The boys and I listened to Where the Red Fern Grows this summer and I’ve been meaning to get back here to make this note…..
About 1/3 of the way into the book, Billy has survived the Dog Wanting Disease and hunting season is about to begin. On the big opening day he cleans and fills his lantern, greases his boots, and grinds his ax. In the evening he sets out with his two new pups. A good chunk of chapter 8 is spent on the trail of a coon, which Old Dan and Little Ann ultimately chase up the beloved Sycamore tree in Big Tree Bottoms. Poor Billy is faced with chopping down the tree he loves or failing his dogs in the success of their first treed coon. He reads betrayal and disappointment in his dogs’ eyes and begins chopping. He swings his ax all night and into the next morning when he collapses against the tree, still standing, and in exhaustion, falls asleep. Eventually his dad finds him there and challenges his commitment to the dogs, but Billy holds fast. “….I made a bargain with my dogs. I told them if they would put one in the tree, I’d do the rest.” His dad suggests Billy go home for breakfast and he’ll chop at the tree until Billy gets back. Standing firm in his commitment to his dogs, Billy refuses. “Please, Papa,” I begged, “don’t make me quit. I just have to get that coon. If I don’t, my dogs won’t ever believe in me again.” Papa leaves him, and Billy returns to chopping. Later that morning Billy’s sister brings him lunch (and calls him crazy). Billy chops through the day and in the evening his grandfather shows up with an idea. Together they make a scarecrow at the base of the tree, designed to keep the coon way up in the tree that night. Billy and Grandpa go home for dinner and Billy gets a good night sleep. The next morning Billy and his pups head back out to the tree where Billy resumes his ax swinging in painful commitment to finish what he started. By afternoon his raw blisters break him down to deep grief and despair. Giving up at last, he begins to walk away, but before he gets too far the thought that he had destroyed the Big Tree for no purpose stops him short and he turns back. Kneeling down between my dogs, I cried and prayed, ‘Please God, give me the strength to finish the job. I don’t want to leave the big tree like that. Please help me finish the job.” Moments later a gust of wind stirred up in a storm of determination and “It growled and moaned as it pushed harder against the wavering top.” Without touching any other tree in Big Tree Bottoms, the vicious wind whirled and snapped at the Big Tree and it crashed to the ground. And the pups caught their first coon.
Whatever can be thought of the various angles in this story, what happens next was what caught my attention. Billy does not take the loss of the Big Tree for granted. He acknowledges its integral part and ultimate sacrifice in his story. And then we get to see him make sense of the story. Later that day: While we were tacking the hide on the smokehouse wall, I asked Papa if he had noticed any wind blowing that evening. He thought a bit and said, “No, I don’t believe I did. I’ve been out all day and I’m pretty sure I haven’t noticed any wind. Why did you ask?” “Oh, I don’t know, Papa,” I said, “but I thought something strange happened down in the bottoms this afternoon.”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand,” said Papa. “What do you mean, ‘something strange happened?”….”I don’t know, I said, “but I didn’t chop the big tree down. The wind blew it over.” “Why that’s nothing,” Papa said. “I’ve seen that happen a lot of times.” “It wasn’t just the wind,” I said. “It was the way it blew. It didn’t touch another tree in the bottoms. I know because I looked around. The big tree was the only one touched by the wind. Do you think God heard my prayer? Do you think he helped me?”
Papa looked at the ground and scratched his head. In a sober voice, he said, “I don’t know, Billy. I’m afraid I can’t answer that. You must remember the big sycamore was the tallest tree in the bottoms. Maybe it was up there high enough to catch the wind where the others couldn’t. No, I’m afraid I can’t help you there. You’ll just have to decide for yourself.”
It wasn’t hard for me to decide. I was firmly convinced that I had been helped.
Billy’s conviction reminds me of an OnBeing Krista Tippet interview with poet Marie Howe that I heard back in 2013. Howe said (and I have quoted her so many times since): “….I don’t know about the soul. I don’t know anything about that. All I know is that some things have happened that I don’t understand. And they’re the most true things I’ve known……. some things have happened that I don’t understand that feel like the most important things that have ever happened to me.”