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Survival


Sun, Jun 18th, 2000
Posted in

Monday, June 12, 2000

May 31, 2000: Beaver Creek, crystal clear and studded with watercress, looked like a long winding jewel as Dana Gardner and I walked its shores in search of birds. An Acadian Flycatcher, the first ever for Dana, performed perfectly. A Cerulean Warbler, another first, sang from the treetops. A Veery and a Black-billed Cuckoo sang from deep in the woods. Birdsong surrounded us, the temperature was right and the sky was partly blue. Suddenly, it became dark as if someone turned out the lights. Then the rain started and didn't stop until the next day.

Here in the Big Woods, rainfall totaled five inches for the second time in two weeks. The rain carved deep ruts into our driveway and destroyed a culvert on our township road. Tree trunks lay on the road and the South Fork was over its banks for the first time anyone can remember. I wondered about the birds here and at Beaver Creek. How many nests were destroyed? How many birds died? Was Beaver Creek as muddy and angry as the South Fork?

As I walked down what remained of the road, I thought about other storms. One in particular stood out:

It is late afternoon, July 1997. Lightening flashes. Rain and wind pummel the woods. Suddenly, we hear a crash that isn't thunder and a giant White Oak falls into our yard. The next day, when we begin to cut the tree for firewood, we count over 230 growth rings and realize it must have been a sapling in Jefferson's time, supple then, twisting in the wind, its survival uncertain.

In our more supple years, we heated our house entirely with wood that we cut ourselves. I remember aching backs, sawdust covering us from head to toe and slashes in Art's jeans from the chainsaw blade that barely missed his knees. Back then we cut trees that didn't fall neatly into our yard. When branches tripped him, he blamed me for not pulling them away soon enough. I cried and blamed him for expecting too much. His rolling eyes said, "Just like a woman." On this day, he stumbles over a branch without a word, without rolling his eyes. I don't cry. I see blood rolling down the side of his face.

The giant tree leans against a young White Pine bending it to forty-five degrees. We want to save the pine, so Art pushes a chain under the oak while I climb through Prickly Ash to the other side, reach underneath, grab a thistle, then find the end of the chain and wrap it around the trunk. When he starts the tractor, then waits for me to climb out of the way, I feel proud of our skill, the way we make things work and the way we hold our tongues.

The wood from this oak almost filled our shed, which today still holds enough wood for a couple hard winters. The young pine didn't survive. The last ten feet of the oak's trunk, too thick for the chainsaw blade, still lies at the edge of our yard. We point it out to guests who have come here in search of birds. We point out the cardinal nest and the Hairy Woodpecker hole from which the baby birds have recently fledged. We don't tell our guests about the fledgling who flew into a window and died, or the Magnolia Warbler who hit a window and survived. I don't tell our guests about the toad I tried to nudge off the road to safety after the first big rain and how it hopped away on three legs, its fourth leg dragging uselessly across the gravel.

As we talk, I see us through our visitors' eyes and realize how much we belong to the woods now; we are part of it, not merely living in it. We are in the rhythm of its seasons. We take part in parent birds' anxiety for newly fledged babies and feel relief when the babies survive. We empathize with the deer who has an injured leg and the raccoon who walks on three legs and has a stump of a tail, yet survives.

We have survived aching backs, chainsaw threats, rolling eyes, tears, blame, wind and rain. We feel proud of our skill, the way we make things work, the way we speak without words.

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