Friday, November 25, 2011

Walking the Land

     She's not a big parcel. Five hundred feet by seven-fifty. Shows up on the county plat map as a four sided micro. Barely big enough to get my initials in the rectangle. I dream of having more acreage, endless land of forest, lake and swamp visions. Maybe even an esker left over from the last Ice Age. Not in my cards. Both choice and circumstance say no. There are hills to our south and north. All of 'em moraines left by the glaciers. Our acreage is pretty flat and sand to the earth's core. Must have been a sandbox for the wooly mammoths to frolic in way back when.

     Over the last ten or twenty millennia a lot of feet have passed through. Cree, Ojibwa, Dakota, French, British, others. From the 1870's on our title shows a continual rotation between railroad, lumber barons and the State of Minnesota for a half century. You have to think there was money involved. Maybe a lot of money. Built James J. Hill quite a house on Summit Avenue in St. Paul. The lumbermen didn't do badly either. The State runs about five billion in the hole. There's a moral in there somewhere.

     The creek (pronounced 'crick' in case my cousin Sharon ever reads this) running out of Deadman diagonals the east boundary. We call it the creek 'cause every couple of years the water's high enough to get a current going. Also makes us sound more like Ted Turner and his million acres of spring creeks (pronounced 'creek' in case Mr. Turner ever reads this) in Montana. The rest of the year it's a long, narrow swamp. But when the water's up, our local beavers use it to drag and float aspen branches to the pond. In our corner of the world, beavers don't dam up streams. No need to make ponds and lakes. There's already plenty of them within spittin' distance. In the most important ways beavers are a lot like us. Eat food so they have enough energy to hustle up more food, make an occasional 'nuther mouth to feed and invent hi-def television. I almost included clothing but remembered beavers shamelessly run around naked most of the time. Only occasionally have I seen them. The last was a New Year's Eve in '94 when a pair of them strolled by the cabin decked out in full length beaver coats and beaver top hats. Leave it to Minnesota rodents to be two centuries behind in fashion.

     Back in the mid-80s Lois and I hand-planted three hundred evergreens alongside the creek. For the most part they've done well. Not so the Colorado blue spruces. Probably too darned cold for them. In the winter of '96-97, the mercury dropped to near -50 degrees several times. Had them wishing they were sitting around the campfire with John Denver getting Rocky Mountain high. We've also had little luck with the hundreds of soft maples transplanted from our gardens back in town. I suspect they're deer candy. The few that've survived are a dozen feet tall and pencil thin.

     Tall and skinny. No fat trees on our land. It's a forest and the canopy's seventy feet off the ground. If you want light, you have to reach for it. Not a trunk seems to put on any meat till it stretches at least forty feet up from the seed. Majestic, spreading, branches touching the ground oaks? Best look a thousand miles south. Ours are ship's masts in the making. Don't have the heart to tell them wooden ships ain't happenin' anymore. Let's see, on our 8.72 acres there are red oaks, burr oaks, paper birches, one basswood, mountain ash, one hop hornbeam, jack pines, red pines, white pines, white spruces, puny Colorado blue spruces, aspen, soft maples, mountain maples, a few balsam firs and six hundred, forty-seven thousand stalks of hazel and alder brush.

     The driveway's still all there but not like we planned it. The first third leads to the yard. Looks just like Lois' vision, an evergreen tunnel. Cuts a sharp, curving angle in from the road making the cabin invisible during the leafy months. From the yard on, the final third's evolved into a wide path leading to a clearing on Deadman. Someday, maybe, there'll be a screen house there. So long as there's no electricity, plumbing or basement, I can build one. Just a matter of getting around the law without going against its intent.

     That clearing isn't being wasted. A family of whitetail deer bed down in the long grasses. They've chosen a good site. Can't be seen from the road and have a heckuva view. Lois and I grew up in a world that called them 'dumb animals'. Didn't think, didn't plan, didn't play. Seemed their idea of a good time was flying through someone's windshield as the sun went down. Nothing but eating and excreting machines. We've both been around long enough to see how wrong that is. Deer like a view when they wake up. Pelicans like to soar in formation on the thermals. And, obviously, beavers like to dress up once in a while. That's more than I can say for myself.

     Nearly all the jack pines along Deadman have died. Not a new one in sight. You see, all the babies are held captive in tight nut cones. Like little, pointy rocks. They need a fire to set them free. Hasn't been a fire around here in way more than a century. The big pines left by the lumbermen as seed trees are at least a hundred-fifty. And there's no way the Forestry Service will let a fire get going in our neighborhood these days. So bye-bye jack pines. Unless an idiot like me, who has an affection for those pitchy, shaggy conifers, puts some heat to the cones. I'm not saying I'll set the woods ablaze. I'm leaning towards a cone roast by a campfire or a tray full in the oven at two hundred degrees. Get some seedlings going so my great-great grandchildren know what a real jack pine looks like. Maybe tear out all the skinny-assed maples that don't belong and plant me some real up-north trees in their stead.

