The sap is rising in our backyard. Spring has finally sprung (we think), after a couple of false alarms, and signs of life abound. Our redbud is budding red, our wahoo is leafing out and preparing to flower (Wahooooooo!!), our surviving maple is making myriads of samaras and joyously spreading pollen to the four winds.
We had another maple once, which suffered an untimely and rapid demise due to unknown causes (but I suspect the unpredictable weather of recent years may have been involved). About twelve feet of it remain in our backyard as habitat, a large monument of a stump, peeling a little more bark every year. I suspect this year or the next will see the last of the bark, leaving the bald wood to face the elements and offer what sustenance it can to boring insects and hammering birds.
It was not so long ago an exuberant tree, which is why its death was so surprising. One spring, not many years ago, I remember being amazed when I found sap literally dripping from its twigs. No rain in sight and clear liquid hanging in drops. I tasted one. Sweet.
And as I sampled the sap, I remembered another tree, in another time and another place. An oak.
Back in the day in Southern Illinois, my friend Al and I used to go fishing. Night fishing. Something would trigger the old impulse—stressful day at work, boredom, or just what the hell—and one of us would call the other and say “I hear the fish calling.” That was the signal for packing a couple rods in the trunk, picking up some beer and munchies and heading out to Devil’s Kitchen Lake. We would generally get out there while the sun was comfortably above the horizon, assemble the rods and bait our lines, cast them out and pop the tab on whatever beer happened to be on sale that day.
All the lakes in Southern Illinois were artificial, and Devil’s Kitchen was no exception. It sported shattered masts of drowned trees protruding above the surface, reminders of old canyons and valleys now submerged. The rocky point we fished from must once have been a little bluff, but now it was just a good place to sit, watch the sun go down and pretend to angle for bullheads. We were not high-falutin’ bass or crappie fishermen. We fished chicken livers right down on the bottom.
One spring, years back, we were doing just that. The sun was dropping down low, sending lazy sparkles skipping across the waves, while we baited our hooks, cast our lines, opened our beers and did what we came to do. That involved a lot of silence, watching the scenery, sometimes arguing the issues of the day (Al was generally wrong), and, very occasionally, reeling in a fish. The sun would drop down, the stars would slowly come out, the air would cool, the mosquitoes would come and then go again, and peace would just reign. Stars wheeled across the night sky in the kind of splendor that is never seen in more populated areas.
One late afternoon, after we had deployed our tackle, we were sitting on the rocks and sipping our beers, when a sound disturbed our tranquility. How do I say this delicately? It was a sound that would engender very red faces in a church, very loud laughter in a bar, and an embarrassed “Oops” among family. Essentially, it was a fart.
I looked at Al. Al looked at me. Raised eyebrows all around.
“Playing innocent?”, I said.
“Look who’s talking,” he replied. Yeah, right. I mean, we’re two guys fishing and drinking beer. Might as well admit it, right? But nothing more was said, and tranquility resumed. Until it happened again.
I won’t go into detail, but guys out fishing in these circumstances have senses of humor that make most women shake their heads in despair at ever getting us to some semblance of civilized behavior. We, as I recall, were no exception. Appropriate jokes, noises and hoots were exchanged, but still neither one of us accepted responsibility for the source of the merriment.
And again came the rude noise. But this time we got a better directional fix on it, noticing that is was from somewhere slightly behind us. The only living thing of any size in that location was an oak tree, seemingly growing right out of the rock, and as we watched it happened again.
Al and I glared at each other, as if to say, “See! Told you it wasn’t me!”, then I returned my attention back to the tree. I noticed a swirl of motion that I hadn’t seen before, a swarm of insects near the base. As I drew closer, the swarm resolved itself into ever-changing combinations of bees, flies and wasps centering on what seemed to be a wet patch of bark. Hunkering down, I watched and waited, and soon was rewarded by a vulgar noise and a splatter of liquid from what looked to be a crack in the tree. Insects were crawling over the wet patch, frantically slurping up what must have been some mighty fine sweet sap of spring, released by the relentless build-up of pressure and vented by a wound in the tree’s xylem and bark. Our very own Old Faithful Geyser! Building and building until something had to give, astounding the tourists!
Mystery solved! Al and I opened another beer and solemnly (more or less) christened the tree Quercus flatus—a species hitherto unknown to science. The point we fished from was renamed “Farting Oak Point” from whatever name it may have once had in the past, and it is known by that moniker to this day by at least two people.
That may have been the night that we were so humiliated by our lack of fish that we stopped at the legendary Arnold’s Market of Carbondale to pick up some frozen catfish to take home to our wives. Or that may have been another night. At any rate, a fine time was had by all under a gorgeous spring sky brimming with stars, and sanity was restored. Peace and quiet had (mostly) reigned, and the fish were amused by our good-natured incompetence. Of such nights are memories made.
Farting Oak Point is still there, but I haven’t seen it in many years. The Crab Orchard Wildlife Refuge authorities decided to put the loop road to bed that Al and I used to get to the trail leading to the point. It is now best accessed by canoe or by hiking in from a greater distance. I expect that oak is still there, too, doing whatever it does without the bother of quite so many gawking tourists.
The dripping maple in our backyard had once released its excess pressure in silence, with dignity, delighting opportunistic ants and other nectar lovers with its bounty. No vulgar oak, that. But it has passed on now and serves in different capacities, leaving the exuberance of spring to the living. The sap still rises in them and always will. The players change, but the spring will still come.