We pitched our tent on a level spot of open ground along the shore of the Tahquamenon River, some thirty miles below the falls. Leaves of rusty reds and musty browns contrasted nicely against the green of stately pines. The air was crisp with an impending chill at our backs. It was late September and the last planned camping trip of the season. Charlie Brown, our makeshift bass boat, would soon be confined to the garage till spring opened its doors and set it free.
Next to the shoreline, wind and rain, like ancient craftsman with gnarled, unsteady fingers, had long ago carved a ledge of tattered roots and broken limbs into the embankment of the river. There, all alone, an old white pine clung precariously to the edge, her last green branch looming far out over the lingering current. Pinecones swayed in the wind—just a little—still taut against the wooden fibers beneath her crusted bark, also old and withered.
Blankets of needles added contrast to the pitted sand that littered the banks. We gathered them by the handfuls and ignited them beneath chips of dry bark and brittle twigs until our fire flickered and set ablaze the logs that became our warmth and our comfort. Beyond the glow of firelight, I kept an agonizing watch on the pine tree whose one limb creaked and groaned beneath its own weight, not wholly unlike the sound of my elderly father’s aching knees. She must have been an impressive bit of forestry in her day, according to the breadth and girth of her decayed trunk which many times over had been chopped and splintered for firewood. We, too, were thankful for her contribution.
A few days before our vacation, the nursing home called with a request from my father who wanted to buy a new pair of shoes, an odd request for a man with a ninety-two-year-old disdain for shopping.
Though his aging body be crippled, his skin paper thin, his white hair circling only the back of his head; though one shoulder was higher than the other, his back bent; though his eyes had long ago degenerated into blindness, my father still loved the finer things in life, and believed that they should love him back.
The quest for a casual pair of black shoes, though simple enough in theory, was a nightmare in reality.
“What kind of shoes are you looking for?”
“Black,” he said, “and casual.”
He tried on Nikes—not a good fit. Rockport Classics were too stiff. Adidas rubbed in the heel. Laced Oxfords were too shiny; black leather Drews too expensive. New Balance (Hook and Loop) was just plain ridiculous.
In my father’s memory, shoes only came in two styles—dressy and less dressy. My father did not adjust easily. Unnecessary change was an intolerable burden to the whole social structure, was it not? At the end of the day his ninety-two-year-old arthritic feet, size thirteen narrow, arrived home in a brand new pair of black Giorgio slip-ons that hurt his bunions and were promptly returned for a full refund.
At daybreak I stood outside my tent with morning breath and tangled hair, inhaled deeply into my lungs. Morning dew trickled down the canvas as I searched deep within our baggage for tin cups and Folgers. Mother Pine continued to hang from the ledge of the river. Was she aware of the futility of it all? I turned away. Death is not a spectator’s sport.
Sometimes life and death are so closely related that it is hard to tell them apart. Several years earlier, while driving to work on a foggy morning, a small deer leapt out of a ditch into the path of my car. I believe I killed it instantly. Its body lay motionless in the gravel, staring into its own darkness behind blank brown eyes.
It wasn’t the first, nor would it be the last of the living things I had inordinately disposed of—crushed beneath the weight of my feet or the deadly force of a rolled up newspaper. I never take consideration of the mice I poison under the kitchen sink or the grasshoppers that fall beneath the blade of my mower. Here today, gone tomorrow and to the victor go the spoils. But, if by chance the victor does not bother to claim them, the spoils always return victoriously to the elements.
It takes three generations of tissue to create the single sporophyte within a pinecone that begins the life of a sapling. A gentle breeze then lifts and tumbles it near to the river where, all conditions being just right and in perfect alignment with the stars, a single root is formed, followed by a flimsy green sprout and final release of a barren casing back to earth.
Saplings are fragile. Hoofed feet and furry pads put upon them without regard. She was, perhaps, a mere sapling when a roe nibbled her tender shoots near to destruction, a mere sapling when an ax-man cut a birch tree for his shelter and opened a spot of sunlight from which she flourished, a mere sapling when Hiawatha paddled by in his canoe.
