Untitled article
Written by
Joanne Barney
September 2018
Written by
Joanne Barney
September 2018



I’ve not contacted the dating sites for old people that I thought might be the basis for my next novel, as I may have promised in the last blog. Last week I was hacked, that is, my computer was hacked, and I decided I didn’t care to share my interest in a new man with the Russians. The old one I have is adequate enough although not grist lately for my writing mill. Since I’ve heard no new stories of aging hands across the internet, my next inspiration came when I noticed that when one is driving along an Oregon road lined with second and third growth evergreen trees, all the are the same height,  like a field of corn, because they were planted all in the same month, except that sometimes one tree many feet taller sticks up above the rest.  My son, the woodsy guy, explained that when the first-growth trees were cut years ago, often one tree was left behind to mark the boundary of the plot. This tree is called a Witness Tree. It is probably over one hundred years old, still witnessing the world of second and third growths below it.


Think about this in terms of a novel:  a long-lived, tall old woman witnesses of the activity of younger ones living around her, their desires to grow, the havoc of natural disorders they endure, the destruction and scars left by mistakes and fate, and finally, the thinning out and weakening of that generation. When a new crop of seedlings is planted at her feet, our old woman settles back in her comfortable rocker and watches the third growth take over. 


I thought I had my next old lady novel. I could imagine my straight, tall Grandmother Gage, whom I knew only from a l930 photo, her gardening tools at her side, as my protagonist. She watches a second growth in her family, and I’m part of the third growth, my sons, already tall, are the fourth growth in this metaphor. I’d call the book Witness Tree, of course.


So, I Googled “witness tree” to get to make sure the facts in this nature-inspired story were mostly correct.  Lucky I did. I discovered that a book with my title, based on a woman’s fascination with a very old tree in New England, was published last year. That particular tree witnessed the Civil War and important historical events.  On the cover, the author sits at the base of the tree, patting its old bark. The book has very good reviews. Not only that, but other east coast Witness Trees were mentioned, mostly deciduous, none of them a tall Doug fir.


When I told my son this disappointing news, he said I should consider other trees.  Had I ever heard of Nurse Trees, fallen old, old logs on top of which new, huge trees grow from the tiny seeds that have dropped on them? I Googled “Nurse tree,” saw photos. I remembered, then, I had seen them in the Hoh Valley of the Olympic National Park, roots tangling around the rotting trees that gave the new ones their start. They are intriguing, beautiful. I got excited for a minute or two. Maybe? But then I had trouble coming up with a plot involving a dead old woman with babies growing out of her body. I don’t write paranormal.  It scares me. Perhaps I’ll go back to old ladies placing ads on the Internet.  Jo Barney

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