I stood a good ways back watching the huge balm of gilead before she fell. Up here, where they grow like dandelions, it’s easy to dismiss these trees as junk wood or “trash trees” as I’ve heard them called. But this peaceful old dame has healing ointment in her veins, salves for human wounds if it’s processed right. And she’s surely seen twice as many summers as I. Perhaps Iris, the graduating kindergartener, and I will count the rings later to verify.
The Stihl with its 25-inch bar made fast work of the wedge cut. If Tony had gauged it correctly, the tree would land just short of where we’d kept our home base the last few days: an old stump that held the water jug, the dump-find plastic kiddie table that had evolved into both lunch counter and tool bench, and a scattering of rakes, shovels and other brush tools. I moved it all, along with the camp chair where I sat to feed baby Julian every couple of hours, another twenty feet away just to be safe.
For me, taking an elder is an uncomfortable moment of awe mixed with sadness and reverence, topped with the thrill a child might feel when she alone gets to yell “Timber!”
I turned off Tony’s music for a time, the better to hear and feel the tremendous impact and woosh of outbreath as the massive trunk and treetop branches came down. It didn’t seem right somehow to have classic rock blaring when she met her end.
Though of course, it’s not “the end.”
Thermodynamics’ first law states that energy can be neither created nor destroyed; it can only change forms. And it’s that that I take comfort in when I feel the weighted responsibility of killing trees, turning over earth, and changing the all-natural environment of a small parcel of land a piece of paper calls ours.
With the tree down and the easy but slightly scary part over, I walked towards Tony after he shutoff the chainsaw. “That was a big tree,” he said. So unlike me, he only ever uses the most necessary words to say what he means. And his meaning is always clear, always impactful.
This is our third Spring working in the woods, and I’ve watched him fell hundreds of trees. The small ash gracefully hop down from their stumps before falling. The dead old-growth poplars break and grown and crash their way earthward. The wiry willows struggle and lash out at their demise; I bore a pink whip mark on my cheek from just that morning. But it’s the huge, straight- standing ones like the bamtree that lay at our feet that can do a lot worse to a person, especially the one with the saw.
Yet, we persist, more slowly than surely it seems, at turning our little acreage into a wood-surrounded home for our now-family-of-four.
Spring provides perfect conditions for this sort of work, before everything has greened-up and gotten dense, before the thick dews of summer mornings keep boots and pant legs wet, before the heat and the bugs start to drive us mad. Dressed and packed for however a spring day might turn, even the getting there is labor. But there is a bone-weary sort of gratitude that comes with a hard day’s work in the woods, especially after a cold winter of not much movement and 24-hour-a-day caring for an infant.
I’ll stop from time to time, stretch my back and listen to the topical aviary sounds of a hundred blackbirds a cluster of treetops away. A quick glance towards the stroller or the carseat swing we’d rigged up verifies the little one still sleeps. He, as well as the trees and the small forest-dwelling birds are the company I keep now. I stand for them, even while I change their home into mine.
Social and happy as a colorful butterfly, I thought I stood for the people of this place once. But humans leave wounds that are much slower to heal than a willow whip. Everywhere I look, we are bruised and broken, nursing our past hurts as if to protect and prolong them. So, I take to the woods. Just as I did when I left Seattle and Portland before that. I take to the quiet of the trees, listening to a language that is clear to behold when I’m still, when my mind’s right. I take to the solitude of this place and leave the people to themselves. That’s all anyone wants from anyone else anyways. Here, there’s a good man by my side, two loud and needy offspring growing ever independent. Here I find the words of a story ripening at every turn.
I stand for them and I stand for this. And I won’t fall for the false needs of ego in that regard again. It believed I had to create, share, trumpet and gather people together in events, in like-minded belief systems in order to be accepted here, to belong. It wanted me to bully my way through, taking it all by the dangerous horns until I got my way or crashed through to theirs.
No, it was never about all that here at The Angle. It was always about the woods. About the trees and the birds and the water changing forms with the season. It was glimpsing from time to time the lone wolf running towards prey or towards pack. It was about finding and outsmarting the fish, about the dwindling white pines, the migrating flocks, the ladyslippers on the roadside for a few specific weeks each summer.
It was about my family.
I got it all so wrong for so long. And I’m sure I will again in different ways down the road. Only now, I am quite literally building that road, ditches, gravel, culverts and all. It’s about standing for that. The hard labor that makes it all so worth it. Working towards something that changes shape as we labor on, live on. It was about life living itself simply, freely until it all changes form into something else. Truly, it’s about taking it as it comes with grace and forgiveness just as a tree falling must.
For me, that is true belonging. And I don’t need to stand taller than the other trees anymore. No one needs permission from anyone else to feel at home.
This Angle, these woods, this is my home.