Once upon a time in the southern wastes of Carter County, where the eastern winds blow westerly from North Carolina, there is an immense tree in a forgotten valley. The tree is so large that a thousand Cadillacs could be parked three deep in its shade. The branches extend so far that they scrape the surrounding mountain paths. Under its canopy, the roots bulge the dark earth in alien formations for miles. Herds of deer and all manner of foxes and even bears find respite from the summer heat there. It has been so for thousands of years.
In the course of time when spring gives way to years and decades give way to stories, the surrounding land was purchased by the Dunn family of coastal Virginia. Old Colonel Dunn had a limp from when he fought alongside General Washington in the French & Indian War. But, by the time he purchased the land, he was a man advance in years and frail in health. It was during the War for Independence that he sent his son to survey. The Young Mr. Dunn was to take notes of his journey.
One unbelievably hot August day, the young Mr. Dunn asked his Cherokee guide to show him something most magnificent—some vista or mountain so beautiful to take away his breath—in short, something interesting for the old Colonel. Over their months together of exploration in the dense forests, young Mr. Dunn and his guide became quite close, like brothers. The Cherokee mulled it over. He then told young Mr. Dunn to stay put. The guide had to consult his elders and his ancestors. In the meantime, the young Mr. Dunn should fast and pray; more importantly, though, he should listen to the wind. The Cherokee offered no explanation before disappearing into the woods.
For six days and six nights, the young Mr. Dunn read his prayers, fasted a little and lay on a rocky outcropping nearby to hear the wind. He didn’t know exactly what he was supposed to hear, but the wind roared up in these mountains. It moved from far to near, and then out along the way in one fluid motion as if crafted by a hand dipping in water. If he listened closely enough, it overwhelmed him. On the fourth afternoon, he spontaneously sang a Te Deum. He forgot some of the words, but the young Mr. Dunn had never been so moved. The wind blew his tears across his face.
True to his promise, though, his friend returned from the woods without warning on the morning of the seventh day. He asked if young Mr. Dunn was ready. Young Mr. Dunn claimed he was as they set out on a hike of three days. The Cherokee never asked what he heard in the wind or if he even fasted. Whenever he thought about that Te Deum, though, young Mr. Dunn blushed.
The third morning, they came to the trail descending to the base of the tree. From the ridges above, the expansive foliage of the tree hid the valley beneath it. Young Mr. Dunn had no clue what lay ahead. As they began to descend, they came across a shaman sitting in deep contemplation around a smoky fire. The dense woods were dark, even at noon. When he was roused, the shaman’s lazy eye never left Mr. Dunn. The shaman wiped them with ash and purged them with burning sage. The other eye, the good one, never left the distant woods behind them.
Like they were descending the edge of some great bowl, the path kept curving to the right. At each successive turn, the temperature dropped. By the time they neared the bottom, the Cherokee covered himself with a great skin and Mr. Dunn’s breath puffed out. By Mr. Dunn’s estimation, it was only two-thirty in the afternoon. Yet, here they were freezing in the Appalachian wilderness, hidden from the sun.
Like colonnades, the trees opened to an immense clearing surrounding the tree. The tree itself was nearly a mile away, but could be clearly discerned due to its size. The roots ribbed and jumbled the barren earth in a thousand ways for as far as he could see. In their stationary positions, the substructure pulsated, appearing to twist one on top of another like the weave of a basket. Off to the right, Young Mr. Dunn could see a herd of white stag bounding the roots with ease. The men, however, had to climb and manage carefully.
When they neared the tree, it took up their entire field of vision. They circumambulated it. Then, circumambulated it again, both heading in different directions. It took the friends the span of a cat’s nap to reach each other. The wood itself was like nothing Mr. Dunn had ever seen. He took careful drawings and notated this in his leather book.
I have seen this book, by the way, in a small library in Carter County, where I was commanded to handle it with gloves. The drawings of young Mr. Dunn show a knotted and gnarled tree, looking so brittle as to break. Most historians believe the young Mr. Dunn had an active imagination. Even a team of Botanists and Dendrologists from the North could not identify the drawing of the tree with anything in the known world.
After careful study, young Mr. Dunn turned to his guide and said with visible breath in the cold, “Friend, this tree is useless. I cannot make a house from its wood, nor warship, nor anything for that matter. No man can make art or utility of this wood. Which is just as well since it is out here next to nothing. What can my father do with it?” The teeth of the Cherokee chattered.
They ascended back to the known. When they passed the shaman’s spot, he was not there nor was there any sign of his fire. By now, though, it was late in the day and they were tired. They lie down and slept. The wind blew in the night.
In a dream, the tree appeared in the form of a bent old man to the young Mr. Dunn. “You, my boy, are stupid,” the tree said. “You are useful to your fathers. And you will die being useful to your sons. But you will never grow past that. I grew because I am useless. Any fire started with my wood turns immediately to ash. Any house built of my ugly bones falls at first gust. Dinner on a table of me would be puked immediately. Yet, I am beauty. Beauty is useless.”
The young Mr. Dunn awoke and continued his travels with his friend, notating in his little book. By the time he returned to Virginia, the Colonel had died. Mr. Dunn told no one of the tree. Which is just as well, since it still stands out in the middle of nowhere, somewhere in the southern wastes of Carter County.