Seat in Magnolia tree comes with view

Published 8:35 am Wednesday, December 12, 2012

by James D. Howell

Through a narrow opening between glossy leaves, I see Hugh Stith atop his Caterpillar tractor, pushing tree stumps to the edge of a new field formed by new boundaries to an old field.

A narrow stretch of woods between lower fields and the hidden field has been removed by the artful use of dynamite and Stith’s tractor.

I watch from the top of a Magnolia tree in our backyard.

It’s an easy climb up here; I get to the bottom limb by climbing into the swing, standing on its arm, reaching up and grasping the limb, pushing off the tree trunk enough to swing a heel over top. I can pull myself the rest of the way.

Limbs in this tree are close enough together for me to step from limb to limb, without having to clasp my legs around the trunk. I sit in a slight bow, formed by some invisible power that recognized my need for just such a perch long before I was born.

I can sit quite comfortably and watch the distant world of our farm. I’m not secretive about my watching; my family knows about my love for high perches. I sometimes borrow a pair of binoculars from my older sister.

The tree is not tall enough to see over the house. Fields directly across the road are hidden; most other areas are visible.

Cows have been moved to a back pasture beyond the cemetery; they are standing under tree limbs at the woods edge.

They have ignored the new shed in favor of natural shade from trees on this warm day; the occasional breeze suits me just fine.

Lower limbs on my tree mostly hide our garden. There’s a semi-circle blind spot in that direction. Our chicken houses and the remains of a fruit orchard on the near side of the “cholera lot” are active with feeding and scratching.

My father calls the smaller pasture, beyond the fence, the “cholera lot” in remembrance of hogs that died during an outbreak of the disease some years back. It will remain the “cholera lot” until new residents occupy our farm.

To the west, straight rows of corn point to my brother’s house. We lived there before we moved here. I can easily see over the small hill that separates our houses.

The new ground is being cleared beyond their house and up a back hill. It’s taken several weeks to get trees removed and larger stumps blown up.

The explosions were clearly heard throughout our neighborhood. It was fun for me to watch whenever I was in my perch at the same time.

On future days, I and others in my family will walk that area, picking up roots torn from the ground, but too small for the Caterpillar’s blade.

Even the smallest roots can damage or interrupt seed planters or cultivators during next year’s plantings. Clearing new ground is a lot of work.

Our smokehouse, the attached woodshed and meat salting room are located close by this tree. I enjoy all smells wafting on quiet breezes through the Magnolia limbs.

It’s a homey treat in my aerie. Some days, I bring a snack of some description with me and enjoy the distant view with a treat. Some days are cold from a north wind; most of my tree sitting is in summer.

Cars pass infrequently by our house. I can pick them up past Mr. Scott’s house toward Franklin, and they pop up or disappear down the hill by my brother’s house. They seem to move so slowly from here; in future years, I will learn that’s called “spatial relationships.”

For now, it’s just an interesting childhood observation. I think about each vehicle, where it’s coming from and where it’s going. I feel a tug in my spirit to know about distant places, to see, first hand, sunrises and sunsets on distant shores, to feel breezes from oceans unknown.

Six miles down, just over there beyond Pittsburgh, early settlers boarded riverboats bound for the idea of a better life in the American West. Just down there, President Jefferson charged Meriwether Lewis to go west, explore and map the newly purchased land west of the Mississippi River.

From my perch I can see my country’s history; I can feel the restlessness in her soul.

My view through Magnolia leaves has come of age. I am home.

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at