Forest Succession

Paul Lamb

David woke in the night and reached for Kathy, but she wasn’t there. He stayed still for a moment in a darkness that seemed too dark then remembered that she was in Kansas City for the weekend with her mother and he was at his Ozark cabin. The chill outside of the quilt touched the skin of his shoulder and he guessed that the fire in the potbelly had died. And so he faced the choice of rising from the bed in only his briefs to stoke the stove again or to remain wound in the quilt where he could keep warm enough to reach the dawn. He chose the bed and let his thoughts drift until he had fallen asleep again.

At first light, which seemed too bright, he woke and found himself more tired than he expected. Outside the cabin snow had fallen in the night. Had he given attention to the forecast he would have known this was coming, but that would have made no difference for his escape from a tedious, girls’ weekend of salads and forced smiles. The cabin was a place he had come to so many times over his decades that he no longer needed planning or preparation; he could arrive with just the shirt on his back and feel reborn.

The day before him bore no specific chores, other than what could always be undertaken at a neglected cabin in the woods to keep it standing in the face of entropy and the relentless, reclaiming force of nature, a nature that always wins in the end. For this visit he had decided to take down a pignut hickory that was crowding his grandson’s small plantation of spruce trees. The spruce had been planted in a clearing not far from the cabin the spring after Clarkson was adopted so that they would grow as the boy did, entwined in a way that they all hoped would draw him to this family place, now in its fourth generation, fifth if you counted Clarkson’s great, great grandfather who had first bought the hundred acres, a man David never knew but felt a lifetime of debt to.

The plan had been to plant a single tree for Clarkson and then to nourish it as they would the boy, but the conservation department had more trees to offer than they had space for planting. They accepted the minimum two dozen and then put as many as they could sensibly fit in the clearing, scattering the remainder throughout their forest to survive as they might. Most of those were lost, but the grove of spruce was visited and tended and nurtured. David had been skeptical of the idea, or rather of the location, noting that if there was a natural clearing in the forest, there was a reason for it and that introduced trees might not survive there. Of the original planting, ten now remained, sinking roots in the thin Ozark soil, despite David’s misgivings, and reaching, as all young trees in this old forest must, for their share of the sunlight.

Spruce were not native to Missouri, and it had always been David’s plan, his land ethic as Kelly had come to call it, to cultivate only native plants in his forest. Yet Curt and Kelly had been so on fire about these particular trees – something different for their forest – that David had muted his objection and supported their plan. He had begun to acknowledge then, though only to himself, that it would not always be his forest, that it was becoming Curt’s and Kelly’s, and eventually, he hoped, it would be Clarkson’s. That the spruce were doing well mitigated his concerns – it seemed that the clearing had been waiting for these very trees – and that Clarkson had soon claimed them as his own stoked in David a love for the little grove that nearly matched his love for the boy. Each season meant a photo of him there, Clarkson growing at first faster than his trees, but he was soon outpaced, and now, more than a dozen years later, the trees were tall and confident just as the boy seemed to be.

Yet a single hickory to the south of them, a little way down the hillside sloping to the lake, was spreading its crown, its own bid for the light, and shading the spruce. David had long thought of removing the hickory, thus allowing Clarkson’s grove more sunlight and a better chance to thrive. Its bole was not especially thick, and David, well practiced in this woodcraft, felt he could take down the tree easily himself. This would be that day.

Breakfast of instant oatmeal – once he had resurrected the fire in the stove – followed by a careful collection and checking of the gear he would use filled David’s morning. There was no hurry in his movements but no waste either. Everything he needed was in the cabin, including warm clothing rough enough for work in the woods, and once the sun had advanced above the south ridge to begin giving what cold warmth it could this January morning, David prepared to set out for the spruce grove.

His wish had been to receive a new chainsaw at Christmas, but when that didn’t happen – Kathy confessing that such a purchase needed to be made by him so he got exactly what he wanted – he hoped to be surprised with one at his birthday in March. Thus he was left with the latest in the long succession of chainsaws that had come to the cabin over the decades. A perfectly fine machine, older but he judged still reliable, and sufficiently matched to the task before it.

When he stepped onto the porch and met the cold light, the silence of the forest washed over him. No birdsong, no chirring insects. Even the air was still, and he stood for the moment listening to this absence under the vast blue sky until it was finally broken by the calls of two crows on the south ridge. He watched as they flew across the frozen lake, on whatever mission was before them, then hefted his gear to take to the hickory.

The crunch of his boots in the crust of snow set the rhythm for his walk. The snow was not deep; it would not hinder his work or when he drove out the next day, but for now its white shroud robbed his forest of color, broken by the dark verticals of the tree trunks and the blue-gray of their slanting shadows. Branches around him were limned with snow. His familiar looked unfamiliar.

Ahead David could see the pale blue green of the spruce, a mass of color that directed his steps. In the old days this part of the forest had been peppered with cedars, which also stayed green all year. But it had been his father’s mission to remove all of the cedars near the cabin, a mission David took up in turn, then later Curt and Kelly, and now one that Clarkson seemed to share as well. The canopy of the oaks and hickories had thickened in the many years they’d all been coming there, shading the forest floor, and now most upstart cedars were starved of light and did not survive. David had half believed that his father’s ambition was hopeless, and yet here it was, successful. David’s words, the first he’d spoken since arriving, broke the silence around him. “You were right, Dad.”

