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Whose woods these are

I once interviewed for a copy editor’s job at the Hobbs News-Sun in New Mexico. During the first telephone call, the editor-in-chief asked, “Do you like hills? Lots of trees?”

“Yeah,” I answered. He replied, “You won’t find any out here.” They flew me out for interviews anyway. On the trip to New Mexico, I kept picturing Santa Fe or Albuquerque—hip cities, mountains. Hobbs turned out to be a long way from hip. I turned down the job because the local economy wasn’t any better than the economy at home. The setting made the decision easier, though. Hobbs was too flat and too brown.

Hills and trees were important to me then and still are. Fortunately, woods are just a stroll across my street and through a neighbor’s backyard. I used to go there with my dogs. First it was Melissa, a hodge-podge of breeds who stood not quite a foot tall at the shoulders. She used to zag and zig, nose low, sniffing for rabbits. A few years later I would walk with King, a German shepherd-Lab mix who didn’t hunt but loved being let off the leash to run.

Melissa died so long ago that I can’t be sure of the year, and then King died about a dozen years ago. He and I used to cover a lot of ground. The maples, oaks, hemlocks and beech across the street mark a thin perimeter between my neighbors’ yards and a farm field that could easily hold a golf course. One side of the field wraps around a small hill that is wooded on its east and west faces. Its north and south faces had been cleared well before I moved into my house in 1981. Over his years of running, King covered every square foot of that hill.

Those memories make the hill special, almost hallowed, and I never went back after King died. I didn’t want to tromp those paths without him withy me. He would dash ahead a hundred yards, then back 90 yards, stopping to bark with a “what’s keeping you?” expression on his face before he would race ahead again.

Another reason I didn’t want to go back is the popularity of all-terrain vehicles. They chew up the landscape. King and I trekked on long-abandoned logging roads or on trails traced by deer. I didn’t want my memories scarred by muddy tire ruts.

This Christmas Day, though, prompted by a particularly powerful memory of a woodsy hike one Christmas Eve, I returned to the trees. A high school friend who moved to California after we graduated returned to the area a couple of years ago, and earlier this year, he bought all the land across the street—and when I say “all,” I mean the huge farm field, the hill I’ve been talking about, and all of the adjoining land. The neighbors were in awe: They said he paid cash, well into six figures. Then he posted the land: no trespassing. The awe disappeared, replaced by anger. Two of my neighbors used to ride their snowmobiles and four-wheelers all around the property. My friend told them not to and immediately made two enemies. But I could walk there anytime, he said. And without ATVs and snowmobiles buzzing and whining around, I thought the land might be relatively undisturbed.
So on Christmas Day, with the ground six inches under snow and the sky cloaked in gray December, I headed back in time. The first 10 minutes of my walk were predictable. Nothing had changed. The tattoo of deer hoofs in the snow took me along the same frozen way.

The trail curved through a slight clearing, drifted toward and along the base of the hill, and then veered suddenly left, directly up the slope. I had forgotten about the change in grade. It was steeper than I remembered; in fact, I had to pause twice to catch my breath. At the top of the hill, the tree line and path ended at the edge of the clearing.

Since I had last been there, the clearing had sprouted clumps of Scotch pine, their long, coarse blue-tinged needles cuddling bundles of airy snow. Enough of them had sprouted that I lost my bearings. Once I found my way, I remembered spooking a flock of wild turkeys along the edge of the clearing many years ago. Turkeys are big birds, rarely seen in the air, but they can fly powerfully for short distances. They settled at the top of some tall pines, then dropped into a thicker stand of pines footed by sumac, out of sight.

As I thought back on the sight of turkeys in the treetops, I found myself at a place where I was the farthest away from any of the area’s houses. From this vantage point, I began scanning the low, brushy terrain at the foot of the hill. Over the years, I’d heard of more than one bear being seen there. Coyotes wouldn’t be out of the question. My high school friend the landowner told me a month ago that he was out one day and spotted what he was sure were mountain lion tracks. The odds of such a big cat living in the area are just this side of impossible, but the odds of seeing a bobcat, although still long, are not out of the question. Fox? I’ve seen them in red. And, of course, our neighborhood is home to the usual cast of animal characters: possums, porcupines, woodchucks, raccoons, skunks, squirrels. Some hibernate; some don’t. I’m not sure which do what.

