Friday, March 14, 2008

In the Beginning

It started with a stick, a finely smoothed and varnished walking stick, knobby but (mostly) straight and (indisputably) strong, made and given to us years and years ago by the Finest of Friends, who said, This will lead you to the forest.

At long last this walking stick, and Karma the Beloved Dog (who insists upon being accompanied for all but the most impulsive of quests) led us to the Northwest Woods.

The Northwest Woods, like most forests, features, most prominently, trees (although it certainly is not limited to them). It is our opinion that each tree, like each person, has a story to tell. We have found that the trees in the Northwest Woods have been barely able to contain themselves, so eager are they to offer up their tales. Some days, in fact, it can appear as if the entire forest is babbling, and a person walking in the woods for a little peace and quiet might be well-advised to keep his or her eyes to the ground lest the trees infer there is a captive audience at hand (although just who in particular is more captive is certainly up for dispute, and may be a bit like the bad actor calling the tree wooden).

Now, where were we? Ah, in the Northwest Woods, of that we are certain, though our last paragraph does remind us that we tend to write quite like Karma the Beloved Dog tends to take a walk. There may (or may not, in our lesser moments) be a destination in mind, but certainly Karma (or evidently yours truly) does not make directly for it. 

By the way, isn’t it curious that although one hears about making a “bee” line for somewhere, or references to “as the crow flies,” there is seldom reason to recommend advancing like a dog? It may be precisely because, well, advancing is such a dubious proposition when it comes to a dog. Instead, your average dog (and here we have Beloved Karma in mind, although he is most assuredly light years Above Average) will begin even his most coveted and dearly anticipated journey by proceeding in every possible direction, coming to complete standstills for no apparent reason, followed by retracing, reversing, and reinventing his itinerary at every point on his way to Straight Ahead.

Given our attachment to Karma the Beloved Dog, you will thus understand (and, we hope, forgive) the apparent confounding of our walking and writing styles. We do begin to resemble those we love, as we’re sure you have noted.

However, to return to the Northwest Woods, we would like to point out that apart from particularly Notable Characters of an Arboreal Nature, to whom you are shortly to be introduced, the Northwest Woods offers many other unexpected pleasures. We will leap right to them, forthwith, because journeys that begin on a pleasant note are rewards in themselves (as Karma himself so notably demonstrates at the onset of each walk with the jauntiness of his gait and his gaily lifted leg).

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Heartbeam Spot

You will think we are making this up, but we promise it is absolutely true. (There may be other occasions when you have cause to doubt our word, and we pledge to alert you at the earliest possible moment when your doubting is with cause, but we trust that you will otherwise believe every word we say. Much of what we report we can verify with accompanying photographs and directions allowing you to do the same, but in the case of the Heartbeam Spot, there are particular limitations owing to phenomena we will shortly describe, and you will therefore need to take a significant leap of faith, but please do so).


On the path just beyond the trail considerately identified as “H,” but just before one gets to the turn-off at “I,” at a certain time of day and a certain time of year when the sun is, necessarily, shining and the branches and leaves are all angled just so owing to a particular breeze (or perhaps the absence thereof), a golden shaft of sunlight wends its shining way through the tangle of leaves and trees, and for reasons we cannot otherwise ascertain produces a big, fat, perfect heart-shaped patch of sun upon the ground, which we call the Heartbeam Spot.

We know this was real because two of us saw it.

Otherwise one of us would worry she was making this up.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Heart-Shaped Stump and the Tree-That-Pierces-to-the-Core

Less testing of our credulity is the Heart-Shaped Stump. We say that since, as an artifact, it is constant in its form and not subject to the vicissitudes (we think that would make a delicious soup) of time and light and breezes. As a heart shape it is perhaps less perfectly defined than your ideal crisp and symmetrical heart, but it nonetheless qualifies, as we hope the above photograph demonstrates.

