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Wind in the Willows

Fallen trees and resurrected memories.


Knowing how much I loved those willows, my dad and I discovered a very young one near our house along the banks of the James River. We dug it up, took it home and he planted it in our front yard. When I was 7, not long after we moved, we drove past our old house and saw the tree lying in the ditch. The new owners had cut it down because it had grown too tall and was tangling telephone wires. At my insistence, my dad put it on top of his car, carried it to our new house and transplanted it again in another front yard. He cautioned me that it might not live with its root system severed. Remarkably it did. The little willow stood and swayed. It tangled our telephone wires. And it became known to all the neighborhood kids as third base, an essential post that — along with two oaks and an elm — made our yard a decent diamond for games where interference was an undisputed reason to bat or kick again.

I thought about the willow in the wake of Isabel. The morning after the hurricane, my friend and I drove through Byrd Park. My heart sank at the sight. Huge, mostly uprooted trees were everywhere. Willow oaks, white oaks, elms, poplars, pines. Some had survived for generations. A century ago my great-great-grandfather John C. Hann had planted an arbor on the site. He came to Richmond from England in the mid-1800s. He and his wife, Priscilla, lived on a farm where the Carillon, a monument to World War I, now stands. He was the city nurseryman. It was his job to cultivate rows and rows of trees just south of where the reservoir is today. And if his legacy was to yield shade and symmetry in a place that would become a public park, it’s a design he couldn’t make eternal, one Isabel would reconfigure with unearthed and toppled giants.

In time, the fallen canopies will dry up and disintegrate. Trunks will be sawed to pieces and carried away. The landscape will be tidied up. And future generations won’t picture the former canvas as they walk through the park with more sunshine overhead. Of course, new trees could be planted to brush the sky years from now. But I can’t help thinking of the demise of third bases everywhere.

There are spiritual life lessons in trees falling, my mother tells me, because even in the deepest of woods the ones that appear the strongest may not survive. Perhaps they haven’t had to withstand storms of great force or a particular set of circumstances, or else their roots don’t go down deep enough. She tells me how amazed she was after Isabel to see a rose bush with every rosebud intact, every single petal.

On our drive that first morning after the storm, my friend and I came upon a tremendous fallen beech tree. Its trunk was carved with the year 1959 and two sets of initials. We’ll never know who etched the markings or what moment or memory prompted them. What we marveled at the time was that it was one of thousands of trees down and blocking a road. We braced ourselves on its smooth S