This time, no animals could be seen. In fact, there were no birds to be heard, just the cottony whirr of the breeze wafting through pine needles and rattling the dry, tan ash leaves. I wound around the hillside; crossed the big, empty field; and turned again toward my neighbor’s backyard.

As I made my way home, I knew I had found what I didn’t know I was missing. I found it not half an hour into my hike. I had stopped to catch my breath beside a small stream of bubbly runoff from higher hills a half-mile away. The stream wasn’t three inches deep or three feet wide, and on the flat pieces of shale poking above water, little shelves of snow and translucent ice made temporary tunnels for the water. A dark spot flowed beneath the ice. I thought it was a dead leaf and waited for it to emerge. It wasn’t a leaf, just a big bubble, dark against the underside of glaze.
After I stepped away from this little gurgle, I stopped again after a few yards, and as my crunching boots went quiet, I suddenly heard it:


No jet airplanes overheard. No traffic on the roads a quarter mile away. No barking dogs. As I listened to nothing, the constantly chattering voice in my head went quiet too. Such moments are a rare gift. I had started my hike not knowing why I had been drawn back into the woods. But in that small, still moment, I remembered why.


( 27 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 28th, 2010 05:37 am (UTC)
Hobbs would've been better if Calvin had been with you.

Beautiful piece.
Dec. 28th, 2010 02:51 pm (UTC)
Thanks for reading!
Dec. 28th, 2010 06:15 am (UTC)
Thank you for this piece.
Dec. 28th, 2010 02:51 pm (UTC)
You're welcome, Carole. Just playin' with words.
Dec. 28th, 2010 11:14 am (UTC)
Great piece. Why did your friends become enemies with the friend who bought the land for 6 figures? Were they jealous of his success? Were they pissed that he posted it no tresspass? Would they let other people randomly drive ATV's across their lawns with damage and liability issues? Just sayin......I can't find fault with people who control their property, post signs, block public access as they paid for the land and they should be able to do what they want to do with it. All my property is posted FWIW and people still can sit out on my front yard below the mean high tide line and trash the place out. People even come up to my house to ask for water and to use the restroom all the time, which is really rude.....I don't know how y'all would act or think if someone knocked on your door and asked to use the john about twice a week.........and I have insanely high property taxes that should protect me from this intrusion:)
Dec. 28th, 2010 03:22 pm (UTC)
You've nailed it, Jeff: My neighbors got all PO'd with my friend because he wouldn't let them ride on his property anymore. When he and I talked and he said I could walk on his land, one of the first things he mentioned was how the ATVs were making a mess of the property.

