Last Night Out

2 12 2012

  Sleep came only in throes. Each time my mind sank into a slumber, my body seemed to groan under some threat of being taken captive by the darkness and forever tortured with eternal silence. I awoke once more, feeling the aggravated ache in my back and soreness in my shoulders. I also felt the chill in my hands and feet.

          The leaves I had raked together to form a mattress and quilt provided little comfort and not much more warmth. I lay there, trying to relax, but feeling instead the soundless tension of nightmares. I decided to stop trying to sleep. The prospect of standing in that cold air again, however, kept me down. The dead leaves were not much, but they were still something.

          Dry, dusty, and decaying, they wept the scent of November. They littered me as though I were some log or stone long forgotten by wind and water.

          The wind: I could hear none of its chant. Not a tree, not a branch, not a twig moved. Stillness surrounded me, and so I heard nothing.

          And as for water, that was one cold something I would have gladly touched, even if it were in the form of frost. I wanted, I needed a drink. I was thirsty, so very thirsty.

          I felt again the dryness deep within, a desiccation like the inside of a rock high above timberline, where it is cold, and dark, and silent.

          The feeling petrified me. Frightened into motion, I stood. I wanted to go — somewhere. Wanting to get going, I thought of where I had been and where I then was.

          Nowhere.

          I was lost.

          I had tried wandering about, walking first in a small circle and then in larger ones. Occasionally, I called for help. The forest caught my calls and bounced them into silence, just as it bounced me from tree trunk to tree limb to tree stump.

          Then I tried staying in one place, hoping to be found. Simply doing nothing seemed ever so deadly.

          I resumed wandering, choosing a route more or less down slope, one I thought would be relatively easy to traverse. That the trees and undergrowth gradually became more dense, I could not help noticing. One thing after another blocked me or grabbed me or tripped me. Eventually, the frustration of it all made me deny my thirst, while the exertion of it all made me hot and sweaty and still more thirsty.

          The slope changed grades, shifting from downward to upward, and at that I stopped. Whatever goes up must always, inevitably come down again. I asked myself, “What’s the use?”  I sat where I stood.

          Then I heard a voice: “Hello.”  The word sounded completely normal, as though I had chanced on encountering a close friend during an evening stroll. Yet I was startled, and I sat still and remained silent.

          “Are you all right?”

          I sensed the speaker would be persistent. Running away and trying to hide seemed more than absurd. How could I? Besides, I did not want to hide anymore. I nonetheless felt an impulse to be distant, withdrawn, even ornery. “What do you want?”

          “What do you want?” came the reply.

          I gave no answer but silence.

          “Are you lost?”

          “Who are you?” I responded.

          “I am,” he said, “the forester.”

          That sounded like good news. His words came on a voice deep and resonant, a voice with a quality like that of a cello. Possessed with none of the character of heavy metal, the voice was close and quiet, intimate and gracious. It seemed well acquainted with darkness, yet quite capable of ranging from light to light.

          I thought of a big ranger striding in deep forest glens and high alpine meadows. That he was a big man, I had no doubt. I sensed someone tall and broad who would make a draft horse seem like a pony, someone who would have a grizzly for a Teddy bear.  

Such sensations could neither be mistaken nor ignored. Their experience was rather like listening to the sounds of water cascading at thousands of gallons per minute and realizing that one stood near a powerful river.

The awe of all that strength caused me to keep wanting to withdraw. I felt fear and frigidity. Leaning back against a tree trunk, I tried to think.

          I heard a few footsteps and felt a presence come near at hand. I began shivering and tried telling myself that sitting still after such a long walk had a chilling effect.

          “Well, now,” the voice said. “Are you ready to move on?”

          “Move on?”

          “Yes.”

          “Where?”

          “Home.”

          “Oh.”  I remained seated.

          Realizing my hesitancy, he went on to say, “A good trek, to be sure. It won’t be easy, but it will infuse you with a green only the blue sky and the yellow sun and the clear wind can create.”

          I sat quite still while listening to his words. After a moment or two, I could only shake my head.

          “What’s wrong?” he asked.

          I responded slowly. “I don’t know. Well, I do know: I know I don’t know what to think or say or do.”

          “You don’t know me.”

          I shook my head in agreement, and then said, “So here we are.”

          “Here we are,” the voice repeated. After a pause, the man asked, “So what do you think of this land unit?”

