The Flint River begins south of Atlanta and winds away from this metropolis through some of the most beautiful rural counties in the state of Georgia. Moving south, the Flint meets the Chattahoochee in Lake Seminole and from there the combined waters become the Apalachicola River, which empties into the Gulf of Mexico.
At the start of its journey, it traverses Meriwether County, winding back and forth flanked by deciduous trees and cow pastures – sometimes rolling over rocky shoals and sometimes flowing like glass in a canal. wide and deep. For many years a beech tree stood above 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 looked after and lived on a lot next to Flint and the beech was growing on this property. Uncle John, who has an eye for ingenuity as well as reckless fun, built a rope swing with a trapeze bar from beech branches.
When you swung on the cable you were launched 50 feet above the river channel. Athletes like my brothers, cousins and uncle could do stunts, jumps and dives when they landed in the river. Fat kids like me stood firm for life and prayed that we wouldn’t lose our grip and fall into the reeds that grew by the riverside.
A few years ago we lost the beech. Uncle John did all he could to keep it from falling and extended its lifespan for years by using a cable to keep it from entering the river. The shore, however, was sandy and gravity had drawn it into the water for decades.
It was easy to take the beech for granted until it fell. Since we lost him, I have been looking for another swing tree that is his equal. I’ve walked for miles of lake and river shores, but I can’t find another tree that’s the perfect height and angle above the water.
What a strange and wonderful providence that the best swing tree I have ever seen grows on the only 100 feet of shoreline I had unlimited access to as a child.
Thinking of the trees in my house reminds me of an old oak tree that grew in the back pastures of my grandfather’s farm. About 8 feet off the ground, it split into two large trunks and made a perfect spot to build a deer stand. My Uncle Clements built a tree stand before I was born and named it after a family friend nicknamed “Luck”.
The Luck Stand was a great place for deer hunting. Just behind the stand was the stream and behind it a large hardwood stand. In front of the stand was a small clearing with pine trees planted on the other side. The deer often crossed this place where several landscapes rubbed shoulders. I had some success hunting in this tree and killed one of my first deer there.
Uncle Clem called me one day when I was a student in seminary to tell me that a trunk of the tree had fallen and that the place as we knew it had changed.
I don’t hunt deer much anymore, but I miss knowing the lucky stand is there. The place was much more to me than deer hunting.
I remember fixing the stand with Uncle Clem during the summers as we were getting ready for the season. I remember sitting on the booth 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 at the bottom of a hardwood stream hoping to see a buck but finding complete solace in the colorful foliage of a Georgia November.
I remember pointing out the booth to Kayla as we walked past him the day I asked him to be my wife. I wanted to ask him to be part of my family on this land which was so important for generations of Barnès.
I miss the oak of the back pastures and the beech of the river. I grew up in these trees.
Memento mori is a Latin expression which means “remember that 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 dark reminder. Seen in a way, I guess the trees from my childhood could form a sort of memento mori.
But the joy I have experienced in these trees and under their shade outweighs the gloomy thought of death and impending doom.
I haven’t forgotten the fresh morning air that I felt while sitting in the oak of my grandfather’s farm. The memory of the morning breezes clings to me like the air from another world and prompts me to hope that there is more to this life than rot and gravity. I haven’t 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 wonder and glory in the world.
As a Christian, I believe that the whole story is, in a sense, a story of trees. We got into the wrong part of the story because we looked for goodness outside of what God said was good and took from the forbidden tree in the garden, consequently losing access to the community with God. Yet, by the grace of God, Christ redeems us in the presence of God, represented in the Scriptures by the Tree of Life.
The joy I experienced in these trees swallowed up my pain at their fall. It is the memory of the beech and the oak, death engulfs itself in joy.
The tree of life was on either side of the river, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, bearing fruit every month. The leaves of the tree are to heal the nations, and there will be no more curse. (Revelation 22: 2b-3a)
Cory Barnes is originally from Georgia and former resident of Rome. He teaches Old Testament and Hebrew at the Baptist Theological Seminary in New Orleans. Follow him on Twitter @coryryanbarnes.