Silk road

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

To live in the woods, even for forty years, is to be outnumbered. You learn a kind of patience. When we first moved here as kids, we started a natural history museum in the shed, but after a while it began to seem redundant. Now, I only collect leaves that have been skeletonized by insects, the remaining veins as delicate as lace.

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What do you picture when you hear the word jinx? I see an ordinary tree – an ash, for instance. Something almost human, yet immune to grief & capable of sex only by proxy – through the wind, for instance, or some six-legged go-between. The pioneers went after trees with a fury, felling far more than they needed just to keep the darkness at bay. A century ago, during the Appalachian lumber boom, trees too massive for the sawmills to handle were blown apart by dynamite & left to rot.

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Trees were cut down because they were not people. Wolves were shot because they were not dogs.

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When the wind rustles in the trees, said the Delaware Indian orator to the governor of Pennsylvania, we fear not. The phrase silk road probably meant nothing to him, yet it had so much to do with how Europeans came to be here, putting their names on the forest. Leave one acre of trees, William Penn had decreed, for every five acres cleared, especially to preserve oak and mulberries, for silk and shipping.

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I remember where the bee tree stood, how it hummed when you thumped on it. A big black locust with a few, scruffy branches still living. One summer night, the bears came & climbed it & ripped it open.

I remember bushwhacking to the base of a huge oak on the side of a ravine, a regular pilgrimage in my early teens. You had to pass through a grapevine anteroom, crawling on hands & knees.

I remember when the gypsy moth caterpillars – refugees from a long-ago, failed experiment to breed a more voracious silkworm – first ballooned in on their streamers of silk, following the ridgelines down the Appalachians, killing the oaks.

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The catalog for Victoria’s Secret is printed on paper made in part from the mixed mesophytic forest of the southern Appalachians – the richest temperate forest on earth. What the hell is so special about silk, that bare skin isn’t enough?

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I can show you a rotting hulk encrusted with lichens, half-hidden in ferns. I still feel the absence of that dark trunk, its portion of silence, that map of open veins against the sky.

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Please consider supporting the campaign against Victoria’s Secret: here’s how. You can still shop at VS; simply buy on-line – and send a fax to the CEO. (But remember – organic cotton is way sexier!)

At the head of the hollow

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

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I have my camera around my neck because I’m about to go on a walk, but first I have to get out a package of frozen spinach so it will have time to defrost before supper. Descending the steep cellar stairs, I notice the low afternoon sun flooding the window well at the far end of the basement, just beyond the freezer. The whitewashed wall evokes the deep snow we haven’t seen since early December, forming a backdrop for a shadow play of dried grasses, which wave ever so slightly in the wind. I take one, quick picture, then find the spinach and go back upstairs and out.

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On the northwest side of the garage, what’s left of the previous night’s inch-thick carpet of snow preserves the tire tracks from the meter reader, who came up around 12:30. This is the head of the hollow – the end of the road. His three-point turn sketched out a storybook version of mountain peaks, or large-winged birds flying in front of the sun.

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Up where the field laps against the ridgetop, I study the remains of a wild sweet cherry, a tree that typically rots from the inside out. One limb is an almost vacant tube of bark, against which the dead limb of a much heavier black locust has come to rest. The risk in appearing too substantial is always that others may come to include you in their own, doomed provisions against collapse.

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I follow the windy edge of the ridge as far as the porcupine tree. Oaks are good at surviving the loss of their heartwood – that’s why they live so long, and make such great den trees. But many years of nibbling by resident porcupines has left this one with severely pollarded limbs. It doesn’t give much shade, even in the summer, and there are few places for birds to nest, or even perch. When the other trees whisper and creak and sway, this one barely budges. You’d think the empty bottle of its trunk might moan a bit, though, in a high wind.

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You’ve seen, I’m sure, how often twigs die and drop out of wild grape tendrils, leaving their missing figures imprinted on the air. What was it about this one, I wonder, that made the growing tendril reverse direction partway up? Does the switch from clockwise to counterclockwise represent the point at which the sun began to decline from the height of noon? I think of Qoheleth, his sun rising and setting and returning, his wind blowing this direction and that, whirling, circling. I have seen all the works that are done under the sun, and look: all is vapor, a grasping at the wind. (Eccl. 1:14)