Lovely, Dark and Deep

We walked the pastures last night in the fields where I was a child, looking for lost lambs. The sheep were moved to new grazing grounds, and in the furor over fresh grass, sometimes mamas and babies get separated. A pair of twins patrolled the fence nearest the alleyway that led to the new grazing grounds, bleating madly and snatching at well-shorn grass stems. Their mama heard them and came back down the run for them, but one temporary fence stood between them. My mother lifted it and let the little twins through. They scrambled for their mama and followed her away to new and greener pastures.

So we walked, looking for any more lost stragglers out in the rolling hollows, or perhaps disoriented or tangled in the underbrush of the woodsy patches where the flock often shelters at the noonday. The children ran circles round the copses while My Love and I walked hand in hand. The heat is almost unseasonable, and the apples and wild plums are all a-blossom.

The four children came round the stand of poplar and maple and ran for us, their faces lit up with happiness. Our own little flock. The younger two came to our sides for hugs, the older ones walking close. A perfect moment to be kept in my heart for years when they’re grown and gone.

The children prepared to run off again, asking if they could go into the next patch of woods. “Yes,” I said. “I know this one. It’s a good place.”

Familiar. Ringed in lacy white bloom and deep green shadow. I noted a fallen tree and felt I recognized it, though it seemed a whimsical thought. Nonetheless, the instinct of the wood-ward came alive. I know this one.

My Love, in his jean shorts, said, “If I had long pants on, I’d ask you to show me the old orchard.”

I smiled, and planned to walk on with him along the north edge of the miniature forest, though my eyes stayed turned to buffaloberry, chokecherry, and thick, rough maple trunks.

In tales of legend, often a wanderer is drawn by some strange place which seems to have a power of its own, a place which calls silently and irresistibly. We came past the place where the tangle of undergrowth ends, to where there is a stand of open trunks.

This is the place where one enters.

I found myself wandering from my husband’s side, knowing that I know this place. I stepped into evening shadows beneath the fresh green canopy.

“Where are you going?” he asked.

“To look,” I answered, already somewhere else. I know this place.

There is the hollow where there is no grass — too dark the woods, too wet the spring melt, and too thick the layers of leaves from years gone by. They rustle damply underfoot, sprinkled with tiny, rounded foliage of wild columbine. I track at an angle south east across the hollow and up the rise, ducking fallen limbs, wondering how I can know where I’m going. It’s been twenty years. Surely the woods have changed in all that time.

Suddenly I come to a place with one thin trunk rising straight up, another just beside, and a third, dead, wedged between them and angled to the earth. Can it be? Can a bole not increase in thickness, not change in a score of years? It can’t be.

The air is wreathed in the scent of wild plum, and blossoms crown the underbrush, trailing to the ground in ethereal cascades. I look for an opening in the canopy, look for the thing that will tell me whether my mind is playing tricks.

It is there.

The great, bronze-and-golden, sinuous trunk — thick as a man’s body, covered in scaly bark like a dragon’s hide. Its spiralling branches reach and swirl, tipped with fine clusters of long, soft needles. The great one is surrounded by a vanguard of white lace. I have never seen it so bedecked — how could I never have come here in the spring, in all the years I wandered this place?

It’s true. These three slim trunks have not changed over the years, because they are plum, ever thin, forced to stand tall and stretch for light by the thickness of the forest roof. This was a child’s back gate to a secret, old and decaying garden.

I duck through, wondering at how unchanged it is. The same dead branches lie in the same arrangement I remember. My tree, the great pine, is as I remember. I used to climb it and sit forty feet in the air, above the crowns of maple and poplar, and survey the land. This was my hideaway.

I wrap my arms around my tree and press my face against the scaly bark, and I greet it in a whisper. I’ve always talked to living things.

There on the ground is the trunk of the spruce which stands alongside, once struck by lightning. I took a photograph there of a pinecone nestled in the dead leaves and shattered wood. It was in my photography portfolio as a teen, and my namesake told me she liked its representation of life from death.

It tells me what my heart has always known: this is a good wood, which does not rot easily. Even in death, it’s almost unchanged — and that lightning strike was before my memory.

I have tears in my eyes. In the forest floor, I can still see the hollow of the trail we used to follow to come to these two trees, planted by my great-great-grandfather in the early 1900s when these hills were bare and open. These trees mark the northern edge of the abandoned orchard.

I trace the path and find the tumble-down wire fence that once enclosed the fruit trees — I know exactly the place where I am stepping over it. A few more steps south, and here is the ancient apple tree. Its top has been broken, and its blossoms are sparse. I grieve for it a little, touch its smooth bark, marvel at the thick, straight trunk. I have never seen another apple tree so stout, almost a foot in diameter.

I make my way south a bit more, sight the other side of the fence. I look to my left for the corner post where it turns, just to be sure I haven’t gotten off-course without being able to see the sky. I look up, measure the angle of sun across leaves. Yes. I know this place.

I step across the fallen wire. Here, there should be the remains of the trail my father once cleared into these woods. It will lead to the pond. It’s overgrown with young poplar, and for a second I’m uncertain. But no, there is a natural marker — grass, fine and out of place, and only in a narrow strip through the trees. I follow it west and come out beside the pond.

I walk between the spruce my mother planted, west of the yard, and meet my family on the lane. I feel almost unwilling to rejoin the conversation. Memory stays close and warm about me.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
and they have promises they keep;
and roots so very deep;
and changeless miles, oh, miles to go
before at last, forever,
they sleep.