For unintended shelter. The winter’s assaults of ice tore twigs from branches, branches from trees, trees from the earth, and some of us who could not abide the chaos chopped and raked the refuse into piles. Some of us who cannot abide the chaos even raked and piled would no doubt have burned it, had the tinder been drier and less resinous. Instead the quick-sawn trunks and browning needles sit like a Christmas massacre, sinking imperceptibly into the woods and into memory. Sinking, that is, into our memory, and rising into the life of others. Today a cardinal perched atop a storm-pile, a sienna slash of straw in her mouth. When her mate returned they disappeared into the brush and danced, as it seemed from where I stood — danced for hope or for joy, danced their own continuing. Danced the spring into existence in a bed of winter’s trash.
For feral flowers gone a-ramble over roots and moss, from the tumbledown stones of a life’s foundation. From the mossy bones of a house that must once have been tidy, must once have been kept tidy by her who planted the bulbs whose blooms return each year long after her own has faded from the earth. A streak of gold in the slow-greening woods, a proud adornment to a modest house. Now in defiance of all sense and logic the adornment outlives the adorned, and by the grace of God and springtime has come to pay its respects. Flowers that mark the grave of a life, of lives once made and joined and shared. Of a way of life gone from this place, and too quickly by us forgotten. The earth remembers.
One afternoon in early fall, a couple of years ago, I walked out over a piece of land I had thought about buying. A two-story house had once faced the road, and a barn had sat somewhere behind it, and tobacco fields and pasture and gardens ran most of a mile down to the river. Now it had been ten years since the family had given the place up, and the house had been torn down and the barn too, and back of a brief yard the land had grown up in fresh woods, pines and skinny poplar and sweetgum. All that remained of the house was a well that might yet be hooked to a hand pump. For two hundred yards the woods were — littered would suggest too sparse a treatment of refuse; I could hardly walk a straight line anywhere without stepping over or around a beer bottle or a condom wrapper or a lumpy-full garbage bag or a moldy couch or the rusting hulk of a washing machine. If the human beings of Alamance County could purchase a thing and cast it aside, one or another of its kind surely made it into those woods. How many dumpster loads, I thought, would it take to clean up this mess? And how many months, or years? For how long would I be unearthing the flotsam of present-day consumer culture, like the world’s sorriest archaeologist?
But I had driven forty minutes to get here, and the owners’ agent was meeting me to show me the place, so I waited and tried to imagine what the place had looked like, a decade or a generation or a century ago when it was half a small working farm, and what it might therefore look like again. It required a good deal of imagination. I needed to see what was under those woods, how the land lay, how much was level and how much had been or could be cleared.
The agent arrived, late, in his full-sized pickup with a bumper sticker about how he’d rather be hunting, wearing camo-print cargo shorts and a machete holstered at his side, carrying a plat map and a topo map. His outfitting did not give me hope, but we set off into the woods, he telling me what he knew of the family, I wishing the children who did not want their parents’ land had made up their minds sooner to sell it. There was a way down to the river, he said; he’d found it before, though it was a couple of years ago. We picked our way through the trash, through the first scrim of pines. And then we came to the brambles.
A lifetime’s work reduced by lifetimes since
To a pile of stones in a ferny wood, grown o’er
With moss and vines, and gently hid to all
But those who wish to see. A gift from him
Who dwelt here once, to be now so effaced
From a hillside once his own — for now it may
Be mine, or anyone’s. Would that we
Were half so generous.
By nine the air already sweats.
The sun, wearier today than once
Climbs but slow, as travelers laden
Struggle to heft again damp spirits,
While all around our dizzied ears
This primeval din the wood exudes—
This moldering cacophony
Swells in time with sweltering
And seeps in through our pores like rain.
By nine the air already sweats.
But overhead on fruitless bough
A bird extends his morning song,
Forgetting that it is no longer June.
On Friday I hiked the portion of North Carolina’s Mountains to Sea Trail that runs along the Eno River, about nine miles from Roxboro Road in Durham through West Point on the Eno Park, across Guess Road into the Eno River State Park, and then to Pleasant Green in Orange County. One day, when the trail is complete, I hope to hike the whole state. For the moment, this will have to do.
These are my snapsnots from the walk.
The rains part like a curtain; the underbrush
Stirs with sultry buzz and hum. Summer?
Goose on the river watches my confusion:
Which way the trail? Which hue the blaze?
He’s not telling.
I sit and rest by spring’s last bluets,
Pale and drooping in the summer heat.
The sycamore leans out over the river,
Stretched root to branch like a diver ready to leap,
Stripping his bark as he goes.
Swallowtails loop around the weeds
In search of some forgotten nectar,
While laurel clings to rocks above.
A carpet of decay, as finely woven
As any ancient treasure dearly bought,
And lovelier for being more ephemeral:
All the artisans of Kublai Khan
In all the workshops of a mythic continent
Could not invent geometry so fair
As seven fallen oak leaves. Yet no one sees,
So none stand guard to make me wipe my feet
Before I walk on it.
I typically don’t blog in photographs because I am not really much of a photographer, but the Eno River made it easy today. The air and the water were absolutely still, the sky deep cloudless blue, and the low angle of the afternoon sun coaxed a glow from the trees and the river that I can’t find words to describe. I can see why Monet spent a lifetime trying to paint light and reflections on water — and why he was never satisfied.
New Year’s Eve winds knocked down another big old loblolly pine across the nature trail, and so I had to start the year by playing lumberjack. This pine was just big enough to make a lot of work with the bow saw and just far enough from a power supply that my electric chain saw was no help, but it was rotten enough that the work went quickly. Two-thirds of the way through with the saw was enough, and then a good whack with the poll of an axe finished it off. I wasn’t about to repeat the process unnecessarily, though, so a freshly sawn cross-section of pine the diameter and height of an eight year-old’s head watches you coming round the bend.
Our woods are at the age when the first-generation pines are dying off and being replaced by hardwoods, but in this little section of woods the secondary succession is going slowly, with only two skinny sweetgums in an area several yards square. That section is lower than the rest and stays wet much of the year, and I wonder if the trees in the surrounding woods simply don’t propagate well in such damp bottomland, or whether saplings are more easily felled by vines (we are overrun by fox grape and, until I started ripping it out last summer, oriental bittersweet) when their roots have only loose wet earth to cling to. Come spring I may try clearing out the tangle of vines and pine stumps down there and transplanting a few saplings that won’t make it elsewhere.
Meantime the trail is clear, even if alongside is still a bit of a mess — but that’s the wild woods, and by June the foliage will have hidden it all anyway.