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What a wonderful story! On my walk through woodsy southern Oregon tomorrow morning, I'll think of you and count my own blessings.

Thank you, Bess...


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Sunday, October 31, 2004  

We call it Indian Summer. When I was a girl I thought it was because the Indians invented Thanksgiving and it wasn’t till after their summer that they put on the feast. I also always looked forward to those few more days of going coatless and hatless to school. Those pieces of clothing are nothing but a burden to children - you have to put them on, take them off, remember to bring them home, remember to not leave them on the bus, stuff them into lockers and, ugh, hang them up when you get home. When it gets really cold, you’re glad enough to have a coat and, till they get wet, mittens or gloves. But mostly you have to get old enough to care about fashion before a coat is anything but a burden. So when the leaves turned to burnished gold, these warm days of Indian Summer are a sweet reminder of the taste of freedom one little schoolgirl used to savor.

Yesterday, BD woke me from a luxurious afternoon nap and invited me on a cypress hunt. The coastal south east used to be awash with cypress trees - huge deciduous conifers that like to grow in swampy areas or even in water, thrusting up pointed root nodules called “knees” out of the surrounding landscape. They were extremely popular as roofing shingles in colonial times and now there are very few cypress swamps left. We, of course, live along a marsh with swampy fingers thrusting up into the high ground and own a part of White Oak Swamp, across the tar road from us. When we cut the timber on it, back in the 1980’s BD planted the whole thing with ash and cypress. He would remember the exact year he planted them, but I will say only that it’s been a good 15 years or more and they are getting big now, thrusting their October bronze colors up through the gum and poplar and oak and holly that sprung up as well, after the sawyers had been through. He planted more cypress all along our marsh front and in the fall we like to go see how many of them we can find.

If you have never seen a forest re-seeded, you might wonder how anything as tiny as those little wisps of twig and leaf could ever become a tree. Oh - you would know it - you know from a tiny acorn the mighty oak will grow - but who really believes it? And those baby cypress are prey to deer-nibbling and antler-rubbing and being crushed by deadfall or storm damage. Still, life is tenacious, especially tree life, and eventually the strong prevail.

The cypress is a very straight tree with limbs that thrust out at nature’s right angle in every direction. It’s leaves form a fern-like green fringe, delicate green in the spring, darkening in the summer and becoming the richest bronze in autumn. It is in the early spring and autumn that you really notice them. Since ours were planted in an already luxuriant swampy landscape they have had to struggle to find their way to sunlight. Some survived - a good many did not - or so we have thought for years and years. What is exciting, though, is that every year we find another survivor, broken free at last from it’s leafy mature forest cover, and stoutly proclaiming it’s dominion as it begins it’s visible climb to the sky.

The walk through the woods takes off from the north east corner of our yard, down a pretty little path that BD built nearly 30 years ago. It runs along the bank a while, with a fairly open understory, the swamp to the left, and the high ground rising to shoulder height on your right. Eventually it slopes down to the middle swamp, where there is a plank bridge across the little islets to the other side. Yesterday it was dotted with freshly fallen leaves in yellow and that meloney pink of the sweet gum. Here is where we begin to count the cypress trees. All of these are familiar and most of them are in the 15 foot range, though there is one little sprig of a tree, not yet 3 feet tall, at the very far end of the bridge, that will have to work hard to find it’s place.

From here one can turn left and wander around the whole of Mossy Point, or go straight, taking the shortcut through the woods out to the mailbox. We took the path to Mossy Point. It’s called TheSecretPath because once ,when LD was a biggish sort of toddler, we played all afternoon out on Mossy Point and on the way home we lost our way. I knew we could find our way back if I got to the edge of the dry land and went along it till we were back to familiar ground. But walking west along the banks of the middle swamp the path rose up a little hill and disappeared into a tangle of mountain laurel. Logic told me it would continue, but even as we reached the top of the hill it still appeared to have just stopped. The crooked branches of the laurel looked like witches twisted arms, reaching out to grab little Hansel and Gretel. The two of us pondered and wondered and talked about how spooky it looked, but once we reached the very summit of the hill we could see the path winding down and to the right, beneath the canopy of shiny green laurel leaves. We dubbed it TheSecretPath and so it has remained to this day.