This stump serves as the ideal perch overlooking the Great Chasm, at the bottom of which McCormick Creek flows. Right in the middle of the Great Chasm is the Tree-That-Pierces-To-The-Core, a tree so tall and noble you cannot see its top, nor, because the Great Chasm is so deep, can you see its base, as is aptly demonstrated in the picture below.

We interpret this limitation as an affirmation of the Universal Truth, “As above, so below,” which we take to mean that All Things Are Necessarily Exactly As They Must Be (which is often a struggle for us to accept).

In this acceptance, however, we are given great encouragement from the source of the aforementioned Universal Truth, the great Emerald Tablet, which adds, Thus thou hast the glory of the whole world. We think that if complete acceptance of “As above, so below” vouchsafes us the “glory of the whole world,” we have made a very good bargain, indeed.

The Emerald Tablet, you ask? We can well understand your puzzlement, and we are happy to provide more in the way of information, in the form of the picture below.

For your further edification, let us add that the Emerald Tablet was set down over twenty centuries ago, and is said to contain all the secrets of the Universe. This, we feel, is no small achievement. It is purported to have been written by Hermes Trismegistus, whose name is clearly a challenge to the tongue but is quite worth the effort; just try it: Tris-muh-gist-us.

One of us likes to say it so much she would quite like to change her name. (As it happens, however, the pronunciation above has not been verified and is very likely to be incorrect. At present, however, she appears to have the upper hand.)

Here, by the way, is an illustration of Trismegistus Himself.

We like it because he has such a pleasant expression on his face, and appears to have one set of arms bearing what we imagine is The Emerald Tablet and some other proclamation, as well as a second set of arms with hands cupping his chin in what we are imagining is thoughtful pleasure at the inquiries of his guests.

And here is another illustration of him, which we can’t resist adding because it amuses us greatly. Here he appears to be reading a children’s book (or at least we think it must be, because of the pictures on the cover) to an assortment of jostling individuals, as well as to some birds who seem to be listening quite a bit more attentively than the humans. Well, sitting down and reading a book out loud in the forest sounds like a very good idea for us to do, now that we think about it, in the Northwest Woods.

Now, where were we? Ah, yes, here we are, standing on the Heart-Shaped Stump, and paying homage to the Tree-That-Pierces-To-the-Core, which also often reminds us of those hearts with swords running through them (we think they are a medieval allusion to Courage, a Useful Virtue at any juncture), but what we actually feel each time we stand on the Heart-Shaped Stump and gaze at the Tree-That-Pierces-To-the-Core is, simply, awe, and the deepest gratitude. All is accepted, all, as above, so below. Each time we are thus vastly consoled, and we bow and say thank you before we leave.

The Ancestor Tree

There are many ways to get to know a forest, but we take particular pleasure in finding and being introduced to the ancestor trees. To know one's ancestors is, we believe, to know oneself, and it is our very great honor to present the Northwest Woods' Ancestor Tree to you.

Now, you might think from the picture above that you are not seeing the Ancestor Tree in all its Original Glory, and that is quite true. As it happens, we often do not have occasion to know those we meet at their best, and we generally advise bearing in mind their greatest potential in all one's encounters, which perception considerably adds to the pleasure of every occasion.

You may reasonably wonder at how it was determined that this was the Ancestor Tree. As you will shortly discover, it often takes several (and even more) walks in the Northwest Woods before one becomes entirely receptive to the individuals therein. It's quite like the process of any encounter with the new: at first it is all unknown and anonymous, and then little by little each individual part comes to be known.

We have found in the Northwest Woods that it also helps to actually see what one, well, sees. All too often we dash headlong along with our long list of heady tasks (we rather like how that sounds) oblivious of what's around us. But if we have occasion to pause, say, in the interests of waiting for Karma the Beloved Dog, it is in those long moments that we might notice exactly where we are.

