A family recipe, a childhood memory, a Depression-era handout
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In the summer we got word that the county forestland near our northern-Wisconsin home would be clear-cut. “Not my favorite pines,” I said, hoping. But, yes, those were the ones. It was good for the forest, we were told; it would generate new growth. In the fall the foresters came and spray-painted some trees with purple slashes. These were the ones to leave standing. There weren’t many.
The forest remained like that for months. I got used to the marks as I ran and skied through the trees. In my mind I marked them, too: A black spruce covered in frost. The bent young pines at the trail’s end. The tall red pines with their wide trunks.
The other trees were cut down in the spring. For weeks we listened to the whine of the chain saw and the mighty crack — followed by a moment of silence — as each one fell. The ground shook as the trees landed. I didn’t watch, but I could feel the thud in my feet and in my chest.
When it was over, I went to see. The trees were gone, of course, and so was the fragrant darkness between them. Some of the stumps were still beading with sap. The ground was torn and messy. It hurt to look. And so I did what was easiest: I looked away. I began to avoid that part of the forest. I took a different trail, went the long way around.
One day my six-year-old daughter asked me to come outside. She’d been hiking the old trail with my husband and wanted me to go there with her. As we walked, she waved a makeshift hiking stick around and sidestepped puddles and thistles. She said it seemed different to her, and not in a good way. She climbed a boulder, a huge piece of granite tossed there by a glacier and churned up by the logging machinery. She sang to the handful of trees that were left. I watched her closely. She wasn’t just seeing a battlefield or a cemetery. To her it was a place of possibility. A place for songs. I squinted at the wreckage, trying to see it with her eyes. The forest I’d loved was gone, and it wouldn’t be back soon.
And yet, freed from the shadows, aspen trees were already rising toward the sky. Ferns had grown like beanstalks. Deer lapped water from puddles in the loggers’ skid trails. Hawks watched for rustling movements in the ragged vegetation. The forest insists on life. My daughter insists on life.
“Catch,” my daughter said, tossing me her hiking stick. And then she leapt from the boulder, hair streaming behind her in the afternoon sun. She landed on her feet, and hand in hand we kept walking.