by Hugh Gilmore
In the year 2000 I had to make some hard decisions about my life, so I sought a place to walk while I thought. I used to walk in the Wissahickon, but the profusion of dogs off leash, bicyclists who nearly shaved you as they passed, and people carrying boom boxes down to Devils Pool took away that calm feeling one needs when thinking and walking. Though it seemed kind of tame, I decided to try walking on Chestnut Hill Academy’s track.
On most occasions it seemed perfect. The rubberized surface was quite easy on my joints, especially my back. The monotony of walking a closed loop proved soothing, so I readily succumbed to it. I felt cleansed of the trivia that had cluttered my mind and began relaxing enough to focus on whatever I needed to think about.
Since then I’ve mentally composed close to 200 newspaper columns while walking there. In the same way I’ve worked on three novels there, worrying the details of tough scenes, or inventing character names or chapter titles. I’ve organized my memoir during my walks. I’ve gone there when I’ve been angry and when I’ve tried to avoid being angry.
I remember how eerie the sky seemed for a few days in September of 2001 when American airspace went quiet. Most days the ambient roar of airplanes and other noise assaults our minds all day long without our noticing.
Sometimes, when hardly anyone else was around, I’d finish my walk and ascend the stands and sit enjoying the sun-induced laziness of watching the world go by down below.
No matter what occupied my mind when I first stepped on the track from Willow Grove Avenue, be it troubles, plot points, the death of a friend or a business question, all walks began the same way. I walked to the right toward the Springfield Avenue side, passing the scoreboard. I kept my eyes down until the curve yielded to the straightaway. That’s when I would lift my eyes to see, always quite dramatically, one of the most magnificent trees in Philadelphia: a huge, mature, widespread tulip poplar that stood staunchly alone at the far end of the field. From that vantage point I could take in the entire tree without looking up. It was the only tree inside the track’s perimeter. Its girth was such you’d need three big men to encircle it with their arms. Straight and tall and blessed with a healthy, full, gorgeous green crown, it dominated and graced the landscape.
As I walked up the track I’d look into the canopy and touch my chest and say hello and a few personal words to my lost son, Colin. And next, to my friend, the West Virginia writer, John O’Brien who left this earth a few years ago, more than reluctantly. After greeting him, I’d say, “You’d change places with me in a minute, wouldn’t you, John?”
That did the trick. My worries melted instantly. Perspective came. This tree had stood in place while so many of us planners had come and fretted and gone from the earth. It seemed eternal. My heart always lightened after I greeted John. I went on walking, looking at the poplar, tapping my heart, and saying hello to my parents, in-laws, and friends.
The list grew longer in the 12 years I’ve walked that track and said my thoughts, my version of plainsong at a “prayer tree.” Once I’d passed the tree and paid my respects, I was freed to think about anything I wanted to, usually with a lighter heart. I never once walked that circuit with recorded music in my ears, being entirely too taken up with the maintenance of my own spirit.
Well, as you might imagine, if you read the local newspapers, the schools have begun reshaping their campus. That’s their right. They own the property. My fellow walkers and I are their grateful guests.
I went out to the track two weeks ago to see if it was still walk-able. I wanted to think about a friend who is having heart problems. And about the dropped foundation of a book I’ve been working on recently. The story had fallen away as though too heavy for the wet paper bag I’d tried to carry it in. I needed to walk for a while.
Several huge earth-moving machines stood on the field, like bulls catching their breath after a charge. Near the curb stood rolled-up piles and some flayed scraps of the top layer of the red track, some pieces still lined with white lane stripes. The fences were down. No need to choose a gate. But could I still walk here?
I saw two other people using the loop, so I walked over. The original hard macadam substrate that underlay the rubber track was still there. What the heck, I’d take a walk. (The area is now posted as “Construction Site: Do Not Enter.”) I walked in my usual direction – toward the school – marveling as I looked at the leveled grounds and how impressively efficient those machines and their operators are. I walked past the scoreboard, keeping my eyes down, so I’d be able to enjoy the customary shock of awe when I looked up to see that sublime tree. As I rounded the bend, I lifted my eyes.
It was gone. One of the biggest, most beautiful trees in the world was gone. You wouldn’t think something so impressive, so … big … could disappear. But it had. What would I do with my stored-up prayers and memories?
I stood and surveyed the acres of ‘dozed mud that lay in its place. I walked up the ghost track and stopped at the slope of a depression where the tree had been. Some bits of twisted brown roots ran into the clotted dirt. I looked at the earth and tapped my heart and murmured my remembrances and said goodbye. No other tree on campus would suffice.
The schools’ master plan rolls on. It looks terrific. The other trees on the street sides of the track were left standing. In place of that magnificent poplar, however, lie sheets of plastic and tons of crushed stone that will form the basis of the new drainage system.
The academy will be planting over a hundred new trees, they say, come September. The community is invited to participate. According to a spokesperson quoted in the newspaper, within a hundred years we’ll have a vastly improved campus.
In the meantime I hope the school continues its generous policy of allowing us outsiders to walk their track. We promise to appreciate it. And before long, children whose grandparents haven’t even been born yet will someday be enjoying the by-then huge trees.
Until then, I hope no one minds my taking a few minutes out to praise a certain magnificent tree that meant a lot to a lot of us. Modern life and its ironies: a big, gorgeous tree with deep deep roots sacrificed to an improved drainage system.
Hugh owns and operates Gilmore’s used and rare book business in Chestnut Hill. He is also the author of the noir bibliomystery “Malcolm’s Wine” and the story collection, “Scenes from a Bookshop.” Both available in bookstores and as eBooks.