It must be frustrating for you to have people ignore your "posted" signs. You probably can't win: Tell them to leave, and they probably come back and trash the place (and maybe your house) even worse.
Dec. 28th, 2010 05:24 pm (UTC)
My big problem is that at the beach people are always walking down and there's never any privacy as they can go below that damn mean high tide line and there's not a thing I can do. Strange thing is that if they get hurt there, I am liable, just as I have to have the seaweed cleaned up or face county sanctions. The county only does the public beach park. Strange thing is that about once a week, people bring fireworks down, don't want to shoot them off at the public beach so they do it in front of my house and leave the old mortar tubes, romanm candles etc. My kid used to sit on the porch and use his wrist rocket to launch m-80's at the perps, but my late wife put a stop to that. I've also had people that were close to the sea oats are on my property and I asked them to get off my property and they tell me to fuck off and because they are intoxicated, I'm afraid to do anything. If i call the cops, they will get pissed off and maybe do something bad to me or the property. Oh well, Florida tourists think they own the place.
Dec. 28th, 2010 06:16 pm (UTC)
Maybe if you walked down there with one of those new three-perps-at-once Tasers ...
Dec. 28th, 2010 06:23 pm (UTC)
Off topic, but if I were you I would watch for inflation and currency debasement in the near term of the next couple of years. Just the same kind as the old Weimar Republic as we're doing exactly the same thing their central bank was doing. Easy to predict that we'll see $5 or more gas in 2011. I'm looking at the markets all day and looking at prices of grains, sugar at 30 year high, cotton at 130 year high, gold at all time high. Hyperinflation benefits some speculators and farmers in debt, anybody that owes money while it kills bond holders, savers, retirees, pensioners, rentiers etc.
Dec. 28th, 2010 06:28 pm (UTC)
Jeff, I've learned over the years that you know this stuff like I know rock 'n' roll. So if you don't mind my picking your brain, my question is, what's my defensive position if your prediction comes true? Where should my money be now?
Dec. 28th, 2010 06:50 pm (UTC)
Owe money, seriously. You'll get to pay it back with much cheaper dollars. Money is so cheap right now, over at my broker he is lending me money at 1.3 in milion dollar tranches, and he's shoveling it at me. I'm borrowing like crazy and setting up my own carry trades that are netting me anywhere from 1.0- 1.5% risk free, free money. Expect prices of gold, food, silver, commodities all to skyrocket and for bonds and anything denominated as a function of US dollars to tank. This can take a few years, but I try to be sagacious and it's not a crime to borrow money to invest in something that will hold value. A good defensive game will definitely help.
Dec. 28th, 2010 07:01 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Jeff. I've got the "owe money" aspect down cold. Your advice will make me less uptight about it.
Dec. 28th, 2010 07:35 pm (UTC)
If you owe money though, put it to productive use and not blow it on depreciating assets like cars, electronics and stuff that might increase in price but still lose value:)
Dec. 28th, 2010 07:53 pm (UTC)
We spent it all on the house, and spent most of it in the kitchen. But our house is where we live; it's not an investment. Well, at least not a short-term investment.
Dec. 28th, 2010 07:08 pm (UTC)
Gah! Besides thinking I should start riding a bicycle instead of driving, what does that mean to a regular ol' person like me?
Dec. 28th, 2010 07:38 pm (UTC)
If you buy property and hyperinflation were to kick in,you could conceivably pay off the loan with a dollar amount the equivalent to buy a candy bar or even less.
Dec. 28th, 2010 01:38 pm (UTC)
This is just a really great piece. Thanks for writing it.
Dec. 28th, 2010 03:24 pm (UTC)
Thanks for reading it, Chris. Just messin' with woods and a story.
Dec. 28th, 2010 05:50 pm (UTC)
Wow, what a great story - so many components to it and all connected so beautifully.
Dec. 28th, 2010 06:17 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Jamie. I tried a couple of new writing techniques for this one, and that enabled me to connect the dots better and also see what *wasn't* related to the story.
Dec. 28th, 2010 06:24 pm (UTC)
Well, whatever the techniques, they worked.

...their long, coarse blue-tinged needles cuddling bundles of airy snow.

Love it.
Dec. 28th, 2010 06:34 pm (UTC)
The temptation with that line was to avoid overwriting it. My first pass at it involved something like "bundles of snow that looked like puffs of whipped cream." I eventually decided that "cuddling" implied that what was being held was delicate, so I tried "airy" to convey the sense of the snow's texture and also as a bit of wordplay with the wind in the rest of the essay.

What I did that was different here was to write with my head down, charging at the essay. Typically, I try to get every paragraph nearly perfect before I move on. This time, when I just wasn't feeling a paragraph, I gave myself permission to keep writing and then go back to fix the trouble spots. I need to do this more often. My writing frequently runs aground because I'm working too hard when I'm writing. That kind of work is best saved for the rewriting and editing.
Dec. 28th, 2010 07:04 pm (UTC)
Very helpful information - thanks for sharing.

Now if only I could figure out what to do with nokomisjeff's advice...
Dec. 28th, 2010 07:05 pm (UTC)
As I told him, Sherry and I have the "owe money" part down.
Dec. 28th, 2010 07:20 pm (UTC)
In that regard we, too, are very experienced. I'd put all our savings into the mattress, but I'm afraid all those pennies would provide a very lumpy slumber.
Dec. 30th, 2010 03:14 pm (UTC)
This is beautifully written, Pat, and I can relate completely. I didn't go for a walk in the woods behind my house for years after my family's old German Shepherd died. I finally went for one about a month ago, and I enjoyed one of those rare, still moments you described so aptly. It's too bad the obtrusive cell tower that the town allowed Verizon to construct in the woods interrupted that moment. I guess nothing is sacred anymore.

Thank you very much for sharing.
Dec. 30th, 2010 07:22 pm (UTC)
Thanks for reading and commenting, Sara. I hope all is well with you and yours. Happy New Year!
( 27 comments — Leave a comment )

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