Forests I Have Known, Forests I Have Lost
by Bestia Mortale
I remember the wet air indoors heavy as a hot towel, the cool gray stone on the terrace outside, the lawn not yet browned by the summer heat stretching out past a pair of tall wild cherry trees to the back field. On the left were low shrubs; on the right were roses. Beyond the lawn, the field fell gently down a long hill past the woods to a fence far in the distance. It was dusk, and deer had come out of the woods into the field, as usual.
It was quiet, if you didn’t count the crickets. Something winked down by the trees – the first firefly. A moment later, there were two more. Twenty minutes later, it was almost dark, except for thousands of tiny lights as far as the eye could see, flashing and disappearing, flashing again.
We had caught the lightning bugs a hundred times, watched their thoraxes glow. It was still magic to a child when the field danced with their fire. Down at the edge of the woods, honey locust trees were in flower. Their scent mingled with the smell of the honeysuckle that choked them and drifted on the still air while the moon hung heavy in the sky. Along the hedgerows, normal locust trees sprang up like weeds, with heavy thorns like briars. The honey locusts, by contrast, had beautiful spines three or four inches long, deep black at the base and lighter at the tips, needle sharp. They grew out in bristles of fifteen or twenty spikes, eight or ten inches tall – these weren’t climbing trees.
New Jersey is the Garden State. If you drive out of New York City through the Lincoln Tunnel onto the Jersey Turnpike, you pass the wetlands, a vast area of marsh covered with cattails. For many years when I was a child, the industries would dump their chemicals in it openly, cheerful bright red, orange, yellow and green piles surrounded by colored water and death. Now the piles are hidden. In the center of the wetlands rises a new mountain, literally. You only see how big it is when you realize that the tiny dots moving up its slope are garbage trucks.
Next, you drive past Newark, a vast city of slums. You hear about the tenements and street violence of New York, but from Newark, which is uniformly worse, comes silence. I remember riding the train past mile upon mile of decrepit brick buildings, windows open in the brutal summer heat of midday, in the booming ’60s. On the fire escapes facing the tracks sat listless crowds of men and women with empty faces, not talking, not drinking, just watching the trains go by. I still remember their faces. The Garden State.
South of Newark, in the neighborhood of Elizabeth, you pass one of the great industrial gardens of the world. Oil refineries sprout like mechanical cancers on the flat plain, twisted, intricate and beautiful. Their stacks still throw out lurid jets of fire against the night sky as they flame off volatile gases. Things have gotten more sophisticated since I was a child. You can drive by now without gagging at a smell of burning tires mixed with rot from the slaughterhouses, but Elizabeth still has one of the highest cancer rates in the country. And you should see the sunsets.
How can I describe New Brunswick, farther south? It makes Tacoma seem cheerful and prosperous. And in the middle of the state, not far from Philadelphia, there is Trenton, the old industrial center of New Jersey. In Trenton, a famous railroad bridge proclaims the motto of this city of discouragement: “Trenton Makes, the World Takes.”
The cities were imposed on the land a generation or two before my time. They seem so old and ruined, I never realized how recently they took their present form, until I spoke to a neighbor of mine in the Hudson Valley. Her father had owned a dairy farm in the Bronx, and she showed me pictures of her childhood. She remembered riding into Manhattan with her dad on a horse-drawn milk truck at 4 in the morning to make the rounds with him. The old photographs showed wooden fences, fields, cows, in the Bronx, within living memory.
I grew up out in the country about 15 miles north of Trenton. When my parents bought the place just after World War II, no one else wanted a house four whole miles south of Princeton, deep in the countryside. Nobody but farmers lived that far out in the sticks. It was, in fact, an old farm.
Central New Jersey is a delta, a flat plain built up from millions of years of Delaware River silt. The soil is incredibly fertile. The water table runs close to the surface, readily accessible for use or poison. The climate is cold in winter, unbearably hot and humid in the summer. It’s perfect growing land. New Jersey is called the Garden State because for a couple of hundred years, its truck farms grew some of the best fruit and vegetables in the nation, for the big cities of New York and Philadelphia.
When I was a child, there were nothing but working farms for miles around. When my brother and I wanted to go fishing as little kids, we would store up our energy and slog across the humid fields with our poles. We’d push endlessly through dense alfalfa, cross under the barbed wire into the neighbor’s corn field beyond, negotiate the shady alleys in the corn for perhaps half a mile until we came to the cow pasture on the other side. Avoiding the herd, we’d make our way across to a little creek and follow it along, fishing the deep pools, occasionally bringing home a catfish or two with a couple of perch. All we could see in every direction was fields. There were no roads.
All that has changed, of course. By the time I went away to college in the late ’60s, the last working farm had given out. A few years later, a mall arose where unbearably succulent strawberries had grown. All across the fields of central New Jersey, tens of thousands of cookie cutter houses sprang up, along with roads and parking lots, air conditioners and the perennial summer power brown-outs.
