The tree in the river

A writer ponders a remnant of past disaster.


The tree stands in the middle of the river. Not in a shallow side channel, but smack in the middle of the current, barkless, the trunk battered and discolored, like an ill and splotchy patient, or worse. Technically, the tree is a snag. But still it stands, a hundred feet tall or more, with limbs that elbow toward the sky. An osprey nests near the top.

The tree used to stand on dry ground, of course, a massive ponderosa pine, orange-barked and majestic, beside a trail through the woods. When the flood came to our valley 12 years ago, the river broadened and chiseled away at the bank, claiming the entire trail and a large chunk of road to boot.

We never saw it coming.

We should have seen it coming.

Osprey nest in a snag in the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, Idaho.
Marjorie McBride

But the tree still stands. We pass by it in cars or on bikes or, most often, on skis. The rerouted road isn’t plowed that far, so in winter a ragtag group of friends skis past regularly, in wool shirts and blue jeans and mismatched gear. Every time we do, we stop by the place in the river where it stands, to sip water or to peel off an extra layer of clothing, and mostly to marvel: It’s still there!

Sometimes I wonder why we love it so much. Is it nostalgia? Do we love it because it’s a remnant of the way things used to be? Or is it because of its stubborn endurance — like a boxer leaning hard against the ropes, one that will not go down, no matter what. Maybe, by now, it’s just familiarity. The snag is one of us. We try to impress others, people from outside the valley, try to get them to whistle through their teeth — would you look at that? Instead, they look at us pityingly: So this is what passes as entertainment up here. They’re right, of course. They’re also missing the point.

The tree still stands! Who could’ve known? How is it even possible?

We know that, someday, it will topple. We’ve even considered taking bets on when, but if we’d started taking bets back when we first started talking about it, by now everyone would’ve lost.

People like to predict when trees will fall. When I worked on trail crew, people did it all the time. The year after a big wildfire, they’d tell us: Better bring a lot of saw gas. But the roots of the blackened trees took years to loosen, and sometimes never loosened at all. Elsewhere, seemingly healthy trees snapped by the dozen. Trees fell for unexpected reasons — a pestilence in the willows, a freak snowstorm in the spring — or for no reason at all. We gave up trying to guess.

But it’s a hard habit to break, speculation. We must be hard-wired for it.

Lately, there’s been a glut of apocalyptic books. The end is caused by a pandemic flu or a war or a natural disaster. The fascination lies in predicting who will survive and where and how, and for how long they’ll survive. Some people bet on food production, some on weaponry; some on self-reliance, some on cooperation. A few outliers put faith in art. The truth is, we don’t know what will happen or when. Even while we try to hold it together, to prep and plan, we don’t know.

Meanwhile, remnants surround us: the meadow that didn’t burn, the sandy ocean bluff sloughing but not yet slid, the blackened toenail after a too-long hike, right before it peels off, the eerie glowing coals in a campfire in the rain. Something to cherish, something that can’t last. You come around one last bend before the view opens wide. An osprey swoops close. You look up and catch your breath. There it is, still standing, silhouetted white against the cloudless blue.

Ana Maria Spagna lives and writes in Stehekin, Washington. Her most recent book is Reclaimers.

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