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This tree is older than Columbus. Ten years ago my honors students standing in a ring could barely get their arms around it. I took their picture—hands joined, cheeks against the rough wood. Mostly they loved it, but one guy told my friend who supervised his lab, She made us hug a tree. It was the worst class ever.

 

When I think of the tree as a sapling, my mind enters a great quiet. Before the Depression, the yellow fever, before the burning of Oxford, before the University Greys left their classrooms for the battlefield and died or were wounded to a man at Pickett’s Charge, and before Princess Hoka of the Chickasaws set out with her people on the Trail of Tears, this tree sank its roots deep and deeper into the ground. Generations moved about beneath its boughs, spoke and loved and died as it grew.

 

And here it is, still, in the clattering present.

 

Ten years ago I could walk around it, smell it, stroke the lichen on its bark. If I put my hand into the hollow in its trunk right near the ground, it was always cold, always comforting. No matter how brutal the summer, its dark, mysterious lungs kept serenely breathing.

 

Now fences surround it, stakes hold up its branches. No longer do art majors loll on the benches and smoke under its big-leaf shade. A sign warns NO CLIMBING: KEEP OFF. Still, every spring, wet tender leaves unfurl on branches jagged as broken bones, and the tree bursts out in a froth of white petals.

 

And every spring, the preachers line the sidewalk near the tree, and thrust their Bibles as we pass by. Repent and be saved, they say. Turn or burn. I want to tell them, Turn around, turn around, and look at the tree.