How lonely, how confusing it must be for one small cedar that now sits on a slight rise ten yards north of ocean’s edge at high tide, taller than anything on the vast beach for a thousand yards to the east, west, and south. Though it seems firmly seated, the certainty of rootlessness makes mockery of the green branches. How can something so young and sturdy in appearance be already dead, sap no longer flowing, without memory now of the forest or⎯for certainly this is why it appeared on a beach in early January⎯of ornaments that glittered on it just a week ago? By surmise and evidence its trunk was severed at least a month before its debut as a beach ornament.
But how do I know whether it died when its roots were cut? Maybe it retains sensibility until all green goes brown and needles blow away, leaving only stick limbs and gray trunk.
And why does it amuse me to anthropomorphize a tree?
Three days after Christmas I saw a car on the causeway with a tree tied to its roof, heading onto the island instead of to some landfill on the mainland. I thought the tree was destined for the dunes, where it would serve as part of a groin⎯I read somewhere that beach authorities devised that fine idea for the disposal of Christmas trees. Maybe that was the car that brought this small cedar onto the island for one last upright fling⎯certainly it cannot long withstand the wind at ocean’s edge, and it will die of loneliness, if not of a gale, lacking as it does the companionship and shelter of its fellows.
Was thought given to where the tree would be left? It is planted naturally enough, trunk in the sand, but was that a conscious decision? Did the prankster who left it there by the water consider that it might be even funnier⎯odder⎯if the tree were put into the sand top down, with its trunk exposed as my butt would be if I were planted on the beach head-first? No, I think the intended joke was just a lone Christmas tree (for surely that’s what it was, for one glorious month of its several years of life) on an isolated beach. And whatever its orientation is to the sun, that, too, had to be random, for I can’t imagine any thought was given to what exposure would be most comfortable for the tree. Does something so perfectly round have a side? And if so, is its east side now facing north? Are branches that used to greet the dawn now astonished by sunsets?
Is it at all comforted by parasites remaining within it, bugs or worms who’ve clung to it steadfastly through uprooting and decorating and bells and music and oohing-ahing over gifts and squabbling at dinner about who will do the dishes or why Grandma doesn’t like Uncle Joe? Do sandpipers occasionally sit on it and remind it of the robins and wrens and crows and cardinals that flew in and out of its branches, or the occasional nest that housed a feathered family for a brief season?
If a tree falls at the edge of the sea and no one is there, does it cry out? Does it yet retain enough life that it can hear the incessant moan of the offshore buoy, a forlorn mourning every minute or so, always the same monotonic call, day in and year out?
The circle drawn in the sand around the little tree seems to say “keep your distance”⎯did whoever abandoned it intend that it should have its own DMZ, a delineated territory five feet in diameter, on a beach that is itself a demilitarized zone fifteen miles from the daily mortar practice at nearby Camp LeJeune? The constant booming, at a safe distance, almost comforts me in its thunder-like rumblings. Does the tree feel the trembling of the shore that follows every detonation? Does it fear a misjudgment by rookie marines with the power to blow up an offshore island just for practice?
Or is my supposition totally wrong? Did someone bring a sapling, complete with root ball, and plant it as a solitary sentry at ocean’s edge, just to see what would happen?
Well, little cedar, while you stand you have solitude and a great view. Maybe seagulls love your berries. Who am I to know?