We didn’t just drive two hours to look at ice on a mud puddle, did we?
No. It was more like an hour and a half in each direction.
And why not? Someday, ice might be as rare a sight here as in Macondo, the fictional town in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Fifty years from now, we’ll struggle to describe it to the young ‘uns, who by that time will have attention spans less than four seconds long. “It was kind of like cold glass,” we’ll begin, and stop when we see their eyes glazing over.
An old wound has exposed a patch of heartwood in a tulip poplar. I run my fingers over the rippled surface, like an illiterate person trying to make sense of the headlines. But this is ten-year-old news, at least. It’s useful to be reminded once in a while just how large a percentage of every healthy tree is technically dead.
How long could any of us stand without a sturdy superstructure of memories and habits? We shouldn’t call it heartwood, I suppose. The heart gets blamed for everything, the poor sap.
Dead trees of some species, such as oaks and hemlocks, disintegrate from the outside in. Bitter tars or tannins help preserve them from the agents of decay. For others — locusts, poplars, birches — the outer shell is the last thing to go.
Civilizations are like that too, aren’t they? I can imagine America’s thin plastic skin persisting for centuries after its Nutrasweet core has succumbed to rot. Meanwhile, the descendents of the Aztecs have managed to preserve the core of their intellectual tradition more or less intact for five hundred years after the Conquest, that apocalypse in which their ancestors had so heavily invested. To the Nahuat way of thinking, it is our waking life that is a shadow. Even the sun must travel to the underworld to get more light.
An almost-pure stand of white birches, I discover, is less impressive than a single white birch on a mountainside of black birches, reaching into the rhododendron like a blind man’s cane. I’ve never been to this particular spot before, but I’ve been to enough places like it to have a sense of what’s been lost and may never return, short of another ice age: the deep, spongy moss under a north-facing slope of towering hemlocks. The wind hissing through its teeth. Siskins and crossbills.
I suppose some of you might go to the woods for a dose of something called “nature,” which is alleged to have restorative properties. Not me. I go to hunt for ghosts.
Which is to say, for lights and mysteries. What left its white track on this soon-to-wither leaflet? Does the thick end of the path indicate metamorphosis, or sudden death?
Was all that summer green just a trick of the light?
I could ramble on, but we ought to get out of the woods now. The deer hunters are moving in for Monday’s rifle season opener, cleaning out their cabins and staking out their favorite spots, on which we have probably been trespassing all afternoon. I guess some hikers are after a wilderness experience — whatever that means — but whenever I visit a new place, I like to speculate about who might’ve been there before me and how they might have seen it. Up that ravine, someone’s cousin might’ve shot an albino buck, and got maimed in a car accident three weeks later as a result. Along this very section of trail, some toddler out with her grandparents may have encountered ice for the very first time. You never know.
As always, be sure to click on the photos to get the blow-ups.