Thursday, July 16, 2009

A Buckeye In Need Finds A Friend, Indeed

I planted the sapling with little ceremony but much love. I watered and fertilized it under the supervision of the family arborist — my wife, Lisa — and directed our children not to play around it. It is a special tree, I told them — a buckeye. Despite the care and warnings given, the tree barely survived its first year. Somehow, the leader — the branch that the next year would become the trunk — had broken off. The sole clue to the damage: a blue and
yellow ball lying next to the branch. The kids said they hadn’t seen the ball before. Everyone knows how resilient a buckeye is, though. And so, with at least a bit of hope, I spent a long, gray Columbus winter praying that the little tree would survive.

When the redbud blossoms finally broke winter’s grip, I realized that the little tree had sprouted a new leader. It had lost a year’s growth in height but otherwise seemed to be flourishing. (I secretly told myself that
the tree was even stronger because its roots had had an extra year to grow without the strain of a taller trunk.) The next three years passed slowly and uneventfully. Between the less frequently needed waterings and an occasional "Shoo!" to the children, I could only watch the little tree grow — 12 inches one year, 16 the next, then 22.

Finally, the tree’s fifth year in my backyard yielded real excitement: flowers — four or five clusters of creamy-white flowers, 25 blooms in all. I cannot recall a more beautiful, inspiring sight in nature. Then came the wind and rain of spring, when half the blooms were blown or washed away. Summer’s heat, too, took a toll, claiming half of those that remained. The week of the first Ohio State football game last year, I picked the surviving buckeyes: 10 in all.

If you pick a buckeye before it’s ripe, it might wrinkle (or "prune") as it dries. But I’d seen squirrels eyeing the buckeyes, and I couldn’t risk losing my first homegrown crop to those creatures. A few days later, I allowed my children to "hatch" them. Woody must have been smiling down on us: They were all perfect. Because a homegrown buckeye carries enhanced power (everyone knows that, right?), I combined one homegrown buckeye with 10 or 12 from other sources and made a necklace for each of my 10 children. This year, the tree, which stands 10 feet, produced 14 clusters of flowers in the spring. The wind and rain did their usual damage, as did the hot summer. By Aug. 31, though, I was looking at a crop of about 45 buckeyes (a memorable number) with just one foe as yet unvanquished: the bluish-gray squirrels that infest my otherwise peaceful neighborhood.

This battle was nothing short of war: I’d see a squirrel jitterbugging left and right, trying to disguise its target, but the shake and bake didn’t fool me. Initially, I sent my old beagle to defend the tree. With his bad back, though, he just isn’t quick enough. Then I dispatched my 4-year-old to repel the assaults. At first excited about the duty, he lost interest after two or three skirmishes. This, apparently, was a man’s job — so I assigned myself to it. Whenever I’d see a squirrel around the tree, I’d open the back door and make loud animal noises. Surprisingly, the tactic worked fairly often.

Finally, a week before OSU’s opener this month, harvest time arrived. Waiting to be picked were 27 survivors (another memorable number). I returned from work the Friday before the game and, before setting out to reap the bounty, scanned the yard for miscreant rodents. Sure enough, I saw a squirrel near the tree. The critter wasn’t on his way to the tree, though; he was running from it — with a big, fat buckeye in his mouth. I ran out the back door at full speed, making some type of animal noise. The little creature ran straight for the fence, climbed up and over in a blink, then tried to hide in a silver maple. Not to be denied, I charged through the gate and toward the maple. The squirrel scurried down the maple and scampered to a redbud — but, in the process, lost its prize. I spotted the huge buckeye on the ground between the two trees and wasted no time scooping it up.

I carried the spoils, raised triumphantly over my head, back through the gate, across my yard and into the house, humming Across the Field the whole way. My wife and kids, dazed, were slack-jawed as they watched me. "Yes," I said to no one in particular, "everyone knows that the buckeye is a nut. And here’s the biggest one!"

This essay originally appeared in the Columbus Dispatch

1 comment:

  1. I love this story. You made my day. I could actually picture it in my mind, a man running after the squirell and dancing with the nut in his hand.

    Something I would have done myself.:-)