It’s strange, how love evolves. I once worked on a New England mountain, and it was my job to tell its stories. My favorite story to tell was one of large swaths of forest where the trees had never been cleared by humans – the story of its old growth forest. This is not a story shared by many mountains in the northeast; and with its telling, I needed to share a deep understanding of how that old growth came to be, what challenges it had overcome, which struggles it had yet to face. And so I immersed myself in the forest and its history.
My first several months working at the mountain, I hiked a single route dozens of times. I hiked it during work hours, of course, but I also headed there on more than a few of my days off. In those first months, I became infatuated with the mountain and its old growth forest. I learned its every rise, curve, and valley by heart. My fingers grazed the tips of pine needles; my hands pressed into bark and moss and lingered on rocks. I wanted to spend all my free time with it, to touch it, listen to it, breathe it in.
I read the landscape to myself over and over, and I told my love story of the old growth forest to the visitors who came to hear it:
On the mountain’s south side, the morning sun falls like a fresnel, washing a stage in light. It drenches the summit and cascades over the lower slopes, trickling through the branches of the trees. There’s a trail that starts on those lower slopes and takes hikers through every stage of forest succession, passing through a wooded timeline of New England’s forest history.
My first easy steps carry me up from the bottom of the well-trampled trail, and pebbles skitter under foot, especially when the ground is dry. Soon the grade sharpens; my steps come more slowly (and my breath more quickly), as my boots scuff over talus, legs reaching to carry me from rock to rock. Past the spot where these old boulders have come to rest, the journey upward continues through a mixed forest of white pine, red maple, and red oak. The sun dapples the brown forest floor, and last season’s dried maple leaves shush themselves under my feet. Bursts of scent penetrate the air: one breath pine needles, the next decomposing leaves. I am surrounded by a mid-succession forest of straight, tall trees – red maple, red oak, hop hornbeam – their tops racing each other to the sun. They are a hundred years old at best. There are also remnants of the earlier, pioneering forest that began its life when this area was only meadow, the byproduct of clearcutting and of farmland that was eventually abandoned. A few gray birch stragglers and tiny pockets of more white pines persist. Splotches of juniper bush drop hints of a previous livestock pasture. An aged black cherry stands alone where once it had companions. A patch of stump-sprouted, multi-trunked red maples gird themselves on either side of the trail, testifying to a time of logging, a history of human disturbance. The trees compete for sunlight, water, and nutrients; some of them inevitably fall. But where one tree falls, a patch of sunlight is created; and new sun-loving trees, whose seeds have waited for just the right moment, germinate and rise. With time, the meadow has become forest, and the forest constantly transforms. Here, death and life continually trade places in their own mutually symbiotic relationship, the one both needing and supporting the other. A breeze wends its way through the amply spaced trees, reaches out to drift over my skin, and riffles my hair. A knocking sound echoes through the forest as a woodpecker opens its pantry.
I walk upward on the mountain and backward through forest time, soon arriving at a stone wall built by farmers two centuries ago, whose hands crafted this igneous barrier with granite cycled up from the mountain’s very core. Despite its aging structure, the wall reaches out to the east and to the west, gathering up the forest-that-now-is with the memory of the farmland-that-once-was. A single foot stride over its width sweeps me into a thick, hushed world where the tree canopy is dense, nearly impenetrable by sunlight. Here, the forest floor is padded with an almost-black soil that gives nutrients and moisture to wildflowers in spring and to trees of all ages and stages of growth – mature white ash, green ash, and striped maple. American beech and sugar maple have found their place here too – shade-loving trees that appear later in a forest’s development. There are still red oaks and red maples, but they are no longer the dominant species. Downed trees in various stages of decay are scattered throughout – those that gave way to their competition or came down after an event that proved too much for them – perhaps a hurricane; a blizzard; or a heavy, root-drowning rain. However they fell, they now feed the soil and remain a part of the earth around them. Some have become nurse logs, cultivating new trees that thrive in this compost of an earlier time. A few standing snags – ragged, decaying toothpicks – are poking into all this green and providing habitat for insects and birds. This robust, late succession forest is still changing, even in its climax stage.
Peering ahead, I can see that the rich, mesic forest floor extends for many yards then rises up to a sharply graded slope, bedrock bulging from its forested surface. There, in the rock, above and around me, gnarled sugar maples preside. Their broccoli-shaped tops have formed slowly over time and reveal their age, like the hunch of a back, the bend of an arthritic hand. Their lumpy, gray trunks glow faintly in the low light of the forest, distinguishing them from all the other trees. Recognizing one old growth sugar maple in this wooded pastiche makes the others readily noticeable. They shine from their thrones all along the steep bank in front of me. These sugar maples are two hundred years old, maybe even older – nearly unheard of in New England due to our history of logging and clear cutting for agriculture. Farmers left these trees alone: the task of removing them and farming the craggy, abrupt incline was insurmountable. To loggers, these trees were not just inaccessible, but undesirable: the trees aren’t very tall or wide, having lived their lives on this steep, rocky, well-drained slope. Their roots have held tightly and delivered what they need to survive, but their growth is limited, their trunks misshapen. And so their imperfections have been their greatest asset. Left behind by humans, the sugar maples are now the elders in this dynamic stand of old growth forest, where a sense of history fills the air. Where the forest hums, buzzes, chirps, scratches with life.