In the late afternoon sun, the middle swamp was ablaze with color. Walking along TheSecretPath going eastwards, we stopped and pointed out our discoveries, several standing strong out in William’s Island - the little bit of high ground mounding out of the swamp, where BD planted a cluster of saplings. At some time during his childhood LD built a bridge out to that island - perhaps burying pirate’s treasure, perhaps escaping pursuit. We discovered two big trees that we had either never seen before or had forgotten that we had. As the path nears Mossy Point you can view the marsh and even see the pier and the boats. Every year the marsh grows thinner and this fall we are having extremely high tides. Water is lapping the shore now, where once it wore a thick skirt of cattails.

From Mossy Point the path rises high above the wetlands affording a magnificent view across the Rappahannock to Westmoreland County. You can see the swimming beach from here and sometimes I think I can see a hint of the cliffs on the far side of the river. This point is wider than the point where we built our house. It’s high too, and open, for the forest is old here. It also has some gaping holes, for Isabel did plenty of damage throughout the entire east woods last year. There used to be the most magnificent beech tree on this point - so big you could see it from the river. It died not long after we moved to the farm and has been shedding it’s lifeless limbs for years now. Halfway across the point is a path that takes you to an intersection, BD calls it Downtown East Woods, that will take you back to the Middle Swamp or out to the edge of Jacob’s Gut, the little stream that forms the south boundary of the farm.

That stream, too, is dotted with cypress, though far fewer of them survived the first planting, since long about ‘96 a colony of beaver moved in and dammed up the stream. The resultant flooding killed off many a maple and oak tree, whose stark gray skeletons lean this way and that, like so many ghosts. It was sad at first, but we come to remember that this is nature’s way and their death flooded the whole swamp with sunlight. The beaver moved off in ‘02, during a drought of centurion proportions, and their dam is slowly eroding. Last spring, the D’s planted another hundred cypress trees and it won’t be many years before we are discovering them as the earth tilts our little plot of land away from the sun and their baby green leaves burnish beneath the autumnal light.

All through the forest we found golden pools where a tree had dropped it’s leaves. The gum trees, our most glorious for color variety, are all fairly yellow this year. There was so much rain this summer that most of the deciduous trees have a heavy does of mold - a sort of arboreal black spot. Hundreds of beautiful white mushrooms had sprouted everywhere, filling the air with their earthy scent. They are so smooth and glistening and white they ought to be food - but I have never felt confident enough to try them. We discovered another fascinating fungus, blooming on the ground like an enormous golden flower. It was easily a foot across and unfolded in fungal petals. Little forest bugs were crawling all across it and landing on it, seeking it’s riches for food or shelter.

We spent an hour or so out in our little forested wonderland, traversing the paths, remembering those early days, recalling happy memories. At one point it suddenly hit me, that every yearning hunger I had in those early days has been fulfilled. Oh, mind you, now, I am sure there are going to be many longings and wantings and yearnings that I will have in the future. Man does not stop wanting just because his wish is granted. But I could honestly say that those things I ached for the most, throughout my girlhood and adolescence and even young womanhood, were mine now. Love. Good work. A place to come from. A place to go back to. Joy.

The richness of the autumn woods was a fitting backdrop for the richness of my own life. It was a moment to stop and just savor. To give thanks. And as we returned home, the last golden sunshine flooded across the sky, not glittering, but transforming everything with it’s deep vivid color. Arms flung wide, I could only spin a slow revolution in some ancient pagan dance, dredged up from the very DNA of my soul, bathing myself in this honeyed starlight. And I leave you with this wish: May you all remember to welcome this gift from the Indians, this pause before winter, this memory of easier days, with a walk through the woods.

posted by Bess | 7:47 AM