by Tim Gilmore, 7/27/2017
The great camphor has given and given. It has hoisted children up into its heights for generations. It stands like a giant hand, palm up and fingers and thumb brought together finger’s-breadths apart.
Because landscape is marked with memory, because a tree is a landscape, a world all its own within the world, this great camphor recalls the children by the notches they carved into its wood, a notation that “Savannah was here,” a rusted nail whose use left it behind in 1980 or 1991.
Johnnie Carter walked past the camphor shortly after four in the morning, just three weeks back. A friend had dropped him off a few blocks from home. Then the cops pounded on his mother’s door.
Trees don’t do these things. Trees don’t creep around town before dawn with guns. Trees don’t kill 15 year old boys walking down Sunderland Road in the early dark of the turning earth in space.
Ants skitter about the patterns sculpted into the wood by the decades, the streaming lines that spiral up around branches, made visible where the bark has fallen away. These Lake Shore houses that surround it were built in the 1920s and ’40s. The insects preced
“Looking back,” says 20 year old Isaac Davis, “when I was younger, the tree was a hub for teens and children in the neighborhood to gather, leaving their bikes in the ditches below.” Isaac loves it so, he recently made a six minute film about the tree.
Johnnie Carter once climbed the great camphor too, finding, at turns, both solace and exhilaration. The tree was there, always, for anyone who needed it.
“Kids would dare each other to climb higher,” Isaac recalls, “make their mark, as others had done before them, or simply lay about up in the branches, sharing the latest gossip.”
A wasp alights on the name above “once here.” The name has weathered away, as will all our names.
Cigarette butts and a Strawberry Crush soda can fill the upturned palm of the hand that is the great camphor.
Isaac recalls “the thirst of those hot summer days,” of running to the nearby corner store, or “the once-was Oriental Food Store” on nearby Timothy Lane. These days, he says, “fewer and fewer kids take on this tree.”
The powerful fingers of this upturned hand, the muscular branches of this great camphor, erupt in violently swollen knots, linger leafless for barren lengths, then twist and turn as though to evade its Verticillium Wilt, an arboreal disease with a particular taste for camphor.
Verticillium Wilt is worst in times of heavy rain, and Florida, the so-called Sunshine State, is a time, not a place, of rain. When the soil drains poorly, the virulent Wilt spreads viciously and without remorse up and through the fragrant tree.
Johnnie Carter’s aunt told Dana Treen, a journalist with The Florida Times-Union, “The next thing she knew, the cops were knocking at the door and he was down there. That’s how she found out. She didn’t know he had left the house.”
In August of 2012, the Midtown Business District of Sacramento, California, “The City of Trees,” held a ceremony outside Paesano’s Italian Restaurant to say goodbye to a monumental camphor that had stood at the corner of 18th and Capitol Avenue since 1886.
The tree had battled Verticillium Wilt for years. The possibilities of its salvation had passed. The Sacramento Tree Foundation interviewed the grandson, Rick Stevenson, of the man who planted the tree.
“Like any longtime friend,” he said, “It’s sad to see it go.”
The great camphor on Sunderland stands as tall as Sacramento’s “longtime friend,” and though no one knows when first it sprouted from its camphor berry seed, its trunk spreads a wider radius than the camphor of Sacramento.
A woman rushed from her nearby house, having heard the gunshot that killed Johnnie Carter, tried CPR, pounding his chest, putting her lips to this mouth that no longer exhaled. It was too late.
Police said there was “an altercation.” No arrests. That shot in the dark joins the more than one third of American murders that go unsolved. The New York Times reported in December 2015 that dying of a gunshot in Japan is “about as likely” as dying from a lightning strike in the United States. Meanwhile, the U.S. has roughly six times the population of England, but 160 times England’s gun homicides.
The great camphor knows gunfire as it’s known children.
From wrecked branches, reaching up, twisting, lurching from the body of the tree, racing Verticillium Wilt through tree-time, new and bright and slender green shoots rise. They rise like resurrection. They rise like hope. For living is a con(fidence) game. In their rise, with beauty and faith and will, survives the great camphor.
“I believe that tree would have given any help it could afford to save Johnnie’s life,” Isaac Davis tells me. “But all it holds are fond memories of childhood. I know he’ll be remembered through the branches he conquered.”