The color of the wood caught my eye. Dull gold? Whitened tan? Honeyed beige?
Light, in any event, blanched against the worn grasses and graying woodland litter.
We were on the way back from a little hike, about a quarter of a mile east of the house. I detoured uphill to investigate, and when I lifted the length of pine to stand it up on one end, it was nearly as tall as me, but not much wider than my hand. The resin scent was still sharp, although I knew the wood must have been out on the hillside for a week or two.
I cannot think of a word for a piece of wood like the one I held. This was not a hunk, not a chunk. It wasn’t a strip or a board or a plank or a stick. “Splinter” gets the form right—long and narrow, jagged at the ends—but a splinter is by definition small. This sure wasn’t small. It wasn’t a slab, either: my granddad was a sawmiller, and he cut incalculable numbers of those, bark-clad and rounded on one side, flat on the other: slabs are the wood left over from logs that have been run through a screaming saw to square them up, before they’re sliced into dimensional lumber.
This wood was not sawn but sundered.
Doug had been walking ahead of me, and I called him back, showed him the piece of pine. Scanning for the tree it had come from, I finally spotted it behind a screen of crooked aspens. We’d been lower on the slope as we passed by, and the evidence was on the back side from our original direction of travel.
Walking toward the tree, we passed bits of splintered wood in all sizes scattered in the grass, including a section longer than a barrel stave that had landed across a mountain mahogany bush. From that angle, the results of the lightning strike were impossible to miss. The mature ponderosa, forty to fifty feet tall, was almost cleaved in half. Below the split, a wide gash in the bark extended right down to the ground.
Doug stepped off the distance from the tree to the jagged staff I’d first seen: more than two hundred feet.
I’m uncertain about the right term for those pieces of shattered wood, but as we walked home I was thinking the word for what had happened to the tree: riven.
Checking my dictionary at home later, I find the verb’s present tense, rive, which is new to me. The definition, however—to wrench open or tear apart, to split with force or violence—fits what we saw so precisely that the phrase given in the dictionary as an example of the word’s use is “lightning rived the tree.”
When I return a couple of weeks later, the wood smithereens are starting to weather, though they’re still pale against sere foliage. I look right through the heart of the tree, at a sliver of sky. Drips of sap are hardening, embryonic amber. I walk around, picking up a few of the pieces to look at but setting them back down where they’d fallen. A little farther west from the splintered shaft I first noticed, I find a triangular wedge of bark from the foot of the tree. It’s as long as my forearm, some six inches thick, and dense: a heavy thing to have flown so far.
I marvel that nowhere, not on the riven tree nor on any of the wreckage strewn from it, do I find any sign of char.
I try to imagine what the explosion would have looked like, but can’t; I was once looking out our kitchen window when a nearby tree was struck, and all I saw was the backs of my eyelids as I dove to my knees. I wonder whether I heard the thunder. The tree is close enough to the house that I would barely have had time to register the flash before the cracking boom rattled the windows. I wonder if the bolt was connected to one of the many thunderstorms that dragged their curtains of water past our place, not raining on the pastures, or if it was one of the few storm cells that dropped moisture, albeit too little.
Lightning hits trees here every summer, but not all are rived and most, like the one outside the kitchen window, survive. I could probably count more than a dozen lightning-scarred trees within sight of our roofline.
Given the profound drought conditions this year, this ponderosa was already stressed before it was split through the heart, and I’m not sure it will live. In this year of pandemic, wildfire, and other calamities, it’s hard not to impose symbolism on the tree’s wound, although I’m not sure yet how to read the significance.