I was three and a half when my mom went off to the hospital to give birth to my younger brother. Dad was left in charge. Five days later, my maternal grandmother arrived to help out, and was astonished to discover that I was wearing five pairs of underpants, one overtop the other. Every morning my dad had reminded me to put on clean underwear, and I had.
This story is sometimes still re-told at large family gatherings to general merriment. Yes, kids can be literal. This afternoon when I walked into my parents’ house, Mom said to her four-year-old granddaughter, “Here comes trouble!” “What do you mean?” Elanor said. “That’s not trouble! It’s just Uncle Dave.” Thanks. I think.
Two weeks ago, I caught a whiff of body odor from my underarms. As long as I change shirts regularly, I never get B.O. I decided it must be time to do laundry. The next morning, when I went to pull out the T-shirt from inside the usual layers of turtleneck, sweatshirt, and quilted flannel shirt (I keep a cool house), I discovered not one but two T-shirts, the newer one underneath the old. It gave me a funny kind of deja vu.
I’ve written before about the dreams I used to have in which I’d walk over the ridge and discover another hollow, parallel to this one, often with very similar buildings and inhabitants, “where the orchard was never bulldozed out in the 1950s and the old farmhouse was spared its extreme makeover into a faux plantation home. Everything is twice as big and twice as far.” Last night I had a version of this dream, but the previously unknown, Land-of-Faerie Plummer’s Hollow I found myself staring down into this time was a hellscape of strip-mine terraces and settling ponds: Lost Mountain.
Or rather, it was Lost Mountain crossed with a very local instance of mountaintop removal northeast along this same ridge, where an area known as Skytop was carved out to make room for a controversial highway cut a few years back, and a smaller geographic analogue to Plummer’s Hollow was almost completely buried in what turned out to be toxic pyritic fill. I shudder every time we drive over it on our way to Penn State. It’s like we’re driving over our own grave.
When I was a teenager, I used to day-dream about finding a small clearing in the woods where tree branches touched overhead, water dripped in a hidden spring, and you couldn’t hear a sound that wasn’t natural. Sometimes it had a small hut in the middle of it, but most of the time it didn’t. When I went to Japan in my sophomore year of college, I think I was still searching for that clearing — it had acquired Zen and Shinto overtones. I visited hundreds of rural shrines and temples that year, and would often take a bus or train to the end of the line and wander around in the hills. I was a bit of a romantic, it’s fair to say. Then I’d come back into the city and get back-slappingly drunk with friendly strangers. Somewhere along the line I stopped looking for that magic clearing and just stuck with the drinking.
Last week, for no particular reason, that old day-dream sprung to mind again. Maybe I’d still been inhabiting it all this time without realizing it. I took a walk up to the ridgetop, and instead of a second hollow, found myself looking into a sunlit clearing that stretched along the far side of our property line for half a mile where a small-scale logging operation has been underway since August. I’d been avoiding it for weeks. As my mother said resignedly the other day, at least we have a better view of the migrating hawks and eagles now. I stared across the valley at the Allegheny Front and saw another recently logged patch, marked with the raw Z of a steep haul road.
Today was crystal-clear, so I went back with my camera to take some pictures for documentary purposes. Every disturbed patch of forest recovers differently, based on chance factors as well as features intrinsic to the site, so I like to observe what I can. This was a diameter-limit cut, with everything under ten inches in diameter still standing except for the collateral damage of saplings run over by the skidder, so aesthetically it wasn’t as harsh as it could have been. But the freshly cut stumps were still hard to look at, especially those from trees I remembered well. I snapped more pictures of stumps than anything else. I studied the patterns left by the chainsaw’s teeth, the way they made a crosshatch with the concentric layers of what had once been xylem, the bark that would never be stretched over another new layer of life.
One pair of stumps from a double-trunked oak had small hollows at their center — a surprise to the loggers, I imagine. They must’ve found solid wood not too much farther up the tree, though, because I didn’t see any discarded logs lying about. I brought my face down close to avoid the glare on the top surface of the stumps, peered into the closest hollow and saw another face staring back. Hello sky. Hello water.