My grandma Lu recently told me that “oak trees have a life expectancy of thirty years.” Trees have been falling all across the Bay Area, and there are a lot of oaks near her house. My power was out and I had driven to see her. On the drive over, the roads had been lined with those tall oaks shaking in the wind.


I’ve been having a sort of crisis of faith as of late. Not of the religious variety—rather, I’ve been asking myself what I’m doing here. I sit in classes every week where I discuss the same things over and over again. Everybody is BS-ing—what do I care about the difference between Ratzinger and Taylor?


My maternal grandfather’s name is Frank; I inherited it from him. He went to Berkeley when he was my age, mostly because he’d grown up nearby. He recalls learning nothing in school. Then Frank went to the army. He was stationed for three years. When he came back, he enrolled in Cal State, Humboldt. It was there that he studied forestry and began to take an interest in his classes.


Frank worked in the lumber business. If you couldn’t tell that from the Building Supply company logos around his living room or the lumberjack flannels that he loves so dearly, his living room table would be the dead giveaway: Sitting under an overhead window between two couches made of itchy fabric lies the cross-section of a redwood branch. Five or six feet across, shiny with uneven edges, the redwood table props up Kleenex tissues (used and unused), a collection of Jack Reacher novels (constantly changing), and loads of yellow-lined notepads (filled by my grandmother). When I brought my roommate home for spring break, and we walked in to have dinner at their house, he commented on the table.


“I cut that myself.” My grandpa looked at us with a grin.


I laughed a little. “No way.”


“Yes way. With a hand-saw.”


“BS. Must’ve taken you a whole day.”


“It did.” My grandpa smiled and set down his glass of whisky on the redwood table. When he picked it up later, I could see the circle of condensation that had been marked into the wood.


When he asked me at dinner what I was doing in school, I gave a long-winded answer.


It turns out my grandma Lu was wrong. Oak trees have a life expectancy of anywhere from 100 to 600 years, depending on the variety. The trees last, and any mark made on them lasts too. The sense that they come and go quickly is a byproduct of our own fast-paced lives. We move away and imagine that the trees leave too. But really, they stay longer than we do.


Last year, I had dinner with my grandparents. We sat outside on another wood table with a glossy finish. The sky was blue where we were, not gray or red like it had been earlier in the year. I expressed my sadness about the now regular fires; the town of Paradise, near where my mom grew up, had been nearly completely turned to ash. I referenced news stories I had read and politicians’ proposed courses of action. My grandpa listened calmly. When I stopped, he started talking about the trees in Paradise, California. He motioned with his hands slowly, while he reminisced on having been contracted to clear undergrowth for the state when he was younger. He talked about the wooden houses in Paradise. He remembered cutting down dead trees that would otherwise act as kindling for fires. He talked about Lake Almanor, where he had taken me as a kid to swim. The west shore of the lake is barren now. He remembered less fires when he was my age.


I’m struck by the profoundly different paths my grandfather and I have chosen to go down. I exist in an academic sphere that indulges in the theoretical, and that is self-referential and insular. It’s uncommon for classes to engage in projects beyond the Princeton sphere. My grandpa, meanwhile, worked with his hands covered in sawdust. He often says that “to be a good employee in the lumber business, you only have to be able to chew gum and talk at the same time.” He pretends it’s a simple job, but if I were dropped next to a sequoia with the proper equipment, I would never know how to do what he did—cut the right trees, make the product that has become his furniture, and coexist with the natural environment.


When I bring up that difference (and my resulting crisis of faith) to people who matter to me, I often get some response along the lines of: “But you’re learning academic things he never did.” “You’re learning how to think,” they tell me. Yet when I try to translate my learned ideas into the physical, the confrontation of real life stumps me. I can talk to him about politics; he can always talk about having been to Washington D.C. to meet with politicians about the lumber industry. I can name-drop authors; he will always keep reading the same Jack Reacher spy thrillers, because he already knows what he likes. Maybe it’s just his experience in life that impresses me. But even when he was my age, he was marking trees in Chico to be felled. The ones taken down have been turned into houses and tables now. His redwood table is just one of them, and I can run my hand across the smooth surface and feel the knots that make up its face. The trees that haven’t come down either still have the marks or have healed. I don’t know, but he probably does.


There’s an appeal to the tangibility of work like forestry. While politics and philosophy revolve around themselves and are constantly up for reinterpretation, if I were to memorize trees and their lifespans, that information would be relatively unchanging. When that information does change, due to a heating climate, a purpose is injected into the profession. Politics is exalted for the questions it sets out to resolve—relative puzzles—that we deem important to a functioning society. But forestry offers similar puzzles, especially in the modern age: How do we control the California wildlife to avoid widespread fires? How do we foster ecological sites and protect endangered species of trees? How do we use trees to combat climate change? Yet these puzzles often seem to have solutions, at the very least partial ones. When it comes down to it, can Jaques Rousseau hold his own against Paul Bunyan?


The people I admire in my life, like my grandfather, are those who leave some mark on the world outside themselves. Forestry is one possibility; I’m just attracted to it because of the people around me. The existence of alternate paths in my life, outside the ones that are dictated by school, is both wonderful and scary. Even now, my way of confronting my own uncertainty is to write. The tangibility of writing something like this is questionable at best. I have to hope that what I do later in my life has some purpose, some mark that will outlast me, but right now, that seems so far away.


I could do ecological studies here. I could probably even go to Firestone and get a basic introduction to forestry there. But it wouldn’t really be it; just an abstraction of it, still.


The oldest tree in the world is supposedly the Muir Snag. It’s a giant sequoia, closely related to a redwood, and it’s only four hours east of my house. It’s about 140 feet tall, 35 feet wide at the base, and it’s dead. It lived for 3,200 years, and even though its roots have dried out, it still stands towering over the Converse Basin Grove. I might visit the Muir Snag the next time I’m home. Or I’ll go to Chico, California, where my grandpa cut lumber for most of his life. While I’m there, I might even go to Paradise to see the rebuilding efforts. I want to start thinking forward a little more. I’d like to think I could work cutting down trees some summer. Maybe that’s not my life, though. My life ideally fulfills itself through finding the intersection between my work here and the concrete world. My crisis is rooted in the distance between me now and that intersection point.


Oak trees live for 100-600 years. If I were to cut one down right now and make it my table, that life would end prematurely. If I were to carve my name into the trunk, it might heal and remove my mark. The oak trees exist, and with their roots stretching beneath them, they coexist with everything around. If those trees could think, I’d like to believe that at some point in sapling adolescence they questioned whether they’d grow tall. I’d like to think they wondered about whether a nest would be built on their branches, whether they would provide shade or the surface of a table. I’m sure my grandpa Frank wondered if he would have an impact at some point or another. They found their tangibility. I have to hope I will find mine.

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