The Woods

by Bruce Patterson, January 22, 2013

Why on their way to school through the dawn glow at the end of the last semester, standing in the graze of the Ornbaum Opening, they’d seen an albino doe with her nose to the ground, the first streaking rays of daylight illuminating her snowy whiteness. All of the kids on the bus saw her, too, since the driver, an old Arky nicknamed “Shorty,” having just recently been awarded for putting in his first million school bus miles without so much as losing track of a single rug rat, or bending a fender, or getting the bus stuck in mud, felt entitled to break the rules and violate procedures. He’d earned the right by golly. So good old Shorty pulled the bus over, locked up his airbrakes, pointed his finger and urged everybody to lookee there. The doe looked up at the bus with perked ears and the kids got an eyeful.

Now, if you’ve noticed how my prose rambles some, it’s because this here is recollection and my memories, whether vivid or dim, lay side-by-side more than front-to-back. I suppose that’s how it goes with old geezers around the world and back through the millennia, leastwise with those of us still having imaginations and senses of humor, delicious moments to savor, bones to pick, lessons to pass on and stories to tell.

So, as I started to say, why wouldn’t Trish and I send Jeff off to kindergarten? Just the bus rides would make his day. Just getting off the ranch and with other kids would make his day (or so we thought). We knew Jeff was slow developing but so what? Slow still gets there, doesn’t it? Plus, back home, he’d have his mother as his tutor; a professional teacher with the training, experience, aptitude and desire to put in some quality over, overtime for her son. During the coming years his mother wouldn’t be putting in just any kind of overtime, either. It’d be all she had and then some, occasional instants of heartbreak leading to breakdown.

Meanwhile I was out busting my ass for grub money and tithing my paychecks 10% so I could entertain myself. I’d get off work, sit in Yorkville’s Oaks Cafe, lick my paws, polish my elbows and numb my nose before catching a six-pack to go and moseying on up the mountain. And when I got home, after giving my boys some quality roughhouse and/or outdoor time, I’d often retreat to the rear end of our singlewide to sip my beers and scribble on paper.

While I wasn’t out to escape my responsibilities to my family, I damn sure wanted to limit them. I needed more than just work and family, family and work — guard duty and un-guard duty. Trisha was far better at child-rearing anyway, she a nurturer and me a hell raiser. Then I needed to keep some distance between us because I didn’t want my wife and children to become my new holemates; extensions of myself with hands and feet, backs to watch and wounds to tend to. I was forever done soldiering and I needed time away doing what I wanted to do to prove it. My tattered conscience was my own to contend with, and mend if possible, in any way I saw fit. If now and again I lost my judgment and wound up howling at the moon, or picking a fight with the wind, it felt like destiny, payback, the siren songs of my battered island ego urging me toward the rocks. During my worst drunks I imagined I was sparring with ole Mr. Scratch himself, Beelzebub da Bum outta Ring of Hell, Mississippi; that haunted shadow of me slithering in the swamp mist.

Or, were you to strip away all of the layers of self-justifications, you’d arrive at my innermost kernel of self-justification. In the real way of things — in the crunch — we all do what we want to do or feel we must do. It’s one of the things that make us human. While I doubt that this ability is unique in nature, I’m willing to concede that it just might be. Although I truly hope that humankind is the only species whose members spend a good part of their lives kicking themselves in the ass, or hiding, or fantasizing, or turning their backs on obvious danger so they can keep their tender noses to the grass.

Or you could say I that, during my worst drunks, I was made crazy by the shame of loathsome self-pity. Or that I was crazy (cursed!) because my mom had gone nuts. My worst drunks were certainly psychotic episodes and even I know that. Psychotic episodes sometimes happen when you drink yourself into a place where life in this sorry world feels like a chain around your neck. Where society feels a like the popcorn-munching crowd filling the seats in a crooked Tijuana club fight, God’s a referee on the take and you’re a tomato can.

Thoughts like that popping up are so pitiful it’s shameful. Tapering down as the years went by, my worst drunks came months apart — usually. Yet they were common enough that I came to think of them as blowing my mind’s nose; unpleasant but necessary. Spent and contrite the next morning, I’d be on my best behavior for a good long while.