As it happens, the Ancestor Tree is so grand that it called attention all to itself, quite independent of the stops and starts of our walk. There is a further pausing, however, that is necessary if one truly wants to know what one encounters. A Frenzied Pause will simply not do, nor will a Distracted one, nor will a Closed-Door-of-the Mind Pause do. However, if one is willing to pause, and then listen with the ear of one's soul, why one would be simply enchanted with what is heard.

The Ancestor Tree of the Northwest Woods is surrounded by countless other trees in varying stages of growth. Despite having eventually doubled over in a single fell crash across the Great Chasm, its base is nonetheless so sturdy and wide it could be a home for a veritable forest unto itself. Many of the trees around it were felled at an earlier age, or struck by lightning, or afflicted with some, er, we think we can safely say, affliction, but clearly the Ancestor Tree lived long enough to have become a Magnificent Ruin.

We think to be a Magnificent Ruin is quite a respectable goal for ourselves, although we suspect that to be ancient is both harder and nobler than we might imagine.

In any woods you visit, we urge you to find the Ancestor Tree, and join it in its Silent Contemplation. We did so, and continued on, feeling quite the way we do when we have been in a Grand Cathedral.

The Denizens of the Northwest Woods

Now that you have met the Ancestor Tree, perhaps you are interested in being introduced to some of the other denizens of the Northwest Woods. [Although as it turns out, denizens, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (of which one anagrammatic possibility is A Stirring Holy Ox Confided) is not exactly the correct term since it refers to residents who are not natives, and the trees in the Northwest Woods are most certainly natives since it is an old-growth forest. Nonetheless, we are partial to the term (denizens sounds particularly apropos of the woods, although it does appear to limit us to forest mammals), and we are disinclined to let our flaming misappropriation of it dissuade us from nonetheless employing it. You will note, by the way, that this kind of Willful Misrepresentation is seldom encountered in the natural world, although it is difficult to say which is worse: not knowing we misused a term, or knowing and misusing it anyhow. It might be argued that it’s a case of being forced to choose between obtuseness or obstinance, and we are, in any case, choosing the latter.]

But to continue.

We have heard it inquired how it is that trees, traditionally regarded as tight-lipped, if lipped at all (although with some exceptions, see below) can be said to speak.

Well, it is our opinion the issue is not so much do trees talk, but do we listen? We are, in modern times, virtually bombarded with words and noises, and we daresay many of us have quite forgotten the virtues of silence. It is precisely in the practice of that latter virtue (for it surely deserves to be one) that we each might hear so much more than we hear.

One final point must be made as to the issue of gender (which we recognize you have not raised, but we are anticipating your objection). We have been asked how in our tree conversations we can tell the difference between a him and a her, and, quite frankly, we cannot. This, in many respects, appears to be a superior arrangement to the human, who must oblige (and/or resist) any number of mandates by virtue of a factor that quite rightly perceived would be only a minor detail on the order of where you part your hair (if in possession of same).

For that reason, we highly encourage each of you to modify the reported genders in any way you deem relevant to your own experience. We can promise the trees won’t mind in the least.

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Singing Tree, by way of the Bouncing Tree

It was a windy and, frankly, unnecessarily nippy day in the forest.

All right then, if we’re completely honest (as we’ve pledged to be), it was the throes of winter, so no surprise there, and actually we thought it was deliciously nippy. However, some of us worry we may sound a bit too treacly at times, and a little grumbling seems to be the needed antidote.

It does feel good to grumble a bit, even if it requires some exaggeration of circumstances to do so. Anyhow, we are of the opinion that Literary License itself allows for the occasional creative use of facts.

(And isn’t that, now that we think about it, an interesting concept in itself: Literary License. Do you suppose it can really be issued, and if so, by whom? What do you suppose it reads like?


