Language of Trees, by Richard Higgins, and The Hidden Life of Trees, by Peter Wollheben. I flipped through the two of them. I only wanted to spend money on one, and they both beckoned to be read. Finally a page from the first book turned open and my eye channeled down to a sentence. I read it, backed up for a bit of context, and stood, transfixed once more, but in a different way than before. I am amazed that the written word can travel forward through time and show that people have always been people, and some will see what others do not while those others also see what someone else has missed.  How will the world be known unless we are willing to receive from one another that which only another can give? We all live in the same world, yet we each have a truly unique and precious perspective.

Here is one such perspective, quoted from page 103, a section titled “I Recover My Spirits”:


Ah, if I could so live that there should be no desultory moment in all my life! That in the trivial season, when small fruits are ripe, my fruits might be ripe also. That I could match nature always with my moods!  That in each season when some part of nature especially flourishes, then a corresponding part of me may not fail to flourish. Ah, I would walk, I would sit and sleep, with natural piety.  What if I could pray aloud or to myself as I went along by the brooksides a cheerful prayer like the birds! For joy I could embrace the earth; I shall delight to be buried in it…  I thank you God.  I do not deserve anything.  I am unworthy of the least regard, and yet I am made to rejoice.  I am impure and worthless, and yet the world is gilded for my delight, holidays are prepared for me, and my path is strewn with flowers.

                                                                                                            Journal, AUGUST 17, 1851


According to the author, it was “the sound of wind in the trees one summer day” that led Thoreau to this exalted state of mind/spirit.

On the one hand, a tree preserved in a glass case spoke to me out of the past to powerfully illustrate the (to me) previously unimaginable conditions of the battle of Gettysburg. On the other hand, a breeze blowing through a forest canopy caused Thoreau’s mind to be  filled with the undeserved beauty of life on this earth and to write words that echoed within me in a hopeful way. Perhaps part of what I am trying to express for you today is that as I visit your properties looking at your trees, every now and then I come across a specimen of magnificence that has passed through several of my lifetimes and more, and yet is still there, alive, breathing, eating, drinking. In a way, living in hope that the world will remain as it has been since the tree was a seedling. As an arborist I can see how it has been battered by ice, wind, and possible disease, but it is still standing despite the scar tissue. I also know there is a very good chance it will be there long after we are gone.

In the same way, a newly planted tree stretching out eagerly to get closer to the sun has the potential to be there 200 years from now, and maybe some other person will hear the breeze moving above, catch the shifting sunlight from below, and wonder about life, and purpose; joy, peace.

Even when a tree is removed the wood is repurposed by people to make useful or beautiful things, some of which can last for centuries.  Either way, whether in natural settings or not, trees live and die, taking and giving, eventually giving back all without complaint, having made the world better for their being in it.

This is why I do what I do.

We all have deadlines, and sometimes mistakes are made. We deal with the negatives with as much grace as we know to give. But sometimes as we trudge along we come to a clearing along the way, and something urges us to stop, to rest, to look about us. Conflicting thoughts appear: “this was not on the schedule”, “I have to…”.

I hope you are able to find an old tree somewhere to stop under. Breathe. Fill your lungs with life, hang onto it for a moment, and be thankful. Then smile at the next few people you run into. 

Wishing you the best for 2019.

Your friendly neighborhood arborist,


José Fernández | Regional Manager, Russell Tree Experts

José became an ISA Certified Arborist® in 2004, and a Board-Certified Master Arborist® in 2015. Currently he is enrolled at The Ohio State University pursuing a Master’s Degree in Plant Health Management. José likes working around trees because he is still filled with wonder every time he walks in the woods. José has worked at Russell Tree Experts since 2012.