Also, just so you don’t get me wrong, never did I drink in the morning or at work. Sometimes I’d go days without drinking a single beer and weeks without tipping a shot. The more I got to know myself, the more times I drank only to catch a buzz and then quit while I was ahead. And — I’m kind of proud of this — for over twenty years not once have I ever brought a bottle of whisky into our home.

There was another reason why I needed to join the crowd inside The Oaks. I’d been working alone in the woods for so long that I was starting to feel like a part of the landscape. It’d happened to me sometimes in the jungle, too, especially when I was pulling foxhole guard and the night was clear and the moon was up. I’d spend my hours using my peripheral vision to chart the dance of light and shadow and, yes, my ears to listen to what the jungle was telling me. There were times when it seemed the mountainside was showing off; the wind through the trees languages sung, ground birds fluttering a code.

It takes a powerful amount of cultural indoctrination to be out in nature every day without ever noticing how creation tells you something about the creator. It’s hard to miss how mountains and canyons are akin, how rocks and wildlife and seasons are akin, and how all humankind is just one species, one sparkle flashing down in the bouquet of sparkles coming off a sunspot on a creek down in a shady, buckeye-held, V-shaped canyon.

Intrigued, you carefully follow a deer trail quartering down the canyonside, join the creek and come to where it meets with another and suddenly you remember — your skin tingles — how millions of such creek-forks feed the oceans, and how the oceans feed the clouds that feed the land and the finger of anonymous green runoff trickling past your feet.

Another day you sit down with your back to a tree, a raccoon happens by, you catch eyes, you sniff each other out and you feel akin. You watch a trio of wild turkeys chasing off a pair of spotted fawns and you wonder what’s gotten into them just as if they were human and you can get inside their heads. You see a raven gliding like a weightless statue through the limbs of the redwood forest and you know he’s feeling mighty special; he’s doing what he was born to do and knows it all the way to the tips of his wings.

You crank up your chainsaw, fell a fat old granddaddy Doug fir and you know you’ve killed it and you know it knows. The other trees know it, too, especially the ones you’ve put to swinging and shedding limbs. The animals in the canyon know what you’ve done, some freezing and cocking an ear, others taking flight. Once the commotion is over and your tree has settled into its bed, you feel compelled to put the giant’s wood to good use, to not waste its sacrifice, that’s what you do. Always. Since it’s so obvious there’s no waste in nature — life eats life so life can live — death is everywhere and nowhere at the same time; one end of a broken limb buried under a carpet of limbs, the dirt underneath the bones of our ancestors. With the seasons it becomes more and more difficult to not see yourself as made for this wondrous and yet totally oblivious planet and not by any stretch the other way around. To you the notion of humans ever colonizing Mars is stark raving madness. It’s Mad Scientists with a bottomless pit of money to incinerate — crazed two-legged laboratory rats spouting calculus.

This is it, nature makes plain, so make the best of it if you can. We’re not wrong to value human life above all others — we’re wrong when we don’t. We’re also wrong when we think that quail are not partial to quail, or steelhead partial to steelhead, or that all species are, exactly like us, doing the best with what they’ve got. The way bees and flowers live in symbiosis, so it goes with all life and un-life, each in all and all in each, timeless relationships hidden from frail fleeting objects, and that goes for you, too, and you get it. It humbles you and yet emboldens you to look further. As your understanding deepens and your daily experiences reaffirm your convictions, your workdays become like prayers.

So a woodsman needs human company to keep a hold of his humanity. Hermits go crazy for a reason, and it isn’t difficult to guess why. And what better human company is there for you — putting aside family, of course — than those who live as you live and see as you see? When a tale about a peculiar bit of animal behavior causes the roadhouse to fill with them, how can you be in the wrong place? When you’re a young writer, student and pilgrim and most always there’s somebody willing to go you one better, or to show you where you’re wrong, how sweet is that? The beer, music, conversation and laughter proves you’re not just another rabbit or crow, fox or coyote, tipping tree or tumbling rock.

So while over the years my wife and sons suffered some for it, they also benefited I do believe. By acting a little crazy I kept from going insane.

From Hauling Horses, a work in progress.

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