You can find plenty of ugly housing developments around Seattle, but nothing compares to the horrors of New Jersey. Along the Jersey Turnpike, developers built miles of hideous boxes so precisely identical that their owners had to paint them garish colors simply in order to find the right house.
These were changes brought about by humans, by human culture, politics and economics, but they took place in the context of the land. From what I remember from my childhood, the land of central New Jersey has power that seemed to shape its very desecration.
I’ve never encountered land so powerfully fertile, and sad at the same time. There was something melancholy even about the fields, but especially about the woods. The woods near us were all recent second growth, and the trees were stunted at around 25 feet by the riot of competing vegetation. Honeysuckle and poison ivy vines climbed every trunk. The soil was so rich, I even remember the poison ivy vines growing up in hairy free-standing trees, thick as my leg and six or eight feet tall. Luckily, I could touch them without effect.
At ground level, thickets of briars rose to heights of 10 or 15 feet and covered acres. These briars made the blackberries in the Northwest seem benign. Their thorns were large curved shiny claws that slid into you and broke off, leaving what looked like a scab on your leg or arm. When you picked at the pain, the claw would slip out of your flesh on your fingernail, releasing blood. The thickets sheltered rabbits and foxes and every kind of small animal. If children were careful, they could find their way deep into the thickets on narrow trails leading to countless dens where deer slept during the day.
I loved our woods. They were mysterious, keeping more secrets in an acre than the great forests have in a hundred. Between the wars, a farmer had run hogs in one part of them, and there was a den deep in a thicket where we found their bones, thick, long, heavy and gray, covered with patches of bright green moss. Another time we found the skull of a buck, its antlers tangled in the branches of a tree.
There were marshy areas, with swamp cabbage and sickly smells. At the edges of the fields, milkweed waved its inviting fleshy stems and delectable poisonous purple berries. Young soldiers with wooden swords sometimes marched against the milkweed armies, leaving carnage in their wake that dripped pasty white blood.
The land was friendly to us, but it was sad. Its frantic fertility had a feeling of alienation, of stillbirth. Nothing ever reached full growth.
Gradually, I realized that this had not always been so. Every once in a while, in the middle of New Jersey fields, you would come on a great old oak tree that had been spared when the land was cleared in the eighteenth century. These trees had trunks six feet across, and giant branches. They were old, full of a different life. A very few patches of old-growth forest also remained, with trees of unimaginable size and age, larger than the great old elms that lined the Princeton streets. The floor of the old-growth forests was relatively bare, covered with delicate ground-cover rather than the embattled jungle I was used to.
When this land was cleared a century or two ago, an older order must have died. Its remnants in the great old trees hint to me its power. No one remembers it, no one recorded it, no one mourns it, but its loss changed everything. Without it, the fecundity of the land wells up in a riot of growth that lacks balance and gives me a feeling of melancholy impotence.
Most people are not affected by such feelings, of course. Or are they? The growth of so-called civilization in New Jersey has exactly that same tone of formless, febrile melancholy. The industrial sickness, the poisoning of the land, the housing jungle are all different expressions of the feeling my woods had. In New Jersey it is as if we humans, having killed something we didn’t understand, became caught in the cycle of decay we unknowingly began. We may have started the disruption, but it now infects us. Yes, we poisoned the air and water, but we go on breathing and drinking. Are we in control here? I doubt it.
The Adirondack Mountains
When you think of New York State, you probably think of New York City, Long Island, maybe Albany, Buffalo or even Ithaca. You probably don’t think offhand of wilderness. But the Adirondack mountain range in northeastern New York covers half a billion acres of what used to be called the Great North Woods, still a vast tract of unspoiled forest.
From a Western perspective, these are strange mountains. In the Northwest, we’re used to the Cascades, formed 2 or 3 million years ago, like the Alps. The Rockies rose earlier, maybe 50 million years ago, twice as long ago as the Himalayas. The Adirondacks, on the other hand, are ruins of the Laurentian Shield, the primal crust of the continent. Instead of dramatic peaks thrust up recently, the Adirondacks are the worn foundations of a range far taller a billion years ago than the Himalayas are today.
Adirondack country typically looks more like rolling foothills than mountains. Broad-hipped, contemplative peaks 4000 to 5000 feet high are scattered sparsely among long ridges uniformly clothed in unbroken forest.
The land is not untouched by man. Loggers rolled through 150 years ago and cut most of the old softwoods, the spruce and pine, leaving the hardwoods standing, maple and birch. As a result, the forests are now mostly deciduous, except in the high places. Generations of hunters, trappers, fisherman, boaters and every other kind of tourist have also wandered by, killing wildlife, enjoying the natural peace and beauty. Acid rain now threatens to exterminate fish in thousands of lakes and ponds across the area.