I stand in the middle of this place and breathe in the musk of damp soil, leafy detritus, decaying logs. The old growth canopy shades and cools me. Silence and sound have gently become one. In this place, decay and vibrancy are partners who have forged a pocket of survival despite the odds.
Sometimes though, the odds are the victorious ones, and a love story has to change. It was the last week of my work season, the early morning of a bright, sun-washed day that beckoned me to the trail I had by now fallen in love with. Halfway up, a woman’s arms flashed in the otherwise still morning, her white sleeves begging me. Her desperate scream, “Can you help us?” punched a hole in the forest.
Eons passed in the few seconds it took me to reach the couple – one of them frantic, the other as quiet as the forest. He was flat on his back, bald head beaded with sweat, his rounded belly encased in a blue short-sleeved t-shirt. A sweat stain formed a “v” over his chest. Pale white legs poked out from his black shorts. The last thing I noticed was his face – white beard, gray skin. His eyes were open, I think, but I don’t remember their color. The only color I remember against the face-scape of gray and white was the red trickle seeping from the corner of his mouth, which was dropped open. His wife had tried to help him first, all alone out here in this old growth forest that had called to them that morning, just as it had called to me. Her white sleeves had signaled her surrender.
The next few, several, many minutes dripped by amidst pulse-searching, chest compressions, counting, breathing, the backdrop of a 9-1-1 call, and his wife’s mantra of “You can do it. Please, you can do it.” I don’t know if she meant it for her husband or for me. When help arrived, I watched through a hazy curtain as they brought out their defibrillator, pulled up his shirt (I had forgotten to pull up his shirt), placed the sticky pads on his pale chest and abdomen. I stood there, pinky fingers tingling, adrenaline surging then draining away. Someone asked if I was ok, and the question shamed me. I wasn’t the one who needed attention. I sat with the man’s wife on the stone wall. Together, we looked on as they tried everything they could.
He died there – surrounded by old growth forest – this person I had never met before and would never see again. Probably, he had died even before I saw the flailing arms or the gray face. Even before I didn’t notice the color of his eyes. That was it, this finality in a place that had seemed infinite. This place where old growth sugar maples stand crookedly on the side of the mountain. Where death and life so easily trade places.
The first time I hiked back up to my spot of old growth forest after he died, just a few days later, it was raining. Watery pellets knocked on my cap and rolled off the visor. Raw, damp air penetrated my jacket. My hands failed to do anything but hang by my sides as rain trickled down my jacket sleeves, pooled into drops at my fingertips, then surrendered to the ground. I looked at the place I had come to dozens of times, but this forest couldn’t prove its identity to me. Despite their familiarity, the rocks and trees were impostors. The old sugar maples stood still, waited. But I didn’t want to touch them. I didn’t even want to look at them. The rain drummed on, unaccompanied. Everything around me sagged. I looked up into the gnarled arms of those woody survivors, and I was clear-cut, heartwood exposed and seeping.
Abandoned, I turned my back, stepped away from the stone wall’s embrace, and walked down the trail, eyes on my feet and the muddy path in front of me. The forest collage had rearranged itself. Here, life. There, death. Here, beauty. There, anguish. My science told me that it wasn’t a contradiction for death to take place here, under this canopy of survivors. It happens every day and makes the forest what it is. But this death didn’t belong here. Because it had a name and a voice. Because it had a grieving wife. Because I had witnessed it, had been tossed around with it. This death was not ecological; it was personal.
An abandoned meadow does not stay bare for long. A pioneer tree germinates when the time is right and the conditions allow. Two weeks later, after an early-season storm, I tried again. I approached the mountain from a different side, chose a new route. I hiked up into another patch of old growth forest, this one made up of hemlocks, some nearing three hundred years old. The evergreen branches of the younger trees, heavy with October snow, bowed down to the trail and sheltered the forest floor all around me. I was jolted awake as crisp air filled my lungs, and the world gleamed with winter. I hiked for hours, alone on snow-muffled trails. I wasn’t healed, but the mountain had pried me open and made its way back into the abandoned places.
Sun-loving pioneer trees grow taller; and under their branches, shade-tolerating trees grow in. Forest eventually fills the land. Now and then a tree falls, but a patch of sunlight is created, and a new tree is given space to rise. Despite the clearcutting, despite the storms, some trees remain standing, scarred but strong. The old growth forest continues to change, but it remains one with its mountain.
The darkness of that day faded, became bearable. And in the years since he died, I have been able to go back to the old growth forest beyond the stonewall again and again. Sometimes, the memory still crashes down on me, but I understand that I couldn’t stop death from happening even though I did everything I could. For me, the story of the forest has become more real. And so has my love for it. It’s not just sighs of contentment. It’s also the sharp intake of breath, the gasp for air, the long, slow exhalation. And I think, this is the hardest part of loving – to love past contentment, to love beyond beauty, through anger, despite doubt. But still, triumphantly, to love.
Kimberly Hoff is an environmental educator and a nature essayist who currently lives in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts. She has been published in Northern Woodlands Magazine and in Explore! (Mass Audubon’s member magazine).