Unkempt

The peculiar thing about these woods is their power to turn melodies into something else entirely. Yesterday afternoon, for instance: the sun hangs low in the treetops and gazing into it my mouth drops open, the tune I am whistling under my breath escapes and goes muttering off through the laurel. Two or three dried leaves turn over in their sleep. A dog barks in the distance.

No music can ever be stopped, because time can’t be stopped. Or so it seems to me at the moment. I am standing with the brow of the hill behind me, watching as the silhouettes of trees grow darker by the minute within their shining outlines. I have it within my power to freeze this moment forever in a poem, I say to myself. But it isn’t true.

I listen for a while to the footsteps of a deer that seems to be in no particular hurry. At one point I hear the high, keening sound of a cedar waxwing up in the treetops, followed a moment later by a chickadee. From this bend in the trail I can travel in imagination on through the stand of large old oaks, past the clump of sapling beeches, above the wild grape tangles where the whirring arrows of ruffed grouse stirred up from the laurel so often lodge.

It doesn’t seem necessary to keep walking, though. I have the strong impression all of a sudden that everything is in its place. I remember the title of an early book by Gary Snyder, Earth House Hold, which I like better than any other line or poem he’s ever come up with. A house held is a house kept clean – but what does cleanness mean, any more, in a world full of man-made chemicals with no analogue in nature?

Let’s talk about neatness, then, about straightening up. Each natural community, each portion of the land has its own ideas about keeping house: right here, for example, it says both fire and ice, trees and deer and steaming gutpiles. The top carnivores are missing, so we humans have to do the best we can without them.

The previous day’s high winds brought down numerous dead snags and rotten limbs. It amazes me how often a large tree can crash down without major injury to any of the trees around it. I remember years ago the reaction of one of our visitors – a very urbane intellectual from Lima, Peru – to the sight of a line of broken-down locust trees left by a recent ice storm: How are you going to fix them? he wanted to know. And some time before that, our elderly neighbor, who had grown up with an even-aged forest, told my father that the growing number of logs on the forest floor didn’t look right, especially if they happened to span the stream. The woods are so messy now, she complained, a few years after the gypsy moth caterpillars came through and sped things up a bit. Yes. And the stream would never again flow as quietly as it did through the monotonous pole-timber of her youth.

Out in Ohio, a dear friend of the family, a life-long nature lover, rails at the way her daughter insists on tidying up the woods behind her suburban home, picking up all the fallen branches, cleaning out the brush. The irony is that they have a big bird feeder and enjoy watching wildlife. The same daughter goes on periodic shopping sprees for clothes, then gives almost everything she buys to Goodwill or the Salvation Army because it would make her closets too messy if she tried to keep it all. Ah, charity.

To me, the messier the woods get, the more inviting they become. A young, even-aged forest has little to offer in terms of habitat, either for wildlife or for the imagination. Songs die somewhere down in the throat. On a late afternoon in early winter, with the clean outlines of aging trees against a sky blue to the horizon, I am reminded of water spilling over fallen logs or waves on a lake lapping against half-submerged hulks along a ragged shore. The impeded stream is the one that sings, Wendell Berry once pointed out.

Back up and along the edge of the spruce grove I go, admiring the three-inch-high forest of ground cedar that covers close to half an acre there. The eastern ridge and the mountains beyond glow orange-red in the setting sun. I find one of our hunter friends sitting against a tree, his rifle resting on his lap, at the edge of an area where my father cleared out the trees two years ago to preserve the view. Charlie’s younger son, who died in a automobile accident at the age of 17, used to still-hunt in this very spot.

I return his wave but am careful to keep silent. It strikes me that all the while I stood facing west he had been sitting here on the other side of the hill, facing east and seeing things he will probably never speak of to anyone. If and when Charlie gets a deer and has it butchered and stacked neatly in labeled packages in the freezer, every time he fries up a steak it will remind him of this afternoon and others like it: the quiet, the moving light, the thoughts that came and went of their own accord. Between the two of us, I think, we kept a pretty careful watch over things. If there were any motes of dust, I would have seen them.
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A contribution to the Ecotone wiki topic Housekeeping and Place.

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