It isn’t easy land for humans. Aside from taking care of tourists and summer folk, there’s very little work for the people who live there. In winter, the snow is seldom less than three feet deep, and often twice that. Subzero winds cut across flawless skies. Although the land harbors no poisonous plants or reptiles, in late spring clouds of small black flies rise from the woods and fall on unprotected skin. People or dogs not coated with thick layers of insect repellent swell up and even fall sick from hundreds upon hundreds of bites. All through the summer, one wave of hungry insects succeeds another: black flies, no-see-ums, mosquitoes, blue-bottles, deer flies.
All the same, the land is strong, gentle, deep; benign in its indifference. I have never felt so embraced by the spirits of the place as I have in the Adirondack woods. It’s like standing in a grove of old-growth fir and cedar in the Northwest where the trees rise almost endlessly above you, and at their feet, tiny, you sense centuries of sunlight and rain in their memories. In the Adirondacks, the feeling is less dramatic and more pervasive, like something breathing so quietly that you can’t quite hear it, a subtle, unidentifiable fragrance that places your life and death in a context of beauty.
It doesn’t seem ancient, or even old. It is as specific as a single tiny flower, a chipmunk’s life, a small cloud that passes over the sun and moves on. Only when you listen to it for a time, walking in silence among the trees, do you realize that the song of the land has a shifting changeless quality, like eternity or the gaps between galaxies.
Even if you fear the fey, don’t you yearn for their music? In the Great North Woods, whether you live or die, waste or prosper, thrive or sicken, the land embraces you and fills your dance, if you listen, with subtle, ancient songs.
Above the Snoqualmie Valley
We blight the countryside, we humans, for diverse and wonderful reasons. All across the Pacific Northwest these days, you can see vast clearcuts posted with signs that read, “This Devastation Supported by Timber Dollars.” Our proud and patriotic lumberjacks are happily selling our forests’ hearts to the Far East, to buy more beer from Milwaukee. It’s a positive balance of trade.
No one is much upset, including the environmentalists, because forests are a renewable resource. As long as we can put some limits on the current frenzy, lumberjacks will become extinct before many other species. There will simply be no more trees to cut. Timber prices will go through the ceiling, people will learn to build with other materials, and then, after 40 or 50 years, new forests will be ready to harvest on the once-naked hills. Big timber companies won’t go out of business; they’re looking forward to skyrocketing prices. In the meantime, they’re making plenty of money selling huge old trees to Japan, and our boys with chainsaws can still buy beer.
That’s not quite the whole story, of course. A timber crop is renewable, but trees 1000 years old are not. I live on land that Weyerhaeuser clear-cut in 1979. The woods have definitely come back. Some of the fast-growing firs are now over 20 feet tall. The deer don’t seem to mind. The mountain beaver thrive, and there’s a bear that still lives down the hill. Recovery is happening.
But how about the fey, the spirits of the land? I bought the place five years ago for the acres of woods and the sense of magick they gave me. At first, though, particularly at the top of our hill, I kept getting a feeling of anger and brooding. The big old stumps had a bitter air of reproach. I wondered if our promontory, with its panoramic view of the south Snoqualmie Valley, hadn’t once been a place sacred to native people. Sometimes in the dark night, I heard songs in my dreams, chanting grief and protection.
The new-growth trees crowding each other at the brink of the hill seemed to have an almost ominous look in places. The edge of the yard felt like a border between hostile territories. The forest was beginning to hem us in.
I went out and walked in the trees and spoke with them, I suppose, or tried to. I bought a chainsaw and cut them back, opening up the view again, leaving one tree in 20 standing near the top. I promised that tall firs would line the ridge as they used to, with room to breathe between them. The trees listened and missed me when they fell.
It was a beginning, but not enough. With the help of friends, we laid a small stone terrace out at the very end of our promontory beside a holly tree, planted roses and grapes, sage, echinacea, thyme, wormwood and motherwort, lilac and foxglove. We made a stone bench for humans and a small altar for the fey, and in the yard laid a circle of stones. We gave our respect there, alone, together, and in coven.
With each ritual gesture, each genuine effort to align ourselves with the land, the feeling of the place changed. Ferns grew up where the earth had been bare before. Native foxglove joined the foxglove we had planted. A madrona tree rooted by our fence. The breeze that whispered through the trees was no longer angry, though it still seems sad to me at times.
I am just a sentimentalist, of course. Who cares what devastation man creates? We’re just another natural disaster, like fire, flood or molten rock. Still, it seems to me we can hear the music if we listen. Perhaps we need to be a little more sentimental, a little less pragmatic, and listen to what we hear so clearly, even if we think it isn’t there.
We’re not alone here, for good or ill.