In spring, I used to search for caterpillars among the azaleas at the base of an oak tree in our backyard. The tree was ancient and enormous — at least 100 feet tall, it towered over our white brick ranch — and for three-quarters of the year, it shaded my swing set and Mom’s flowers and dogwoods and the squirrels and birds and bumblebees that called our backyard home.
In summer, the oak seemed to swell in the North Carolina heat, and I waited later and later in the day to play beneath its branches, often venturing beyond our screened-in porch only after the lightning bugs’ luminous bottoms blinked and flashed in the darkness.
In fall, the tree unleashed its annual torrent of acorns onto the patio — rat-a-tat-tat, like rain on a tin roof, and the observant squirrels came running, darting through the grass and the pine needles and Mom’s dormant azaleas to collect their treasure. Then, as the days turned shorter and the nights grew cooler, the oak dropped its leaves by the hundreds, the result a venerable carpet of fire until it shriveled and dried and browned and got carted to the curb in black plastic bags that stretched and strained against twist-ties.
In winter, the tree stood tall against the crisp, cold sky, its naked branches somehow even more beautiful in stark relief. Even as a small child, I understood the grace of a deciduous tree that had lost its leaves was heightened by the promise that come spring, its branches would burst with new life.
In that sense, at least, human life is no match for the life of an oak tree. After all, most oaks become more magnificent in their old age, towering over the landscape as ours did before a hurricane unabashedly took it in 1989. They require no anti-aging serum or magic elixir, only carbon dioxide from the air and water from the ground. In fact, some of them can live for upwards of 200 years, long enough to shelter six or seven generations of caterpillar seekers and thousands of acorn eaters.
Humans, on the other hand, drop in for only a short visit on the highway to heaven, human life like the fleeting flash of the summer lightning bug and sometimes even shorter. Like the leaves of the oak tree, our stories burst into being and unfurl into brilliance. Then, gradually or suddenly, they end: like the weightless autumn leaf riding a gentle breeze all the way down, or the heavy acorn striking hard-packed earth.
One life ends, and elsewhere in the world, new life begins. Night comes, and darkness takes hold, swallowing even the lightning bugs, but not for long:
Tomorrow, the sun will rise.