“A few minutes ago every tree was excited, bowing to the roaring storm, waving, swirling, tossing their branches in glorious enthusiasm like worship. But though to outer ear these trees are now silent, their songs never cease. Every hidden cell is throbbing with music and life, every fiber thrilling like harp strings, while incense is ever flowing from the balsam bells and leaves.” – John Muir
I couldn’t be sure, standing below and looking up through the tangle of branches to the topmost reaches of the tree, but I thought it might be a dove perched there. The tree was a lovely, fragrant tea olive – a member of the general olive tree family – so the dove seemed most appropriate. A symbol of peace and protection, always and once again.
The tree looked a bit rumpled. But olive trees are meant to be that way. Even the youngest have an appearance of age and wisdom about them. And the most ancient seem to shape themselves with thriving energy.
The bird in question had stayed there on the single highest branch of the tea olive, quietly overlooking the grounds below, for a significant length of time. He seemed to be studying the view from his vantage point: the random pile of bricks, the leaning gate that was separated from its hinges but otherwise intact, the jagged wall that gaped like the smile of a pumpkin casually carved with irregular teeth, and, across the road, the torn and up-turned roots and broken stump of what had recently been an obviously very large, rather old oak.
The oak had succumbed to the tail of hurricane Matthew when it grazed through my home town in South Carolina a few weeks before. And, in that tempest, the large old tree had been tossed with abandon toward the quiet grey home with happy yellow shutters across the street from it. It crushed its way through the low brick wall in front of the house, but was caught in the arms of the tea olive tree, inches before it could damage the home itself. The symbolism and story to be told could not be missed. And the tea olive faithfully blossomed and bloomed even after its act of rough heroism.
I am particularly fond of tea olive trees. As are most Southerners, I would suspect. There is no fragrance quite like it. It’s the kind of scent that calls you to itself. You find yourself searching it out. And, just as you think it must be within inches of your nose, you still might not see it hiding on the far side of some old-world wall or tucked behind a thick, tall hedge.
I’ve heard it described as the signature scent of autumn in the South. And regional gardening expert, Bill Finch, has said: “December in Germany smells like fir. In New England, it smells like smoke. But here [in the South], December smells like tea olive.” I agree, too, that the scent is so full it can take on an almost physical appearance, especially after a rain.
But, in the end, I am caught most of all by the genuine poignancy of the tea olive tree itself – a symbol of peace that blooms at its peak during the very season of peace. Especially this particular tea olive tree. The one in front of the grey house with yellow shutters. The one with the dove resting high in her thoroughly mussed and ravaged hair. And I am heartened by the fact that she stood fast in the middle of a wild swirling storm and brought peace to the people who love her. I suspect those are the best kind of friends to have – the ones whose songs never cease, who throb with life, and who stand bravely between you and your dangers … even if it leaves them a bit rumpled in the wake.
This season, and always, blessed are the peacemakers. Especially the rumpled ones.