David often spoke to his father, though the man was gone for nearly twenty years. He’d never stopped missing the man. He still felt like an apprentice in his father’s forest. He let himself think of his father as just far away and not seen for a while. A comforting pretense that was easy to do in this place where the two had shared so many important, perfect moments of their lives and where David could still feel his presence.

Walking in the snow, carrying the chainsaw and gasoline, had warmed him though he could see the plumes of his breath. His breathing came harder in the cold air. He set down the equipment a few steps from the hickory and studied the tree. He removed his gloves – a bright orange pair that Clarkson had given him that Christmas – and ran his fingers down the bark. It felt like cork and was not cold to his touch. The sloping ground favored his plan but he wasn’t sure he’d get a clean fall to the forest floor given the dense trees on the hillside below. Still, if he could get it most of the way down, the spring storms would likely finish the job and return it to the earth as everything must do. Or it might hang dead in the embrace of the other trees for years. Either outcome was fine if its sacrifice meant more space and light for Clarkson’s trees.

Three cuts would do the job. Make the wedge and then start the back cut. Step away when the tree began to lean and then listen as it fell, grasping desperately at the trees around it, fighting its premature end. A task David had done countless times and a skill he still hoped to teach Clarkson, his own son, Curt, having never been much interested.

And yet, in his way Curt had been interested. He’d paid close attention to David’s early lessons with tools and fire, acting as though all of his father’s supposed wisdom was a mild joke yet showing a competence in the end nonetheless. And later Curt’s interest transformed, from his rotation in the ER and especially once he had a son of his own, into an abiding concern for doing such work safely. His gift for his father that Christmas had been a pair of chaps to wear when using the chainsaw. In all of their years of cutting firewood there had never been a single mishap, and David knew this was due to their diligent and patient method. The chaps fit perfectly with this practice.

But the chaps were back at the cabin.

Below him the lake boomed as the morning sun warmed the ice. David, alone in his frozen forest, supposed he was the only one to hear it. It was a rare sound since he visited the cabin less often in the winter than he did the rest of the year. A serious, portentous sound, to add to a lifetime accumulation of sensations in his Ozark woods. He wished at that moment that Clarkson were with him to hear the booming, but the boy was with his parents at some Caribbean island for a week, taking in different sensations and building his own lifetime of accumulations. There would be other chances.

On his walk back to the cabin to fetch the chaps, David steered his crunching steps to the hillside above where half a century before he had buried his dog, Buddy. That had been a day of sensations, difficult ones, but important, and still felt. His father had raised a sandstone slab over the grave and scratched the dog’s name into it with a nail. The slab had fallen many times, and David reset it whenever he found it on the ground. Yet on this winter morning he could not find the grave. Even this deeply familiar was made unfamiliar, not just with the blanket of snow but with the decades of growth and change, both in the forest and in himself, that altered the landscape from what had been burned into his boyhood memory of the day. He realized he was the only person alive who even knew of this any longer, and he vowed to return in the spring to reset the slab once again and preserve his memory. As he sat on a stump to rest for a moment, he could feel his heart pounding in his chest. The air felt cold and un-nurturing in his lungs.

The track of his footprints in the crusty snow had wandered widely on his way. This warty oak still holding its dead leaves. That ancient chunk of sandstone dusted white. The cleft in the hillside where water sometimes flowed. The view of the glinting, ice-shrouded lake through the trees. The spot where Curt had, amazingly, once found a rusty horseshoe half buried in the soil, speaking of even older, long-gone tenants on this land. All memories he savored, as important that morning as the chaps, and no rush for any of it.

But his steps did finally reach the cabin, and he welcomed the warmth inside as he sought the orange chaps on the tool shelf. He’d not worn them since Christmas morning when he had pulled them on over his pajamas to everyone’s delight, so he spent some time making sure he had them snapped and buckled correctly. These would certainly add color to the forest when he emerged from the warm cabin.

The hickory awaited, and though David wanted to linger and rest a little he also wanted to face what was before him. He poked a couple sticks of kindling into the stove so the fire didn’t die and the cabin would be warm when he returned then passed through the door.

A breeze stirred the dried leaves hanging in a tall oak near the cabin. Their many touches sounded crystalline, but soon the crunch of his boots was all David could hear. Above, the pair of crows watched from their perch in a tree but then rose and flew before him in the direction of the hickory. David followed.

Not long after, the whine of the chainsaw filled the forest, but no one was around to hear it. And no one was around to hear when it stopped. The lake boomed.

Paul Lamb lives near Kansas City but escapes to the Missouri Ozarks whenever he gets the chance. His stories have appeared in Aethlon, Magnolia Review (nominated for a Pushcart Prize), Nassau Review, Halfway Down the Stairs, Hedge Apple, Little Patuxent Review, Bull & Cross, and others. He rarely strays far from his laptop.