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The tall straight timber wore its deep furrowed bark, interrupted only by pockets of life, like a regal cloak of experience. Topped with the familiar triad of green leaves, it looked handsome in it’s deportment but more importantly, it looked different. It stood for years in a tiny grove above the drive and slightly down from our summer gathering place, a bosky plateau which protected our conversations. As it grew unnoticed over time, away from our lives, it became something quite essential to the feathered wildlife in our midst. In some ways it stood as a reminder of the ultimate act of unselfish giving, of being a part of something greater than yourself.
Quietly it took root in the sandy, rock strewn soil of our backyard, the residue tailing of an abandoned gravel quarry. This was one of the unique Sassafras trees which dotted the untamed landscape I had purchased decades earlier. “Fence posts”, was the knowledge impart to me by surveyors and family alike, “sassafras and locust make great fence posts”, they said. My mind wondered briefly as I imagined pioneers opening up the Ohio country and building lines of fences with trees like mine. “And tea, ever have sassafras tea?”, one member of the family asked. “Nope, never”, I replied. To this day it remains one of the long-eluded experiences in my life.
Tea and fence posts aside, as this one particular sassafras, matured along with our family, it became a prized piece of property for countless woodpeckers – not that I ever considered counting them. The half-dead tree contained a solid menu o f avian feasts. While the delicate root system continued to delivered nutrition and sunlight warmed the surface of the leaves, the woodpeckers went about their noisy work. Carving crevices into the woody skin with their rapid-fire tool-like beaks stabbing at the bark, providing both food and shelter in a hallowed-out tree.
This assault took place over and over on the passive timber, which in the end showed acceptance with dignity. For now, the tall growth became more than another tree in the grove. It was the vehicle for sustenance and a provider of shelter. A place to call home for a season and maybe more. Now riddled with non-fatal wounds, the sassafras began to resemble a tower of lodging, a destination for feathered commuters. Up and up the pockets of safety could be seen drilled into the bark, offering a resting place - a humble window from which to peer upon the woodlands around it.
This was the symbiotic relationship of flora and fauna played out right before my eyes in the sassafras hotel. If not for the rat-a-tat-tat sound of the labors of the well-dressed red bellied variety, I would most likely never share notice of his creation. Now, every time I hear the mechanic-like echo of beak to wood, I pause and reflect on what is actually happening.