Vigilant sycamores

Published 11:51 am Saturday, June 22, 2013

by James D. Howell

Their strange bark and large girth makes them unclimbable; their leaves create a mess that is not colorful. They’re tall, reaching into the sky further than any other tree in our yard. Their wood is not strong; we use it for no specific purpose. It doesn’t even make decent firewood. There are two sycamore trees in our back yard—standing mute as they have since before we moved here.

Their roots soak up rain and wash water with equal aplomb, without preference or comment. Their long open limbs, branches, and leaves provide welcome shade for people and animals alike. The same openness allows summer breezes, regardless of strength, to flow and help cool their temporary residents, bird or beast. They are silent sentinels to our family’s activities, work or play. They’ve witnessed our arrival and will, no doubt, witness our departure.

The sycamore tree directly behind our kitchen anchors one end of our clothesline. It has never failed to provide whatever support is required. Its branches provide shade for the heavy work of wash day. Stuck in one of the limbs is a tin can lid, thrown by an unknown athlete, years ago. The tree has accepted the offering and has grown around the now rusted bit of metal. Sailing tin can lids is fun, notwithstanding the hazards of handling the sharp, raggedy edged slice of metal.

The other of the pair is the shade provider for the animal watering trough (an abandoned bath tub). One of my brother’s hunting dogs has a house, food bowl, and water bowl (really an old metal bucket) nestled among the roots on the opposite side from the watering trough.

The trees witness our family’s comings and goings. They watch my first steps and my first attempts at rolling a hoop. They see my attempts at knife and hatchet throwing; they watch as I fall over the farm lot fence and suffer long term scars from barbed wire.

I think they must share our sorrow when we hear about the death of a family friend. He died in a war somewhere. My parents don’t talk about it much, but even a kid like me can sense sadness.

One day (it must have been a Sunday) an uncle, aunt and some cousins are visiting. My uncle’s truck is parked in its usual place in our side yard. All adults are inside or outside not paying much attention to the activities of children; there are several children visiting. One small tyke decides to drive the truck and climbs into the cab. Having learned some procedures from his parents, he releases the emergency (parking) brake. The truck starts a slow roll down the slight incline, picks up a little speed, and comes to a stop smack against the sycamore tree. Neither the tree nor the truck suffers as much damage as the seat of my cousin’s pants. Sunday afternoon excitement. I think the tree notes the event with some humor.

One spring day our mule decides it’s time to go to the house from wherever it is. It shows up at the farm lot gate dragging traces and harness. My brother shows up a short while later in a rage about the mule’s decision. A confrontation ensues, with much yelling and flailing of arms and assorted objects. Neither the mule nor my brother wins the argument. The work doesn’t get done and the mule doesn’t get to its barn. The sycamore trees look on and say nothing.

The trees witness the arrival of a farm tractor and all its associated equipment; they mark the departure of the mule and horses. Horse stalls now become storage rooms. Machinery noise now fills otherwise quiet time in our farm lot. A corn conveyor’s rumbling far exceeds the raspy sound of our manually operated corn sheller. A tractor’s hum now accompanies most farm operations. The trees seem at peace with the changes; they don’t complain.

Sycamore trees grow rapidly, and shed (sluff) their old bark in curved, oddly shaped layers. Their trunks vary from the gray-brown of the dead bark to lighter greens, yellows, and white. Sometimes sycamores grow in clusters, beautiful to look at and cool to sit under. Ours are singular giants that anchor our backyard.

Sycamore trees need to cast off wrappings that are no longer a part of their life process. A new skin or vision is a part of my life growth pattern, keeping the core values proven by experience and discarding worn out ideas or values that are products of invalid information.

I want to be a little more like the sycamore.

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