Not My Timber

In light of the season, here’s a reflection on going home, written a year ago.


It was just a patch of woods between a creek too small to have a name and a bean field, a quarter mile long and a few hundred feet wide. It seemed bigger than that, once, when peopled partially by hardwoods too big to wrap my arms around. I had no particular claim on it, beyond having grown up nearby. It was a mile away from my parents’ house if one swam most of the way, which I did not, or a mile and a half if one walked, which I did, though rarely so far. There was a good sledding hill into one of the ravines there, but without snow, I had little reason to go, for plenty of trees grew nearer the house to occupy me. Nevertheless, when the distant owners had the land logged last year, I felt compelled to walk it one last time, to say goodbye.

I felt incongruous in multiple ways as I walked: a trespasser that no one minded, no great lover of this particular place but in mourning nonetheless, a cynical and practical tree-hugger, a vegetarian in a hunter’s orange hat, a young person tired by a moderate walk, an academic in my ripped and dirty Tractor Supply finest. The forest cared not at all about my existential indigestion; it just did what it always does. The squirrels chattered in annoyance at my presence; my dogs scared up a few birds; the wind rattled mostly bare branches. For the most part, though, the action was too subtle to notice- insects in the duff, decomposition, water moving slowly through the ground and into the plants still green, including laurel and invasive honey suckle. It looked like most any patch of Virginia coastal plain forest, I suppose, distinguished only by the mossy bricks that echoed the ruined plantation mansion a quarter mile across the bean field, and the painted and flagged trees denoting its near future. In a cheap effort at memorial, I took some crappy photographs of details that caught my eye- a peculiarly gnarled cedar tree, shelf fungi, raccoon poo, the strong, spread limbs of an oak, an artsy shadow of the twigs and old leaves of a beech tree against its smooth trunk. I lay in the leaves and listened and was sad.

When something very similar had happened, closer to home, a decade or two earlier, my young mind brimmed with anger, tragedy, and injustice. Less ignorant at this point, I understood that people, myself included, need wood products, that property taxes must be paid, that this forest had cycled through cutting and regrowth for centuries, and that forestry conserves non-timber values of land that could otherwise be under lawn and pavement. Moreover, I had learned that just because something I appreciate becomes part of me in some small way, I do not necessarily gain any claim or control over that thing. This is as true of other people’s property as of people I have loved. So, for a few minutes, at least, I listened, and breathed, and tried to let go.

It took most of a year after the cutting before I felt like walking there again. The painted trees in the middle of the parcel that I had hoped, in my ignorance of forestry notation, might be spared, were cut; everything was. I recognized some of the stumps. The sycamores and tulip poplars appeared to be re-sprouting suckers, as I had not known they could do. The place had a feel of rapid reorganization from chaos, an uncountable number of decomposers cleaning up the scattered wood that made it difficult to walk, of saplings and old field herbaceous plants growing weedily, of tiny sedges softening foot-deep ruts of the logging road into wetlands. We humans pride ourselves on organization, but to natural communities we can be a force of entropy, and vice versa. “Disturbance” is the word, and these particular woods will recover from this one, as from fires, hurricanes, and whatever else preceded and continues with us in such powerful modifications to the landscape. What will become of the world facing so many such changes and more I cannot know, but this patch of woods, not mine, will most likely recover, as will I.