In honor of iScriblr’s Freedom of Expression Challenge: Memories, some memories inspired by a stump…
I wonder if stumps experience phantom pain.
Do they still feel the tug of branches that stretched toward the sky?
Do their roots still try to push nutrients up to the far reaches where tiny little leaf buds once grew?
When I worked with amputees, I experienced phantom pain from a care-taker’s point of view. The feeling of helplessness.
Pain so bad you’d hear men seasoned in war whimpering and crying out for mom or god or the devil, even. Anyone to take it away.
It was hard to get the pain meds right. Nerve pain is tricky. And time was so often a cursed enemy. You can hold that button down all you want, but its relief is on a timer.
The time in between, I’d tap on the stump. It’s a distraction. A trick of the mind.
Tap, tap, tap, tap,
tap, tap, tap, tap,
tap, tap, tap, tap,
tap, tap, tap, tap,
tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap.
There. You see? Your mind gets so focused on the tapping, it forgets about the pain for a bit.
Phantom pain is a memory. And memories can hurt. And you get angry.
Why did they have to cut this tree down?
I want to think maybe it came down naturally. Maybe the water from the lake rotted it out.
But that’s not what happened. The top of the stump is too smooth. It was cut down.
This stump was once a beautiful tree. I can imagine seeing it standing out here in this vast open space. Seeing the mountains through its limbs. How different this view would be.
Did they change this view for me? To make the place more open? To give me a better view?
So many things destroyed in the name of humanity.
I get mad about what was. I grieve for what’s been lost.
I love the way trees keep track of their age.
Like parents marking up a door frame.
We all learn that in school, and it stays with us. We see a tree stump and we start counting rings.
I think we enjoy the feeling of something knowable in an outdoor world generally shrouded in mystery.
And we get age. We obsess over age.
The lines are so weathered now, they’re impossible to fully count. But I think I can make out over fifty. And that seems way too young for a tree to die.
“Cut down in his prime” comes to mind. Because that’s how we think. In terms of what we’ve lost.
Instead of what we have left.
Instead of what we had.
The doctors would always talk about their ‘residual limb’.
“Call it a stump, doc.” The guys would say.
‘Stump’, ‘Stumpie’, ‘The Stump-Meister’
It was never what they had lost, but what they still had.
You were lucky to have a stump. You could put a prosthetic on a stump.
Some of the others weren’t so lucky. It’s harder to get fitted if they have to take your leg all the way up to the hip joint.
I have a thought about putting a prosthetic on this stump. Digging out a plastic Christmas tree from someone’s attic and lodging its bracing pole right in the center.
The thought makes me snicker. I’m not sure if I’m being irreverent or celebrating its life. Like when you place a headstone with a few words and dates. It’s a stand-in for the life that was. A reminder that there once was life. It may be a poor representation of the whole, but your intentions are right.
But this stump is already its own headstone.
And I get lost for a while trying to figure out if you could, in fact, give a tree a prosthetic.
Sometimes they’d lose both legs. Your first inclination is toward pity.
Then you read the sign they all wanted on their doors:
Attention to all who enter here. If you are coming into this room with sorrow or to feel sorry for my wounds, go elsewhere. The wounds I received I got doing a job I love, doing it for people I love, supporting the freedom of a country I deeply love. I am incredibly tough and will make a full recovery. What is full? That is the utmost physically my body has the ability to recover. Then I will push that about 20% further through sheer mental tenacity. This room you are about to enter is a room of fun, optimism, and intense rapid re-growth. If you are not prepared for that, go elsewhere.
They couldn’t wait to get their new legs.
‘Shorties’ first. For practice.
Learn to balance and use your muscles again to swing your legs and figure out the pressure needed to correctly place feet you can’t feel.
They’d walk around, 3 feet tall. Camaraderie in the form of jokes and taunts from the other guys. But really, all smiles. Because it was victory. They were still alive. They just got some part of a leg or two that could be replaced. In a few months they’d get their full-size legs and feel back to normal and be begging to go back.
Show the bastards that legs weren’t hearts.
“They can blow me up again and the joke’s on them.”
When people chop a tree down, they almost always leave the stump.
It’s easy to cut away all the limbs. It’s easy to take an ax or a chainsaw to the trunk. But only so far. It’s hard to cut low to the ground. You might cut your leg off if you try to go too low.
If you want to clear the stump out, you have to bring in a grinder. And you have to spend time. Making sure you get all the roots so there’s no more chance at life. It’s an effort most aren’t willing to make.
When we look at a tree, we see limbs and leaves and we think life.
But the life really happens at the roots, doesn’t it?
The heart of a tree.
The part that a million whacks so often fail to clear.
After the first major surgery, when they even out all the shattered bones and clean it out and hope to have enough good hanging skin to wrap tight around the end,
you have to shape the stump.
They would wear a compression sleeve, like a little beige beanie. Pull tight over the end.
They drew faces on them with markers. Named them. Talked to you with their stumps like demented ventriloquists.
Swelling went down, scar tissue settled, and the shape of their stump established itself. This is important for a good prosthetic fit.
Everybody’s stump is different. Everybody’s stump forms from different events and different wounds and with its own unique set of scars.
There is a such a thing as a living stump. A stump that can stay alive for years and even grow again. It’s often a practice to cut trees down to the ground, harvest the new growth, and cut it down again.
Because wounded trees have the capacity to grow again.
But the catch is community. Stumps can only grow if their roots can tap into the roots of living trees nearby.
They need the support. They need to be nursed until they can get back on their feet.
The stump produced by this method is called a stool.
That makes me smile.
I sit down on this stump.
It’s beautiful. And tragic. Just like my guys.
I love the way its roots overlap and interlace as they flow along the ground. Maybe they’re grafting into themselves. Sharing. Trying.
I anthropomorphize. So I think it’s cute the way it cuddles that little tumbleweed.
I’m amazed at the reach of its roots. And I like the places where you can see them dig into the ground.
There aren’t any trees close by. So is it possible this stump is a stool? I don’t know. Maybe. I’ve read about trees with roots that reach for miles.
It reminds me of The Dying Gaul. A memorial. But maybe also hope for life again.
A reminder that there is life still. Period.
I sit down on this stump and admire the view it chose for itself so many years ago. The view it enjoyed.
I celebrate what it had.
I celebrate what it has left.
I think – I’ll be your prosthetic for a while.
Nature often works as a mirror for me.
I come across these various forms of life that in so many ways reflect my own.
When I see flashes of my own struggles or perspectives or memories in the way a tree stands alone in a field, or in the way a chickadee frets over his mate, or in the way the exposed rock of Earth is adorned by the sun.
On this day, I saw myself so plainly in a stump.
To me, this is one of the reasons we all have those moments when we feel connected to Nature.
One of the many ways an experience in the outdoors can leave us feeling more alive and somehow wiser.
Nature exhibits life in its purest, most abstract form.
Nature is the essence of life.
And when we take the time to commune with her, she encourages us to reflect on those moments when we understood what it means to be alive.
Thank you, iScriblr for the prompt!!