Effective (date), and (year), the following (name) hereby has the undersigned’s permission to:

1.  Digress from an initial proposition to such an extent that it is no longer recalled, nor is the point of its telling, and if it weren’t written down previously would be utterly lost to posterity;
2.  Use vaguely familiar but somewhat uncommon terms from other sources;
3.  Employ words of sometimes indeterminate applicability and often with excess syllables so as to lend for an air of perspicuity and a certain random ambly-ness;  
4.  Invent words on-the-spot, as needed, or if not a word itself to construct a portmanteau that would serve the purpose; 
5.  Modify representations of facts so as to address considerations beyond those of Accuracy, such as Whimsy, Necessary Discharge of Grumbliness for No Apparent Justifiable Cause, Deep Appreciation for the Paradoxical Nature of It All, and Transmission of Essential Truths that Do Not Adhere, Properly Speaking, to the So-Called Facts;
6.  Intentionally misuse common terms as long as there is forthright acknowledgement of same;
7. Make the boldest of assertions confidently and then contradict oneself with equal confidence later;
8. Offer parenthetical statements within parenthetical statements with only a cursory effort at complying with literary regulations, as per Stunk & Write's Elements of Style;
9.  Confound the personal and poetic for purposes of conveying what one most deeply and ineffably believes about both the Natural and the Unnatural World (Supernatural and Preternatural Worlds are not included in this agreement and require a different license).


Oliver Edward Dunbar, LLD

Treacly itself, by the way, turns out to have a fascinating origin, deriving from Middle English, Old French, Latin and Greek, and meaning “antidote against poison or a poisonous bite from a wild animal.” We promise to alert you as to the presence of any Wild Animals in the Northwest Woods, some of which we do have a hint of. In the meantime we think it a bit of an irony that we need an antidote to the antidote treacly in the form of grumbly, when one would think it would be the other way around.

But where were we? Ah.

The Singing Tree, Resumed

It was a windy and nippy-of-some-sort day in the Northwest Woods, and one of us was showing her beloved visitors all her favorite places, stopping, at last, to rest at the Bouncing Tree, which feels quite like what we imagine being jostled as a toddler must have felt like during recitation of “Bambury Cross,” or some other such eminently bounceable rhyme.

The Bouncing Tree feels every bit as nice as a riding horse or a rocking horse or riding a rocking knee, with the further advantage that it is very, very strong and could probably hold an entire entourage (not that we have one). Certainly, though, it held at least two (or at least one and a half), as you can see in the photograph above.

On this particular day, as our treasured visitors sat and bounced, one of us was convinced she suddenly heard the most dismal sound one can hear in the woods: the heartless, cold, relentless rattle of a chainsaw.

No, said her brother, who himself is quite like a Tree in his deep and silent watchfulness, I don’t think it’s a chainsaw.

But one of us was quite certain that it was. Sigh, she thought (or perhaps exhaled). She hoped that if it was a chainsaw it was functioning in the service of an already felled tree, perhaps one blocking the path of some gentle elderly person who would not otherwise be able to continue his happy walk in the Northwest Woods, or some toddly Christopher Robin sort cavorting down the trail, or...

No, wait, said her brother, who had been walking around the vicinity eying the trees suspiciously. That's not a chainsaw making that sound, he announced. That's this TREE!

Ridiculous, she said. Impossible! How could a tree be making a sound like that?

Well, her brother said, come over here and put your ear up against the trunk.

She was, admittedly, cocksure and uncertain in the same breath, but she vacated her position on the Bouncing Tree to lean her ear up against the green, furry trunk. Sure enough every time the “chainsaw” was heard, there was a corresponding ringing coming from inside the tree. Within it she could hear what were positively celestial tones. The tree was singing. Truly singing. Tone after tone rang out (or in, as the case was) sometimes followed by little rapping noises, and other times by a hum. It was a veritable modern symphony! Perhaps post-modern. Certainly minimalist, in a Philip Glass sort of way. She was entranced.

Look, her brother explained. See how this tree is leaning against the one over there? When the wind starts up it causes this tree to rub against that other one, thus making the “chainsaw” noise you hear on the outside. Within the tree, however, the vibrations produce a different sound. It's physics, really, basically science, he added.

