The Straightest Tree

Deep in the dark oak wood, on the edge of a small clearing, a tiny acorn, hiding from the cold of winter beneath a blanket of leaves wakes from its long sleep and feels the warmth of spring. The rains have softened its shell and the young green sapling pushes up towards the sky. It stretches its tip up as high as it can and feels the air. "Oh that feels good", the tiny oak tree says, "I've been stuck inside that acorn all winter and I couldn't move a muscle". "Hello little one" greets a gruff voice from nearby. The young oak looks round but he cannot see anything that looks like him, straight and true, just a lot of gnarled and twisted trees. "Here" says the gruff voice again. The young oak sees the next tree shake its branches as it speaks. "I'm your neighbour, let’s be friends, we'll get along just fine". "Oh no", says the young oak, "you're old and twisted, I can't possibly be friends with you. I'm going to grow up tall and straight. We won’t have anything in common". "You're young and straight now", replies the gruff old oak, "but as you grow you will bend and twist with the strain". "Not me", the young oak says, "I'll make sure nothing stops me from growing straight". The old oak simply smiles back.

The young oak keeps to his pledge to grow straight and true. From the tip of the stalk two buds appear that grow into leaves. They open up to catch the light and the young oak holds them out stiffly to his sides so they don't twist his stem. The stalk grows further up then blooms into another two leaves and then another two. He feels really proud holding his leaves out to catch the light but makes sure they don't droop or twist to spoil his arrow like progress to the sky. The touch of the light on his leaves is good and he can feel the green cells making his food. Occasionally a beam of sunlight bursts through a gap in the larger trees overhead and his leaves flutter for joy. But the young tree is growing fast and he needs all the food he can make. His roots are growing down into the ground searching for the water to quench his thirst, and his leaves are reaching up to grasp the light to feed him.

Each day the leaves search for the light so they can make sufficient food, but the tree insists they keep in line and do not bend. "Keep straight", he says to the leaves. "But we're hungry", reply the leaves, "and if we can just bend towards the sun we can make more food". "I won't let you bend, you must keep straight". After a few more days every part of the tree is complaining of hunger. "If you want to grow", says the tip, "we need more food". "If you want us to make food", say the leaves, "we must bend to the light". The tree is stubborn but hunger wears him down. Eventually he tells the leaves, "alright you can bend a little to get to the light. We will still be straighter than any other tree around". Relieved the leaves twist towards the sun and soak up the light to make the food.

Throughout the summer the young tree grows as fast as it can. It sprouts branches and more leaves and is growing into a good looking young tree. One day he feels the wind swing round to the north and a sudden drop in temperature. The leaves cry out "oh we’re cold", and curl up. Next day it is even colder and snow begins to fall. The leaves shrivel in the cold and turn from green to orange. After a few more cold nights the leaves drop to the ground. Without the food from the leaves the tree has no energy to grow and shivers through the winter waiting for warmer weather.

And then one day the wind swings round to the south and the warmer air and shorter nights bring a tingle of feeling back into the trees' frozen branches. All the animals of the forest start to come out of hibernation and everyone is happy to feel the sunshine again. At the end of the young tree’s branches buds are unfurling and new green leaves burst open, stretching out after being curled up all winter. "Oooh", the leaves say, "we want to stretch all the way to the sun". "Only as  long as you don't bend over too much", warns the tree, remembering that he wants to be the straightest tree.

In the spring the oak tree grows quickly with new branches and leaves until he looks quite the dandy young sapling. Every one admires the young tree and says how handsome he looks. Even the animals of the forest can tell that this tree stands out from the crowd. One morning the young tree hears a lot of tweeting noises which circle round him and over him. Two birds are looking for somewhere to build their nest. They fly round the young tree and decide the crook between two of his branches looks ideal. One of the birds lands on the branch with a mouthful of twigs and starts to weave them carefully together to make a base for the nest. The other bird soon joins in and mouthfuls of twigs are brought in and woven into the growing nest. The young tree is puzzled and interested in the purpose of this nest. The nest is light and easy to hold. When the birds stop bringing twigs the tree guesses the nest is complete but he does not know what it is for. Then one of the birds sits in the nest and lays three eggs. They are not quite round and are speckled like the lichen on the older trees. They weigh down the branch slightly but the young tree straightens it again with his strength.

However the eggs are never left alone and one of the birds  always sits on them. The tree strains  to keep his branches level under the weight but is determined to keep his handsome shape. Day after day he has to hold his branches straight.. Then one day he hears a cracking noise and the eggs start to split apart. One by one a tiny sqwarking chick emerges from the eggs. The adult birds now spend all their time flying off to fetch worms and insects to feed  their chicks. When the adults are off the nest the tree can relax as the weight is less but as the days wear on the chicks grow larger and larger until the three of them weigh as much as one of the adults. And still they keep being fed and keep growing. The young tree gets very tired trying to keep his branches straight and the weight is beginning to bend the trunk over. The young tree thinks that if the chicks keep growing they will soon weigh so much that he will be bent right over until his trunk touches the ground.