     As a firewood jack pine has both its up and downsides. The smoke coming out of the chimney smells like incense. We've burned it in town once in a while. Made the whole neighborhood smell like sunshine on pine needles in July even though the calendar said January and raised your mental temperature on an evening's walk. 'Course it's in a class by itself when it comes to larding up a flue with creosote. Ground zero for a fine, rip-snorting chimney fire. Ain't nothing like the contained roar of a chimney fire in triple-wall pipe on a brisk, late fall evening. Except, maybe, a Navy jet coming in on the treetops to drop a barrel of napalm. Gets me all tingly inside. And not in a good way.

     Noises coming from the sky, especially helicopters, always take me back. The chook, chook, chook of a prop beating into the wind. An Eagle Flight chopping in to take First Platoon, Bravo Company to some God-forsaken shit hole. Not a one of us ever wanted to go. Nowadays they're settled into a quiet memory. Nothing more. To me, badly timed truck diesel still reeks of a fire support base. The Army never buried its excrement. Burned it instead with diesel fuel. We sure had a high opinion of ourselves and our leavings, much like the Ali'i of Hawaii. Who knew what spells might have be cast upon on our efforts if The NVA could read the tale of our droppings? Might even have lost the war (guffaw).

     Last summer I finally cut a trail along Deadman's southeast shore. Been in the planning stage for years. Most things I plan eventually get done. Some take awhile. Some a long while. Not planning on dying anytime soon and lots left to do. Hope that works out. Immediately, the path passes beneath the largest red pine on the land. Like the beginnings of most forest roads in the U.S., I only widened what the deer had already started. How many passings does it take to create an established deer trail? How come I've never seen one actually walking one? Maybe I'll set up a deer stand? I've read that if you want to see the animals of the forest you have to sit quietly and give them some time. Become a stump they're not afraid of. I can do stump. Do it well.

     Nearly every day at the cabin I wander the trails and always end up at the towering white pines, there to spend a minute. They don't talk a lot. Might sigh a bit when the wind is up. And up top, sway to and fro. There's no way I'd ever shinny up just to share their feeling of being flopped around a hundred feet above the duff. Also no way I can stop from wondering what that might feel like. From immediately below, the perspective turns the pair into pin heads. From the other side of Deadman they appear as eagles spreading their wings just before dropping from a branch to fly off. Point of view is a big deal I guess.

     There the trail turns back a hundred twenty degrees. Eventually passes the canoe shed on its way to the cabin. Mid-way it bends around a burnt, jagged, moss and lichen encrusted, jack pine stump from who knows when. I like to think that tree was born before the Revolution and hit by lightning during the Civil War. Or burned to the ground when the last forest fire passed through sometime between. Whatever, whenever, that stump doesn't look a whit different now than when we first cleared the path. I'll be dead, gone and humus before that stump turns to dirt. Gives me a good feeling. Life always goes on. Even in death.

     After the sun sets, it's another world out in the woods. Some animals bed down in places where they won't get eaten. Others go looking for a meal. I try my darnedest to feel at home in the dark whether emptying my bladder or heading out to the road to see if the stars are still there. Moonless nights are the best and the worst. The stars really pop but that walk up the evergreen tunnel of driveway to stand on the road for the show above, is darker than dark. Honestly, I can't see the hand before my face. Reminds me of bivouac at Fort Campbell. Had to pull guard one overcast night. Crawled out of the shelter-half tent and couldn't see squat. Looked around to no effect and immediately crawled back in the tent for my glasses. Took a half minute to realize I already had them on. The soldier I was relieving blindly shuffled us to the post, fifty feet away. Said, "Stay in one place. If you try to walk the post you'll get lost for sure." Got me to thinking, "if it gets this dark in Vietnam, I'm a dead man." Thankfully, on the driveway I've got the dent of tire tracks to guide my shuffle.

     On the blackest of nights I can see the faint greenish glow of fox fire or some other kind of bioluminescence on the dead oak trunk halfway down the driveway. When you're already feeling the spookiness of night in your gut, a tiny glowing cloud ten feet off the ground will definitely catch your eye and raise your hair. Lets you know we humans haven't evolved all that much since we were worshiping rocks. I stuff down the urge to turn around by chanting, "I do believe in witches, I do believe in witches." Top that off with the throaty rasp of a raccoon in search of lunch and I'm ready to shuffle back to the cabin and put on dry drawers.

     But the stars are worth the trip. The cloud of the Milky Way above parallels the gravel road below. Can't see but twenty stars back in the city but up here our galaxy stretches across the night sky and gives me a stiff neck from staring. In August comes the Perseid meteor shower. N matter the night satellites slowly straight-line by. And if you squint just right, down a bit from the right V of Cassiopeia, lies the Andromeda galaxy. Tough part is not looking right at it. If you do it's gone. Must be good looking 'cause it's so hard to see. Kinda neat knowing you're seeing the farthest object visible with the naked eye. Everything's relative but that ain't. Take that to the bank Einstein.

     But never, no matter how many times I've done it, do I feel comfortable wandering the woods in the dark.

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