Any man who has lived long enough to be able to read Shakespeare for pleasure and who is mature enough to be able to forecast the secondary effects of his actions has learned a fair amount indeed about relationships. He knows, for example, that it is perfectly possible to have a love affair with something other than a person.
He knows there can be affairs with animals, affairs with power, affairs with money. There can even be a case like my own. I have had a continuous affair with a battalion of artillery for more than 30 years. I held membership in the organization for 25 of those years, in a variety of positions on both sides of the salt, and the relationship was marked by an unflagging devotion on my part the whole time. The devotion remains, though now that I'm no longer a member, it's unrequited and somewhat diminished by distance. But it's still there, it still burns with a steady flame, and it will warm my soul at its coals until I go to the boneyard. In what may very well be a remarkable example of fickle irresponsibility, I have also, during those 30 years, been conducting a simultaneous affair with a tree (SI, Dec. 22-29, 1980).
Luckily, long-standing affairs with trees or battalions, unlike those with ladies, are considered proper subjects for discussion among gentlemen—even in the most conventional of societies. The tree is a cherrybark oak and the affair is not restricted to a single specimen. It encompasses the entire species, and there are all sorts of things wrong with the emotion.
In the first place, for many years I have made a living from pine trees. I have been exposed, nearly all my life, to long-leaf pine, the premier timber tree of the Southeastern United States. Longleaf produces lumber for shipbuilding and construction, among other things, and it is a fine producer of resin, from which turpentine and rosin are manufactured. Longleaf has far more value as a source of lumber than does the cherrybark oak, longleaf has an infinity of additional uses, and in stands older than 100 years, it is far more impressive. I suspect the abundance of the longleaf may be what causes my lack of affection for it. There may be too much longleaf. It could be like those chorus lines in Las Vegas. They so overpower a man with leg and bosom he finds himself unable to concentrate upon a single individual.
Cherrybark is the only one of the oaks with class, but that's no matter. It alone carries sufficient class for the entire genus. It occurs as a single specimen, or in groups of two or three, and the thing that immediately strikes you about it is the purity of its form. With the possible exception of yellow poplar, sometimes known as the tulip tree, most of our other hardwoods have something wrong with them. They branch out too soon, for instance, or twist too quickly. Some of them lean out of plumb too much right from the stump. Some of them, like bitter pecan, for example, have no redeeming features. A cherrybark will stand there, a diamond in the middle of this other goat dung, and tower 30 feet above the surrounding crowns. It will have a bole that looks as if it had been drawn with a straight edge, and it will frequently go four logs to the first limb.
There's a term used in estimating tree volumes called "form class." Stated simply, it's the relationship between the diameter of a tree outside the bark at breast height and the diameter inside the bark at the top of the first 16-foot log. It is expressed as a percentage, and in things like old growth longleaf pine it can go as high as 82.
I haven't scaled enough oak to be much of an authority, but cherrybark must be at least that good. Logs are scaled at the little end and to the nearest inch of diameter, and I've seen second logs in cherrybark oak (the second 16-foot log above the stump) that scaled the same at both ends. Technically, these logs had no little end.
A cherrybark oak, standing on good soil, will make every other tree in the surrounding stand look ragged. You find yourself interrupting the normal conduct of business to look for one, and when you find one, you circle it, making private, nonsensical observations.
The cherrybark has caused me some grief from time to time, because it makes me lose my concentration—the type of concentration that's necessary in intellectual exercises. Back when I played golf regularly—and by regularly I mean three times a week, not counting weekends—I played better when I could immerse myself in the game. Walking from one shot to the next I contemplated the forthcoming stroke. When idle talk of the weather, the shape of the stock market or the shape of the woman wearing shorts on the adjoining fairway broke through my shell, it hurt my game.
Turkey hunting is precisely the same kind of intellectual exercise. You're going to do infinitely better, enjoy yourself more and get to pick a turkey from time to time if you conduct yourself and your business with single-minded concentration the whole time you are out there. Things can happen very quickly. Occasionally, things happen in bunches after an hour of complete boredom, and there's usually no intervening transitional period. If you're out turkey hunting, woolgathering along, and have let your attention wander, you're giving yourself a lot of marvelous opportunities to look foolish.