The tree wishes for a strong wind to blow to shake the tree and knock the nest out. Whenever the wind does blow the tree shakes as much as it can but the nest has been built well and refuses to budge. The chicks still keep growing and each now weighs as much as one of the adults, and still the adults come and feed the chicks by standing on the edge of the nest. The weight of four birds proves too much and the tree has to bend its branches and even its trunk. Finally one day one of the chicks stands on the edge of the nest, practices flapping it wings and jumps out. The other two chicks follow immediately and soon all three are flying round the young tree. The tree is mightily relieved that he doesn't have to hold that weight anymore, but it is too late to recover his former shape and the branches with the nest are bent down and his trunk tilts over. The young tree cries out to his neighbour in horror, "look what those birds have done to me. I'm quite crooked now. They are pests, that's what they are!" "Calm down", says the neighbouring tree, "don't be like that, birds are lovely creatures they fill the air with song and the sky with beauty. You should be happy that they chose you to nest in. You have helped them bring up their family". The young tree cannot forgive them for bending him over and said, "I still think they are a family of pests".

Spring turns to summer and the tree tries to grow straight again. As autumn approaches the weather stays fine and there are no frosts to make the leaves change colour and drop. One evening as the sun sets the sky is ablaze with colour, the deepest violets and reds the tree has ever seen. The older trees know the signs and say a big storm is coming and you'd better hang on tight. As it gets dark the wind grows stronger and howls through the trees. The young tree sways, enjoying the movement at first, but as the night wears on the wind grows stronger and stronger. There is a constant wind that bends the tree over but more damaging are the yet stronger gusts that whip the tree forward then back as they pass. The tree flails around and with the strongest gusts it can feel its roots being pulled out of the ground. All around he can hear terrible noises, bangs and crashes, the noise of wood cracking and splitting, and it fills the tree with fear. When it thinks it cannot get any worse the strongest gust yet rips through the forest. Terrifying rushing and crashing sounds fill the air and the tree is bent so far over that some of its branches touch the ground. Its roots start to be lifted from the ground and it clings on as best it can. The storm rages all night and the young tree is terrified and cannot sleep.

After what seems an eternity the wind slowly eases down, and the sky starts to lighten in the dawn. As the day breaks the tree can see the devastation the storm has caused. The scene is barely recognisable. The old tree that had been his neighbour has been torn out of the ground and lays helpless on its side. Those trees still standing have branches hanging uselessly from their trunks. His own trunk has a twist that he cannot straighten and some branches are bent out of shape. "Oh I'm so unhappy", he cries, "that hateful wind has bent me all out of shape".  "Count yourself lucky you are still standing", says one of the older trees nearby, "many trees did not survive". But the young tree was too miserable to care. "I want to be straight again", he cries.

Try as he might the young tree cannot straighten out the damage done in those formative years. The shapes ingrained in his youth guide his development and map out his features as he grows older. His trunk stays twisted forming folds and scoops. His branches curve and climb like a tangle of wool. The birds of his youth return every year to raise more children but he is stronger now and can easily bear their weight.

One day two creatures, of a kind he has not seen before, come into his part of the forest. "What are they", he asks one of his neighbours. "Oh they are humans", she replies, "they are a strange breed, some are good and some are bad". "How can you tell?" "Well you can't tell by looking at them. You have to wait and see what they do. Those two are quite young. One is a boy and one is a girl", the older tree says.

The two humans are wandering aimlessly through the forest hand in hand and laughing as they go. Suddenly the boy sees the younger tree, comes over and climbs up into a nook formed by some of his branches. He holds out his hand to the girl and pulls her up next to him. They cuddle and laugh for a while. Then the boy pulls out a penknife and opens the blade. He starts to cut into the bark of the tree making a shape and some letters. The tree cries out in pain and its leaves and branches shake. But the boy does not notice and keeps on carving until he has completed his work, a heart with the letters H and M within. "Look", the boy says, "our love is forever engraved in the tree. It will never be erased".

With that the boy jumps down and catches the girl as she jumps into his arms. They walk on further into the forest holding hands and laughing as before.

So our young tree grows up as gnarled and twisted as all the other oaks. But he does not mind anymore, he is happy being one of that noble race. He welcomes back the nesting birds each year and even wonders what might have happened to those two humans that chose to sit in his branches out of all the others.

© Nick 2010

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