Chapter 16 – Neshnala’s Saga: 1990 (part two)

Like “Kentucky” Coates before her when he’d crossed the creek and saw Neshnala for the first time, Ro was stopped dead in her tracks by the tree’s awesome size. And, again, like Coates, her breath left her in an audible sigh and her mouth dropped open in amazement.

One of her classmates even had to gently, but firmly push her aside.

“Hey, get out of the way, Ro,” the girl had said, more concerned about chasing down a boy who’d made some snarky remark about the size of her butt than the reason they’d come to the park in the first place.

Perhaps like the Sauk Holy Man some two centuries ago, or Coates a century ago, although she didn’t know it, Ro was – unlike her classmates − “ready” to be moved by tree’s overpowering presence. Even as a small child she had already begun to display her special feeling for the woods – what she would later come to think of as her “tree thing” − that would be such a vital force in her life; she loved playing with her brother and cousin in the narrow grove of trees that separated her house from the golf course behind them, and had a particular affinity for a stately old shagbark hickory in the grove.

Ro glanced around, half expecting to see some ‒ most? ‒ of her classmates similarly awestruck. Instead, what she saw was a bunch of kids suddenly freed from their usual classroom behavior restraints, running around, shouting, laughing, tussling; clearly, they weren’t that impressed by an “old tree.”

But she was…

As Miss Landin tried to corral her rambunctious seven and eight-year-olds and start them walking toward the tree to meet Mr. Cummins, the park ranger, Ro couldn’t contain her excitement and headed for the tree ahead of the others, striding along a gravel path ‒ it was part of what the park called the Neshnala Loop Trail and would, eight years from now, when she could drive on her own, become one or her favorite places to go for a long run.

So, she was the first to reach the fence… Fence?

At first, she was confused by the six-foot high chain-link barrier that surrounded the tree, some forty feet out from its base. Although she hadn’t specifically thought about it, she’d assumed she and her classmates would be able to get up close to and even touch the great tree, just like she loved touching the old shagbark hickory.

Later, when Mr. Cummins explained the fence was there to protect the tree from vandals who would harm it, like carving their initials in its bark, she understood, but was still disappointed.

It was Mr. Cummins who explained to the now gathered class that the tree’s name, Neshnala, meant “Tree of Knowledge” and that the Native Americans who had lived in the area several hundred years ago believed the tree was sacred. Of course, this produced snide giggles and contemptuous snorts, which added even more to her disenchantment with her classmates − didn’t they get it?

For Ro Delahanty, Neshnala was not merely an old tree! It was, all at once, Stately and Wise and Humbling and Beautiful; although as an eight-year-old those words weren’t yet in her conscious vocabulary, she nonetheless knew the feeling…

Not really thinking about what she was doing or why – only instinctively knowing it was something important for her to do – she bowed her head to Neshnala to show her respect. It was a gesture she would re-enact hundreds of time over the years toward the many old trees she would encounter on her hikes with her father and, later, on her own runs, like…

To be continued…

(C) 2018 Dave Lager