Poisoned Oak :
That’s the problem with cutting down a tree. No one tells you how dangerous it might be. Sure they’ll warn you about falling branches, and staying out of the way while the job is being done, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about how the tree you are about to cut down might be the only thing standing between you and something very bad. Maybe that’s the reason trees have been the object of worship throughout history. Could it be because they are extremely good at keeping things out of our world that we don’t want in it? Or it could be that it wasn’t the tree that was being worshiped, but rather whatever it was that the tree was keeping at bay?
Unfortunately for me, the reason our ancestors started worshiping trees in the first place is something that most of us have long forgotten. Until now.
I bought the house in the spring of 2009. It was on the Old King’s Highway that cuts through Connecticut between New York and Boston. While it no longer qualifies as a highway by today’s standards, it is still a fairly busy road. There is a nice historical marker in the front yard of the house claiming that it had been built in 1700. Of course the previous owners (of which there were many!) had made many improvements to the original house over the years so it had an updated kitchen and bathrooms. It also has a lot of old growth oak trees in the yard. I believe they are black oaks, but I’ve never been one to care that much about this oak or that oak.
There was one particular oak tree in the back yard was bigger and more majestic than any of the other trees in the yard. Its trunk must have measured 6 feet around. Occupying the center of the back yard, all the other trees seemed to defer to it. A tree house or a swing would have seemed right at home in this tree, but it had neither. There was a nice spotlight at its base that pointed up and illuminated the tree at night. Day or night, the oak was really nice to look at and best of all it provided excellent shade for the back deck on hot summer days.
And then it started to die.
I can’t really pinpoint exactly when it started to die, but in the spring of 2010, when the leaves began to come out, I noticed that a couple of the top branches stayed bare. I didn’t think it was cause for any immediate alarm. If they stayed bare, I’d just have them removed. So when they were still leafless in the middle of June I hired an honest tradesman to come over and take those branches down. He and his team made quick work of it, and I didn’t think anything about the fact that they broke one of their buzz saws on the first branch they tried to cut off. I figured it was a tough old tree, and a broken buzz saw was one of the hazards of the job.
A couple of weeks later I noticed that on some of the other branches on the top of the tree the leaves had started to wilt and turn brown. As the wilting and dying began to spread to additional branches I became more concerned. By the end of July the bark on the branches where the leaves had first died began to slough off and accumulate at the base of the tree. It was time to seek professional help so I called in an arborist. She examined the tree and quickly came to the conclusion that it was suffering from something called hypoxylon canker. And the really bad news was that there is no known cure for hypoxylon canker once the symptoms have appeared. The disease is internal and kills the sapwood of the tree. The mighty oak was going to die within months.
It was shortly after getting this grim diagnosis that I noticed something else. My wired-haired dachshund Baxter had a habit of lying down at the base of the trees in my back yard. In the dog version of “hope springs eternal”, he was convinced that a squirrel would one day be stupid enough to climb down the tree into his waiting paws, and barring that, perhaps fall out of the tree. He spent his days this way under every oak in the back yard at one time or another. Except the one that was dying. At first I imagined that he could sense impending death in the dying oak. But that wasn’t it.
After some observation I realized that he didn’t bother lying under that tree because there were never any squirrels in it. I could see squirrels in every other tree in my backyard. But not in the dying oak. Not only that, there were no birds in the tree either. Not a single bird on any branch, regardless of whether the branch still had leaves or not. That hadn’t always been the case with the dying oak. It had formerly been full of squirrels and birds. I considered it strange, but didn’t really give it too much thought. There wasn’t really any logical reason why animals would avoid a particular tree. Little did I know at the time that I was right about there being no logical reason the animals would avoid a certain tree. It wasn’t the dying tree the squirrels and birds were avoiding. It was something else entirely. And as the tree died, it was getting closer to getting out.
Through the rest of that summer and into the fall the tree continued to lose leaves and bark. It was apparent to anyone looking at it that it was dying. It occurred to me to have it taken down and be done with it, but I couldn’t bring myself to do that. I had the weird sense that the oak was fighting back, and not simply bowing to the inevitable. If that was the case, I was going to give it every opportunity to succeed. But branch by branch the tree continued to die until only the lowest ones had any leaves on them. By now it was October and all the oaks began to lose their leaves, so by the time all the trees were bare I couldn’t be sure whether the dying oak was gone, or it would once again sprout some leaves the following spring.
The footprints appeared in March. We’d had a late winter snowfall of about 6 inches of snow, which had tapered off in the early evening of the 20th. I remember the date only because the next day was the vernal equinox–the first day of spring. When I woke up on the morning of the 21st and looked out the back window of my bedroom I noticed several pairs of footprints in the backyard leading up to the dying oak. The footprints then spread out around the tree in a circle at the base. I threw on some clothes and a coat and then, accompanied by Baxter, went out to investigate. I gave Baxter a brief look of reproach as we left the house and his expression seemed to say “Well apparently you didn’t hear anything either”. It wasn’t easy to determine exactly how many people had been in the back yard, but my guess was around six. By the look of things they had formed a circle around the tree.
I didn’t have any idea who they were or why they had come. It occurred to me that this may have not been the first time they had been there. The only reason I knew about this visit was the footprints in the snow. There was no other evidence that people had been there. I followed the footprints out of the back yard to see where they had originated. They dead-ended at the street in front of my house, which had been plowed earlier in the morning. So all I really knew was that a group of people had come into my backyard sometime during the night and gathered around the dying (or maybe dead) oak tree. Their purpose for the visit was a mystery to me. I decided that the best thing to do was to start leaving the spotlight at the base of the tree on all night. If they intended to make another visit, that might act as a deterrent.