Well, it is our opinion that Science is quite the remarkable thing.

As it happens there is also a considerable literary and artistic tradition for Singing Trees. The Arabian Nights' Entertainment has a lovely chapter devoted to a Singing Tree, which is pictured below:

There is, furthermore, an astounding sculpture in the northwest of England called "The Singing, Ringing Tree" which "harnesses the energy of the prevailing winds" and can be heard to "sing" across several octaves.

But this Singing Tree in the Northwest Woods was neither literature, nor art. It was more, it seemed, miraculous. which truly is Science at its best.

Now, every time we visit the Bouncing Tree, we stop to listen to the Singing Tree. Most of the time it is silent, but on those days when we lean our ear against its green, furry bark and hear its symphony within, we are filled with such joy that tears spring to our eyes. It sings! we say in amazement. It sings!

And then we are filled with love, and gratitude, for her brother.

A Dark Wood

It has just occurred to us that we have already been midway into the Northwest Woods without ever having actually entered it. So let's retrace our steps.

Now, the main entrance to the Northwest Woods begins with a fine and winding path surrounded on both sides by sunlight and trees. Even on cloudy days there is a luminous light emanating from a source that can only be the Northwest Woods’ own true nature. However, lest you think the Northwest Woods is just too sweet for its own good, dare we say cloying, we do want to mention that we don’t have to venture far into the bright and beaming forest before we come face-to-face with its inevitable… shadow.

Those more observant might notice that on the right of the path as they ascend the first steep-ish sort of hill is a small, tiny, desperate figure frozen in flight as she rushes downhill, her arms outstretched, her panic nearly palpable. Clearly she has been caught running at some speed downhill, which should be alarm sufficient for all but the most oblivious of passers-by.

It is, actually, our first clue that not all in the Northwest Woods is sweetness and light, and for that we must breathe a sigh of relief, lest we suffocate from sheer surfeit of sweetness.

Those who continue past the frightened little figure (and we imagine some do turn about in their tracks) are thus not entirely taken by surprise when, at the crest of the path, suddenly all golden vistas give way, and we are in a Dark Wood.

The Dark Wood is not terribly long a stretch of the path, but it is significantly darker, and more closed in on either side, and it does seem that the birds suddenly stop chattering, and everything else gets very, very quiet. In the silence, if one stands still (which one is not at all inclined to do), one hears vague rustlings and muffled snaps and other surreptitious scurrying about.

“Scurry” does indeed seem to be the order of the moment, and we won’t think the less of you were you to yield to that impulse.

Now sometimes it is fun to be scared, and sometimes it is scary to be scared, and it is useful to know just when one becomes the other. It is our conviction that the moment one no longer feels safe alone is the crucial divide, so we recommend that you are accompanied at this juncture of your explorations (Beloved Dogs are strongly advised).

If, however, you do screw your courage to the sticking point and manage not to turn yourself Right Back Around and go rushing down the path with your arms outstretched quite like a certain previously encountered figure, then right toward the middle end of the Dark Wood, off to the side, is a very nicely positioned log carefully propped up on two smaller pieces at either end, all but pleading Sit Here. However improbably, we absolutely recommend that you do so.

It may be while sitting there that you belatedly recognize the madly rushing figure you had previously encountered is not, in fact, fleeing in terror, but is a remnant of a moss-covered stump (though it does nonetheless leave one of us to wonder if, in an instant, we, too, can be transformed from our big, confident selves to a small scrap of ancient, immobile, mossy wood, and how, indeed, those circumstances would arise).

More about that later.

All the same, such a pleasant little respite seems utterly contrary to one’s previous biases about a Dark Wood, and we have found that when we sit in that quiet, shaded little spot we begin to feel remarkably brave and strong.

There’s nothing quite like sitting calmly with one’s fears, after all; we often note how when we do so, the fears seem to fade, and oddly enough the birds begin their sweet chatter once again.