By Marvin Newman
I first made my acquaintance with the Sentinel around 1965. The old poplar tree had been dead for many years and all that remained was a tall trunk and a few high, leafless limbs protruding at odd intervals near the top. By that time the elements had burnished the wood into a rich tan color. The tree was some three to four feet in diameter at its base and stood approximately 50 feet tall.
For decades, the Sentinel had watched over the waters of Conasauga Creek as well as a myriad of hunters who came to pursue ducks and other game along its banks. How interesting it would be to know who had passed that way over the years and what events had transpired underneath the poplar when it was in full leaf. But the Sentinel kept its secrets well.
While the inside of the tree was hollow, the surrounding wood remained strong enough to hold it upright. A triangle-shaped gap on the east side of the trunk allowed a hunter to squeeze inside and take shelter from the wind or rain while peering out through the “window” overlooking the creek. Depending on the time of the season, you might encounter many species of ducks. In early fall, wood ducks are plentiful, squealing and whistling as they trade between feeding and roosting sites. Later, when cold north winds bring migrating waterfowl to the area, mallards feed and rest along the creek, and if you are lucky, a few wary black ducks might make their appearance as well.
One late December morning, the Sentinel witnessed my most memorable duck hunt. Light snow was falling, and I shot a brace of greenheads as they flew past the timeworn poplar on their way upstream. Harvesting those beautiful drakes in the snow at that cherished location made for the perfect hunt.
You can imagine my disappointment when I arrived at the Sentinel one beautiful September day and discovered that it had blown down, the victim of high winds from a severe thunderstorm or possibly even a tornado. The change was hard to accept, but gradually I became accustomed to the Sentinel’s new place along the creek. Over time it became apparent that nature was still at work both in and around the old tree.
On a recent outing, the tree served as a bench from which I could sit and observe the forest as it began a new day. Sunlight filtered through the surrounding trees, creating shadowy patterns on the forest floor as the light worked its way from the top of the ridge to the creek below. The Sentinel, now only a moss-covered log, emitted a warm glow in the morning sun. The sound of cicadas, known locally as jar flies, carried through the woods on a gentle breeze. Damselflies fluttered about from place to place, sometimes choosing an autumn leaf and sometimes the log itself as a place to land.
Sections of the old tree are beginning to rot away. Within the trunk, decaying wood and leaves have formed a rich layer of soil. From that soil have come maple, hickory, and elm sprouts whose seeds may have been carried there by the wind, a spring flood, or possibly some industrious woodland creature. At that moment, I realized that in one sense the Sentinel is still very much alive. In time it will complete its journey back to the earth, but the seedlings that it nourishes will one day be tall enough to take its place and stand guard over the woods and creek. Maybe, with a little good fortune, one of these new trees will one day provide shelter for some duck hunter seeking refuge from the elements.
Perhaps the Sentinel had finally given up its most meaningful secret: Life goes on!