Friday, June 15, 2012
The Witness Tree
When we moved to Iowa and I was in the first flushes of learning about my new home's landscape history, I came across a term that intrigued me; "Witness Tree". Back in the day, a prominent tree was sometimes used by surveyors in Iowa (and elsewhere) to mark the location of a survey corner. This happened mostly when a "true" property corner could not be reached (because it was on steep terrain, or the bottom of a lake, etc.). A witness tree, close to the true corner, was a stand-in reference point and marked with a cut or gouge to the trunk for future use.
What a noble thing, to be a witness tree. It's a job not chosen, but delegated out of happenstance. It had to be strong and big enough to be useful to the surveyors. A tree is perfect symbol of strength to me, especially oaks. There are beautiful oaks in Iowa; white, bur, black, red. I bet many have had double lives as witness trees. Robert Frost also wrote a poem about a witness tree called "The Beech". I'll share it here, if the Copyright Gods allow.
It seems to me some people are like witness trees to human events that occur around them. They define a boundary, provide a point of departure, "establish and bear out" a truth. They are part of a history because of where and when they existed. No more or less.
by Robert Frost
Where my imaginary line
Bends square in woods an iron spine
And pile of real rocks have been founded.
And off this corner in the wild,
Where these are driven in and piled,
One tree, by being deeply wounded,
Has been impressed as Witness Tree
And made commit to memory
My proof of being not unbounded.
Thus truth's established and borne out,
Though circumstanced with dark and doubt
Though by a world of doubt surrounded.
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