          “What?”

          “This is land unit.”

          “Well … I don’t know…”

          “A land unit is the smallest unit of designation in the land system of classification. Soil, geology, topography, and climate are all used to organize the landscape into an arrangement that makes management easier. The arrangement is systematic. We can work from land units all the way up to provinces.”

          “I see,” I said, though I really did not.

          “Perhaps you find the ecoclass system more vivid. It orients on vegetation, recognizing that plant communities indicate how the various environmental forces are working together. This place is a Western Hemlock/Twinflower community. It’s a relatively stable, non-climax stage within the larger Grand Fir/Clintonia habitat surrounding us.”

          I nodded again, but said nothing more.

          “The tree you’re leaning against is a western hemlock. If you look up, you’ll notice the long, clear, symmetrical bole. So, too, the pyramidal crown and its drooping leaders. The leaves are a dark and shiny green, grooved above, with two faint bands of stomata below.”

          I did not move.

          “The bark right behind you has broad, flat, russet ridges. The inner bark is dark red streaked with purple. You can peel a bit off to see for yourself. The bark is thin, even on large trees.”

          I still did not move.

          “So how long have you been blind?” the voice asked gently.

          I bowed my head. I could not answer because it had come upon me slowly, imperceptibly.  I say imperceptibly, but that refers to a choice I myself made: I refused to notice, to recognize, to acknowledge, and therefore respond. And now, “It is very dark,” I mumbled.

          “I see,” he said. I listened to silence for a moment, then heard him say, “You have a few aspen leaves caught on your clothing. One is in your hair.”

          I felt for them.

          “You must have come from Kaimin Saddle.”

          Again, I did not know.

          “Kaimin refers to the communicated word. The saddle got its name because of all the aspen trees living there, sharing the word of the wind that fills them. They can’t contain it, and they don’t try. Rather, they splash it forth, back into the sky and out over the earth. They’re like a glittering fountain of the Spirit. Did you hear?”

          “I suppose so.”

          “Did you listen?”

          I said nothing.

          The voice asked, “Have you ever wondered why aspens are so sensitive to the wind?”

          “I suppose not.” I added, “But now I am curious.”

          I heard him move and sensed him kneeling before me. “Here,” he said. “Hold out your hand.” He dropped a leaf into my outstretched palm. “Twist the stem of the leaf in your fingers. The stem is called a petiole. On aspen leaves, the petiole is not as rounded as on other leaves. Instead, it has a flattened shape, like that of a wing. The leaf petiole acts as an airfoil, catching the slightest breeze and making the leaf fly in response.”

          I felt the leaf’s design in my fingers.

          “Listen,” he said.

          I felt a warmth come close to my ear.

          “I’m holding three leaves. Listen carefully.”

          Out of the silence came a soft, clapping sound.

          “We have a laminar flow of air moving down slope along the watershed. Can you hear it? Can you now hear the wind?”

          I smiled.

          “You look good when you smile.”

          I smiled again.

          “The wind. It can be chilly. It will freeze some. Others, however, find it balmy.”

          I thought of a spring breeze bearing the scent of cottonwood buds, the sound of brooks no longer dry, the feel of rain falling through sunshine. “It’s refreshing,” I said.

          “It’s always clean and clarifying.”

          “You know a lot about these things,” I said.

“I am the forester.”

“So you say.” 

“Take my word for it. I know more than enough about these lands to have planted every tree, shrub, forb, and bunch of grass. I know more than enough to have placed every rock and every mineral, from boulder to pebble, from mountain to crystal.”

I got back onto my feet.  “I believe you. I’m ready to move on. Which way?”

“Up,” the voice said.

“I see.” 

“You may come to my father’s lodge.” 

“You’ll take me there?” 

“Yes.”

I held my hand out to touch his presence.

“Not yet. Touch me by obediently trusting my word.”

I felt something alight in my open palm, something that felt light. “What’s this?”

The voice answered, “Trillium. It’s a flower that is one of the indicator species of this habitat.  It’s also an indicator of something more important to you at this time. Hold it. Smell it. Look at it. Let its white light keep on reminding you that it is not now night; it is day. It is not now November; it is April.”

trillium watercolor

 

This story is contained within the story entitled Conversation: Walking the Talk, which is available as an e-book at Amazon.

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