Yesterday played fall to today’s winter, so while Gandy napped, Ann and I decided to take a walk up on the ridge with our hiking sticks, to steep trails we’ve not visited for several seasons. The top turned out to be more than Ann’s stamina could sustain, so instead, we walked a lower logging road that she’s maintained with clippers over the years to keep it walkable.
That hillside forest is nothing to look at, still showing the remnant ravages of logging before we moved here in 1994. But it’s our niche and habitat, and taken as a whole, it was restorative to be out there in our own small realm with nothing but wooded hills and rejuvenating forest in every direction, and no sound but nature’s, and our own labored breathing.
Far below us, invisible through the bare trees, the rush of Nameless Creek echoed off the sheer rock wall of the far ridge. That familiar sound reminded me of so many backpacking trips in decades past, where a creek or river was our destination: the Sipsey of Alabama, Jacks Fork of Tennessee, the Kanawha of West Virginia. The rush of distant water was audible sometimes tantalizing hours before my hiking buddies and I finally descended the switchbacks to camp along those banks and hear voice in the waters all night long. I listened to hear what Nameless Creek might be saying, straining to see a glint of silver light off the waters through an emerging forest of immature white pines, tulip poplars, twisted cherry and rhododendron.
We first walked this high path in 1999, when blackberry vines arched down into the trail from the high side, and the exuberant stump growth gave rise to a sapling woods. Now, those young trees are large enough to cast shade, and the blackberries are gone–a fact about which we feel a certain fruit-lover’s ambivalence.
At one vantage point, easily missed if you were watching your feet, the house became visible–at least the upper floor–through a gap in the tree branches, bringing human history and story into the narrative of forest succession. We live here, too.
The relationship between man and forest is vital, but not symmetrical. I am committed to the survival and health of these trees that are only in a legal sense, “ours” and they are indifferent to mine. Even so, their roots play a role in my own. The fact that this forest will go on, with me or without me, is at the same time, comforting and sad.
Nowhere in the tree rings that might be revealed by a future homesteader’s chain saw will there be a single tiny signature that says we were here. Only these words will mark my passing and my gratitude of having walked among this living trees. But perhaps someone will stop for a moment, up on the middle trail, and hear the creeks babble, attend with pleasure to the whoosh of wind in the pines, and reach out and touch a substantial poplar that was today’s sapling that gave me traction, that pulled me up one more step towards the summit.