All this time

leaving trunk

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.

21 Replies to “All this time”

  1. I used to have dreams along the line of yours about the second hollow, except in my dreams, it was a whole set of rooms in the house that I found, each full of the treasure of possibilities of ways in which to inhabit them.

    As for the clearings, the nightmarish quality of those I discovered when I came across, for the first time, clear-cut ridges cut into the forests in the Pacific Northwest.

    1. Yes, that must be especially heartbreaking since in many cases those clearcuts are of old-growth forest. Here we’re two centuries removed from the destruction of the original forest, the likes of which we’ll never see again.

  2. I love the way the three vignettes in this post interrelate.

    And I’m struck, not for the first time, by your genuine depth of feeling for trees. I think a lot of people don’t have that.

    1. Thanks, Rachel. Of course, I like to think I’m normal and it’s everyone else who’s strange, but it’s possible I’m mistaken about that. :)

  3. This is moving and wonderful. Those faces always seem to speak to me mutely. It feels personal but I know it isn’t. When I was a kid I had this panelled set of two eyes that stared out at me on a vertical slant in the wall right next to my bedside table, where I read. My mom designed and my dad built that house so I always felt they were there for me. They seemed so stuck, so poignantly caught and stilled. Recently the forest trees surrounding the wooded place by a pond where I go to meditate, write, and sit were cut back extensively. I’m not sure what sort of disease they were supposed to have had, but that was the reason I was given for felling them. I want to find out. They were predominantly pines. It’s very different there now. I haven’t looked closely at the stumps and limbs; too hard to do. But I think I will. Thanks for this.

    1. Glad this post resonated with yor own experience. Laura. The pond you mention — is it the same one you had a picture of on your blog a couple years ago, the one with empty chairs among the pines? If so, that’s terrible! It looked like a beautiful spot, and I remember what you wrote about your feeling of connection to it.

  4. I posted this regarding the festival of trees…I have had a weekly nature meme and a thinking green meme for months and I never get more than 10 people to participate. It has baffled and depressed me all at the same time. While it seems like people would like to post about nature and environmental issues, they don’t. Yet the memes that call for a color or a shadow or something simple, get many participants. I think that this shows how much trouble conservation is really in when people don’t want to blog about it. ….Michelle

  5. This really hit home with me..not the underpants.. but I have had the same dream for years now of a cabin, a pond and woods. If I could draw, I could draw all the details. I think it stems from my childhood in the country at my grandparents’ cabin and all the fun of childhood….Michelle

    1. The irony is that I already lived, and still live, pretty far out in the woods, though there’s a large meadow in back of the houses too, too. Whatever house I’m in is never small enough, nor the forest big and wild enough. I was always envious of the protagonist of the young-adult novel My Side of the Mountain, by Jean Craghead George, for running away from home and moving into a huge hollow tree. (I actually know a guy who lived in a hollow redwood stump in northern California for a while.)

  6. There is something about the word “stump” that always makes me think of war. The man with a metal hook that protruded from his elbow and grabbed like a hand, he is the personification of stump, circa 1955. Now the forests are littered with stumps. Do the roots imagine their phantom limbs, and weep because the wind can no longer move them?

    Thank you for giving me something to think about, dave.

    1. Do the roots imagine their phantom limbs, and weep because the wind can no longer move them?

      Thanks for giving me something to think about too.

    1. Oh. I’d be interested to hear what the foresters claimed the pines were infected with. Often the effect of native pests and diseases is benign if viewed from an ecological perspective, but foresters like to think they can do a better job of thinning trees than nature.

  7. I like the way your search for clearings got a Zen overlay in Japan, while the far clearing you discovered last week had the “raw Z of a steep haul road.”

    Thank you for a relaxing read, Dave.

  8. Wow! What a story, and how Jungian! I wonder if this is an archetypal dream we all have in some form or another. I like Maria have wish fulfillment dreams of houses with secret luxurious rooms, each one more fascinating than the previous one. Your Shangri La valley woodsy dream would correspond if one lived one’s life in a more expansive and green environment.

    The then there is the dysphoric dream. In my case, it is of vacant bombed out concrete high rises in‘ another part of Hannibal, that keeps reoccurring in various guises. It could have been memory whiffs of the old Hannibal Limekilns, mixed with WWII movie newsreels of European devastation. Whatever. Desolation is desolation, whether is desolation by bombs or what was referred to as “The Termite People” in that old movie “Emerald Forest” with Powers Booth.

    1. I think you’re right: my dream and Maria’s do seem like analogues. Forest spaces have merged with rooms in my imagination ever since we moved here when I was five, if not earlier. My brothers and I all had dreams, prompted by train whistles in the night, in which we were chased by trains up the hollow (we had to cross the train tracks every day on our way home from school), and the hollow frequently turned into the narrow, L-shaped staircase to our bedrooms.

      I’ll bet just about everyone who grew up during the Cold War had desolation dreams like that. Maybe the post-1989 generation does too, though, I don’t know. We certainly don’t lack for terrors today. In fact, we seem to thrive on them.

    1. Yes, exactly! In a virtually elfin forest, too. And it remained elusive because some other S.O.B. had already pitched a tent in it both times.

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