Watching the woods in wonder

May 05, 2002|By Andrew Bard Schmookler

ORKNEY SPRINGS, Va. - I saw it as I sat on a flat area of my roof, looking out across our valley, and though I was alone, I gave out an audible, involuntary "Wow!"

Our place - on the far side of Virginia's Shenandoah Valley - sits just below the top of a ridge looking west across a trough of forested land leading up to the next ridge, which is high enough to be called Great North Mountain, though it runs mostly north and south. The land on the mountain is national forest, and some time in the 1980s, patches of those woods were harvested for lumber.

Farming is almost wholly gone from ridge land like ours (while it persists in those broader and more fertile valleys that made this area the breadbasket of the Confederacy). But on our side of this forested trough you can find old evidence of homesteads and overgrown fields where folks tried to grow a living off these steep and vulnerable slopes.

Like the rest of the great Eastern woodlands of America, these forests lost their virginity long ago to humans bearing axes.

The imprint of humanity on these woods was also made less directly. A century ago, magnificent American chestnuts were a major component of these forests. But they were struck down by a virus inadvertently introduced to North America by people wanting to add the Chinese chestnut to their landscaping. And then there's the gypsy moth, an alien species accidentally let loose in New England generations ago, still munching its way south and west through the hardwood forests of the American East.

Perhaps it was the gypsy moths, which were plentiful and voracious the first couple of years after we moved here, that helped obscure the reality I now saw. As I sat on my roof, watching the trees coming into leaf, I discovered the secret they carried.

"The forest is coming!" That's what I said to myself after that initial "Wow!"

What was visible to me was that something powerful was emerging from the earth, not just in this burgeoning spring, but over the 10 years since we've moved here. It was as if my mind was now able to play out a years-long, time-elapsed film and I was discerning in that mental reel what it is that the earth is up to.

The earth here wants to create a great forest, and laid out before me was the evidence of how substantially the earth has progressed in this vital endeavor. The previously bare patches on Great North Mountain, my time-elapsed memory movie now revealed, were being nibbled away by the spreading green of trees, as what recently were shrub-sized dots had swelled into identifiable trees rising skyward. And the tops of the row of trees that grow a couple hundred feet downhill from us just below our clearing now stretch up a good 6 or 8 feet above where they'd been the last time I'd noticed.

In the flush of the spring, I could see - I could feel - the forest growing toward us, rising around us. What a beautiful and mighty living thing I saw, reclaiming its domain.

"This is what happens," I said to myself, "when we get out of the way."

Andrew Bard Schmookler is a writer who lives in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley.

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