The Trees Will Not Remember

"Only that day dawns to which we are awake." ~ Thoreau

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.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. A lovely post and thoughts this morning. I can only hope that after I am gone there will be someone to care for and about “my” trees, as well. My property is surrounded by ski resort land, and I fear the property is destined to be sold, at some future time, for expanded ski slopes. In a way, one of the reasons why I keep a blog is to document what happens on my little patch of forest and to try and get across the notion that the forest has a value that would be lost to create just another rich person’s entertainment.

  2. It would seem, Fred, you’ve given a distinct and eloquent voice to not only Nameless Creek, but to all of us who’ve passed along its banks, through the forest, along cut trails, pondering the landscapes beauty and secrets, sensing the bittersweetness of the infinite grandness of nature against our mortal souls.

  3. Between the “dog book” and the “Floyd County Almanac” I have plenty of words to give tribute to the when, where and who of this one blessed life. What I lack is the assurance that telling either of those stories amounts to more than a narcissistic ramble. The occasional resonance on either of these topics with articulate and similarly-impassioned readers moves me towards doing the hard work, even if for me, and those few. Thanks, all who “hear” what I am trying to tell.

  4. If you are looking for more projects, I have long thought that you should do a calendar with photos of your barn in all seasons. I would buy one, anyway.

    And letting the puppy NAP while you and Ann go hiking?!?!? Um, Fred… you’re doing it wrong…

  5. Actually, I am “taking” a workshop that may result in a digital coffee table book, and a couple of dozen images of the barn might be my first project. I’ll keep ya posted.

    And re taking or leaving the pup on walks: she’s been around the “middle trail” a number of times, and walks most of the way, except for being carried across the creeks. This is getting both easier and the pace is picking up as her legs get longer and her stamina increases. I think she’s going to be a great hiking companion one of these days.

    (She’s being so good this morning it scares me. But honestly, this is the first day in a few that it’s been just ME here, and she’s not getting the mixed messages she gets when the PERMiSSIVE parent is home, and I think she likes having known boundaries.)

  6. Today’s “narcissistic ramble” is tomorrow’s Diary of Anne Frank. I’d guess she thought no one would read that either. You never can say whose life your writings will touch in the future.

  7. “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 these living trees.”

    Hallelujah words to be sure!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  8. I agree with Cate. Those words are some of your best, for sure. You keep any and all readers stretching to feel the gratitude we want to feel toward the whole living world. Your love of nature must be shared, is worth sharing, and it either resonates with a reader or inspires a reader to open themselves to it.

  9. Your words have a ripple effect that is a good deal larger than you might imagine, and “those few” become many!