The Flint River begins south of Atlanta and runs away from that metropolis through some of the most beautiful rural counties in the state of Georgia. As it moves south, the Flint meets the Chattahoochee in Lake Seminole and from there the combined waters become the Apalachicola River, which feeds into the Gulf of Mexico.
Early on its journey it flows through Meriwether County, winding back and forth flanked by hardwood trees and cow pastures — sometimes rolling over rocky shoals and sometimes flowing still as glass in a wide and deep channel. For many years a beech tree stuck out over the Flint just south of the State Route 74 bridge in Woodbury and it was a source of great joy to me and many others.
My Uncle John cared for and lived on a piece of land next to the Flint and the beech tree grew on that property. Uncle John, who has an eye for ingenuity as well as an eye for reckless fun, built a cable swing complete with trapeze bar from the limbs of the beech tree.
When you swung out on the cable you were launched 50 feet over the channel of the river. Athletic folks like my brothers and cousins and uncle could do acrobatics and flips and dives as they landed in the river. Fat kids like me held on for dear life and prayed we didn’t lose our grip and fall into the reeds that grew on the riverbank.
A few years ago, we lost the beech tree. Uncle John did all he could to keep it from falling and prolonged its life for years by using a cable to keep it from going into the river. The bank, however, was sandy and gravity had been beckoning it into the water for decades.
It was easy to take the beech tree for granted until it fell. Since we lost it, I have been looking for another swing tree that was its equal. I have looked over miles of lakeshore and riverbank, but I cannot find another tree that has the perfect height and angle over the water.
What a strange and wonderful providence that the best swing tree I have ever seen happened to grow on the only 100 feet of riverbank I had unfettered access to while growing up.
Thinking of trees from back home makes me think of an old oak that grew in the back pastures of my grandfather’s farm. About 8 feet off the ground, it forked into two large trunks and made a perfect place to build a deer stand. My Uncle Clements built a stand in the tree before I was born and named it after a family friend who was nicknamed “Luck.”
The Luck Stand was in a great spot for deer hunting. Just behind the stand was the creek and behind that a large stand of hardwoods. In front of the stand was a small clearing with planted pines on the other side. Deer often crossed this place where several landscapes met together. I had some success hunting in that tree and killed one of my first deer there.
Uncle Clem called me one day while I was a student in seminary to tell me that one trunk from the tree had fallen and the place as we knew it had changed.
I don’t deer hunt much anymore, but I miss knowing that the Luck Stand is there. The place represented much more to me than deer hunting.
I remember repairing the stand with Uncle Clem in the summers as we prepared for the season. I remember sitting in the stand next to my grandfather when I was barely tall enough to see over the edge of the wooden planks. I remember the beauty of looking over my shoulder into a hardwood creek bottom hoping to see a buck but finding full consolation in the colorful foliage of a Georgia November.
I remember pointing out the stand to Kayla as we walked past it on the day I asked her to be my wife. I wanted to ask her to become a part of my family on the land that has meant so much to generations of Barneses.
I miss the oak tree in the back pastures and the beech tree on the river. I grew up in those trees.
Memento mori is a Latin phrase that means “remember you (also) will die.” Renaissance artists placed macabre symbols in their paintings reminding viewers of their impending demise. Songs, dances, and poems have been written to convey this grim reminder. Looked at in a certain way, I suppose the trees from my childhood could form a sort of memento mori.
But the joy I experienced in those trees and under their shade outweighs the dark thought of death and impending doom.
I have not forgotten the crisp morning air I felt sitting in the oak tree on my grandfather’s farm. The memory of morning breezes cling to me like air from another world and they guide me to hope that there is more to this life than rot and gravity. I have not forgotten the thrill of letting go of the swing over the river and feeling the rush of life that reminded me as a boy that there was a wonder and glory to the world.
As a Christian I believe that all of history is, in a sense, a story about trees. We entered the bad part of the story because we sought goodness outside of what God said was good and took from the forbidden tree in the garden, consequently loosing access to community with God. Yet by God’s grace Christ redeems us to the presence of God, represented in Scripture by the Tree of Life.
The joy I experienced in those trees swallows up my sorrow at their falling. That is the memento of the beech and the oak tree, death is swallowed up in joy.
The tree of life was on each side of the river, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree are for healing the nations, and there will no longer be any curse. (Revelation 22:2b-3a)