Breathtaking watercolors by Henri Sorensen help to tell the haunting story of a dead tree. “It stood tall in the forest,” writes Alvin Tresselt. “For a hundred years or more…” The tree grew and spread its shade, and birds and other animals nested in its branches. “Squirrels made their homes in ragged bundles of sticks and leaves held high in the branches.”
The tree is impossibly old – and it’s accompanied by animals – but nature holds more surprises. “Life gnawed at its heart,” Tresselt explains, describing in turn the ants, termites, woodpeckers, and even rot-causing spores that weakened the tree. Its branches “turned grey with death” – while baby woodpeckers hatch inside. “In winter storms, one by one, the great branches broke and crashed…” Soon only the trunk is left – but it’s a “proud” trunk, reaching to the sky with “its broken arms.”
It’s a story told through beautiful illustrations by Charles Robinson which give the magic old tree an almost fanciful feeling. The purple tree trunk spreads to leaf-shaped clusters of faded blue, yellow, and green. An owl spreads the points of its wings over snowy trees and a field of greys, whites, and blues. One painting even shows a cross section of the tree’s inside, where termites “ate out passageways in wondrous patterns.”
It’s surprising how compelling this story becomes. After a fierce wind, the tree falls, leaving only “a jagged stump to mark where it had stood for so long.” It’s followed by “the cruel days of winter,” where something special happens. In its hollow stump, a rabbit finds shelter. A family of mice settle into its fallen trunk. Even the ants and grubs can hide from winter in its bark and wood. Soon the sunshine of spring returns, and young acorns began to sprout.
Now it’s chipmunks that nest in the old woodpecker holes, and raccoons in its hollow trunk. But the book also mentions the carpenter ants and the termites that will play a crucial role. Soon there’s mosses, ferns, mushrooms and lichen, and eventually centipedes, snails, slugs, and earthworms. “The years passed, and the oak-hard wood grew soft and punky.” A family of skunks appears to feed on the insects in the bark, and birds also scavenge its bark, while “the melting winter snows and soft spring rains hastened the rotting of the wood.”
On the final page, there’s a new tree growing from the soil, “And in this way…the great oak returned to the earth.” It’s not clear if that’s meant literally – decomposing into the earth itself – or reappearing among the living. But the illustration seems to supply an answer.
There’s golden yellow sunshine filling the background as the young tree sprouts its new acorns and broad green leaves.