Soon the weather started getting warmer and the trees in the yard began to sprout buds of new leaves. I waited anxiously to see what would happen to the dying oak. Was it dead, or did it have some life left in it yet? As the days went by it eventually became clear to me that there would be no new leaves on the tree. It was gone. It saddened me more than I expected to see the dead tree surrounded by new life in the backyard. The sooner I had it removed, I decided, the better. In early June I contacted the honest tradesman who had earlier removed the dead branches and asked him to come back and remove the entire tree, including the stump.
I was still on the phone with the tree service looking out the back window at the tree when I first noticed what appeared to be a symbol carved into the trunk. Making the appointment for later that week, I hung up and went out into the yard to take a closer look. Sure enough, something was carved into the tree’s trunk. It was plus sign with a circle or ring surrounding the intersection of the lines. The intersecting lines measured about six inches each, and the diameter of the circle was around four inches. I had no idea who had carved it there, though I suspected it was related to the footprints I had seen in the snow back in March.
I took a picture of the carving with my phone and uploaded it to Facebook to see if any of my friends recognized what it was. Within an hour one of them posted that it resembled a Celtic cross. Sure enough, when I compared my picture to images of other Celtic crosses I found on the web, that’s exactly what it was. Specifically the pre-christian version before the cross morphed into the christian cross. Now that I knew what it was, it was time to figure out why it was carved into the tree in the first place. A little research was all it took to learn that the symbol was used by the pagan Celts as protection against evil spirits and spiritual dangers.
Armed with this new knowledge, things began to fall into place (or so I thought). I came to the conclusion that some local wiccans/druids/whatever you want to call them had zeroed in on my dying oak and come to the conclusion that it represented a threat in some way. That would explain the visit on the spring equinox–the oak tree played a central role in the druid rites associated with it (you can learn a lot very quickly with the Internet!). And the same folks had likely been the ones to carve the Celtic cross into the trunk. I guessed that both of these actions were efforts to remove whatever threat they supposed the tree represented. My plans were a bit more modern–cut it down.
Over the next couple of days I noticed that the dead oak started to lean to the right. Each morning its lean was a little more pronounced. It was as if someone or something was pushing it out of the way. Baxter started to avoid going anywhere near the tree. Which was interesting because I had assumed the digging at the base of the tree was his work. Most of ithe digging was on the side of the tree opposite from the direction in which it leaned. My mistake was to assume that something was digging into the ground at the base of the tree rather than digging out. Frankly, it would have been difficult to tell the difference. In any case, with the lean getting worse, I grew more anxious to get the tree down.
As planned, on Friday morning the tree crew showed up ready to take it down. If any of the team noticed the Celtic cross carved into the tree they didn’t mention it. They went right to work starting with removing the top branches first. As they worked their way down the tree I tried to ignore the growing unease I felt. It seemed irrational, but nevertheless the feeling lingered. Around midday the tree seemed to give a slight lurch further to the right, knocking one of the men cutting the branches off balance and causing the branch he was working on to suddenly break off. It fell to the ground and delivered a glancing blow to one of the other men. It hit him hard enough to knock him to the ground, and when he stood back up it was obvious he had dislocated his shoulder.
After the hurt worker was loaded into one of the trucks and driven to the ER to get his arm looked it, the remaining men went back to work on the tree. By early afternoon the only thing left was the stump. The smaller branches had been loaded into the wood chipper and chopped into small pieces. The larger branches and trunk were cut into small logs and loaded on the back of one of the trucks. They now brought in the stump grinder and turned what remained of the trunk and visible roots into a pile of wood chips that were then shoveled into the back of one of the trucks. After that there was nothing left to do but to pack up, and as they prepared to leave I thanked them for their work. Then it was just me and Baxter in the backyard. I walked over to where the tree had once stood. I would need to put sod over the area. It was now just a few scattered wood chips and loose dirt.
That was three days ago. A lot has happened since then. The first morning after the oak was cut down I noticed there was a hole in the ground where it had stood. It wasn’t very large, but it looked impossibly deep. Even if Baxter had the nerve to go near the spot, it wasn’t a hole he could possibly have dug. The second morning the hole was bigger and still impossibly deep. Around the edges of it was bits of fur and pieces of bone of some unidentified animal. There were also markings in the dirt that looked like it had been clawed by a very large animal. The claw marks radiated outward from the hole. I spent the rest of that day getting bags of dirt from the Home Depot and filling in the hole. Only it never quite filled up
That was yesterday. This morning I woke up and found the hole was back and bigger than ever. There were footprints of several different people in the dirt around the hole. It wasn’t like the time they had appeared in the snow, rather it looked as if there had been some kind of struggle. The only other thing I found in the dirt with a necklace with a Celtic cross hung from it. The necklace was broken, but I put it in my pocket anyway. That was 12 hours ago. As it got dark I started to hear noises coming from the backyard. Baxter didn’t come back from his after dinner trip outside, and didn’t come when I called him. I did eventually hear him start barking. And it wasn’t a confident sounding bark. Baxter sounded terrified.
I’m beginning to suspect that it was never the tree that was the danger. The ceremony on the spring equinox, the Celtic cross carved into the tree were both designed to give it the ability to continue its job as jailer even if it died. Cutting it down was likely the last thing I should have done. And now something has come up from underneath where the oak once stood imprisoning it. I don’t know what it is, and I don’t know what it wants, but I hear it outside the house’s back door. Baxter’s barking stopped long ago with a strangled yelp. Maybe between the broken buzz saw and the dislocated shoulder the oak had been trying to tell me even a dead tree is better than no tree. I don’t think I will ever know the answer to that. That’s the problem with cutting down a tree. No one tells your how dangerous it might be.