Dad and I walked a small hill in Guernica, Spain. At 78-years, his hip gave him pain, so a gnarled stick in his right hand served as a cane. We moved slowly. Each step he limped and winced, but he was determined to reach the top.
There, he paused to catch his breath and wipe his bushy brow, and together we saw the tree, Gernikako-Arbola, the Basque oak.
I expected something grander, wider, thicker, the inspiration of a Sequoia or an ancient pinion, a chance to say Wow! But it was a mere sapling enclosed by a wrought iron fence on a patch of grass. It wasn’t much larger than any baby oak in any American yard.
“What do you think?” I asked dad.
“Purdy,” he said, “but dhis not da tree I seen when I a boy.”
Dad was right. The sapling was the fourth of its lineage planted in 1986 from an acorn of the tree that dad had seen as a boy.
That earlier tree, third in line, had survived the bombing and burning of Guernica in 1937 by Hitler and Mussolini to support Franco. Thereafter, it offered powerful testimony of freedom, resilience, and an undaunted Basque spirit.
Dad and I wandered the rest of the garden. Not far from the sapling stood a structure of white columns surrounding a gargantuan trunk of what must have been a mighty oak in its day.
“Jesus Cristo!” said Dad. I chuckled.
Four or five men would have had to clasp hands to surround the trunk. It had been planted in 1742, second in line, and died from fungus 150 years later in 1892. Rarely had I seen a tree with such massive girth as if I were Gulliver, washed up on a Brogdignagian shore where the soil had been blessed with magic waters.
Yet as old and huge as it was, this tree hadn’t been the oldest nor the largest of the lineage.
Planted in the 14th century, the original oak grew on the same spot as the sapling and spanned 450 years of life. It thrived alongside the Basque who gathered under it each month to hold public assembly.
Beneath its knotted and ancient branches, the Basque debated the issues of the day and made laws. They swore allegiance to protect the fueras, or freedoms, of the Basque people, long before modern Spain, long before the British Magna Carta, and long before our own Declaration of Independence.
As I watched dad study the tree, the sapling of today and the trunk of yesteryear, he flickered subtle sparks of reverence and pride, real emotion. Ordinarily stoic, he was tough to read, but the feeling was there. Only a son would notice it.
“Take one picture,” he said, and I snapped a few of him, arm outstretched, touching the trunk between the white columns, and again inside the wrought iron fence next to the sapling.
“Dhis mean somet’ing,” he said wagging his finger. We sat on a bench overlooking the town. “Franco, he try to blow dhis up. He couldn’t.”
It did indeed mean something. It still does. I hadn’t experienced the true potency of a symbol until that moment with dad, or how powerfully a symbol might conjure feelings of pride all the way from the Middle Ages.
Deeply rooted, magnificently grand, tall and invulnerable like a centurion, the oak embodied Basque freedom, the fight for it, and the struggle to keep it whenever interlopers inside or out tried to take it.
The oak stirred a well spring of feeling in dad and other Basque, past and present. Out of pride, they would defend it to an extreme, I thought, just as others might attack and destroy symbols that stir pain and misery.
The sun dipped beyond the noon hour. “You ready to head down?” I asked.
Dad nodded. “I need one nap.” He rose from the bench with a hunched back before straightening, his hip screaming.
“Did you like that?” I asked on the way down.
He paused on his cane-branch, breathing heavy. “Dhat my favorite t’ing,” he said, and then he resumed his limping pace down the hill.
Behind him I whispered, Wow.
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