One hundred fifty countable rings is a considerable chunk of time. What untold secrets separated her timbered dignity from the watery grave below? I wondered if she suffered, if she would still be here when we returned next year. Fear not, she seemed to tell, after you have returned home from your journey and have rested, remember me.
I was but a sapling, myself, when my father placed a fishing pole in my hand for the first time. The memories of a sapling are like tiny ringlets of golden hair tossed in the wind. It was in the lessons of fishing that I was made to understand the difference between what will live and what will die, lessons learned in places like fish-cleaning houses where I was taught to control a flopping fish with my bare hand while I applied the knife and removed entrails into a bucket, later to be returned to the lake—fodder for turtles and catfish in the night. “Everything has its purpose,” my father said. We humans have a habit of repeating the things we learn in childhood because secretly we all want to believe that the original pronouncement was God’s.
One year, when I was still a juvenile fisherman, I remember arriving at our family’s favorite fishing hole, jumping out of the car, heading straight for the end of the pier. I lay down flat on my belly and hung out over the water to see which fish and how many still lived in the lily pads. A cocoon, dangling from beneath the lip of the pier, caught my eye because it was jiggling. The little creature struggled to free one gangly leg from a slit in the fabric while frogs croaked in the marshes. I watched for an unknown ring of time as one leg after another, and then an entire body emerged and began the painfully slow process of unfolding and drying its wings.
A gust of wind suddenly shook the creature from its foothold, careening it awkwardly downward. There below, waiting with as much anticipation for its death as I had harbored in its birth, was a school of hungry perch. The newly hatched dragonfly was gone in a fury of nips and tears and gulps, its life snuffed out before it tasted its first nectar, or felt freedom beneath its wings. There were no death throes, no flailing of body, no desperate attempt to escape; it had quite simply been vanquished.
Somewhere between the life of a sapling and its final days, God’s pronouncements get drowned out in a current of reason. When a tree branch falls to the ground it lays there for days, perhaps even weeks before the green withers and turns brown. One does not say of a green tree branch, “It is dead.” Yet if a soldier’s arm is removed from his body on the battlefield, it will immediately be cast aside as a “dead limb.” What separates green life from brown death, or pink from bloody red? Is it only within the power and the pronouncement of the mind that a thing either lives or exists at all?
When I examined the damage done to my car, I wondered whether I should even call it a deer, for it occurred to me that the creature that leapt into my path, though I could still see it on the road, no longer existed, and perhaps never did.
“Nine-One-One, what is your emergency?”
I wanted to tell the lady the true nature of my emergency, that a deer that was, is no more, and perhaps never had been; but she was trained in the proper pronouncement of true emergencies, so I was compelled to tell only the visual details of mine. “I hit a deer with my car.”
As each day turned colder, we stuffed blankets into our sleeping bags. The wind picked up and howled through the forest of trees that we chose for protection. Never had we slept in such cold and in such wind. One wall of the tent folded on top of me. I pushed it upward with outstretched legs and dared nature to take my breath away. The night was spent in a flurry of successions, one wall collapsing after another. Bob and I curled up in a single cocoon of our own, gathering warmth and courage from each other.
The storm passed and it was daylight when I first opened my eyes and smiled because I was alive and believed that I still existed. Just a few more minutes, I promised my reluctant body as I rolled over and fell back to sleep. I dreamed that my father, whose body was much older than his mind, was waiting for me to wheel him into the dining room of the nursing home. I tripped over untied shoelaces. My father instructed me to put on my skates, but upon searching my pockets discovered that I had lost my skate key. I entered the med-room in search of it, but the door swung shut and locked me on the inside. I called and called, but no one came.
I woke abruptly to the smell of fresh coffee steaming on the campfire and found my husband standing next to the creaky tree, warming his hands on the first cup, scratching the stubble on his chin that had prickled me in the night.
“Ready to go?” he asked, knowing full well that fishing would wait until I had warmed my hands on at least one cup before being brought fully back to life. The river would be cold and unforgiving. I thought of my father, wondered if he had been eating well in my absence.
We talked of the wind and of the cold front that passed through the night, and of our last day on the water, of the fish we would catch and the ones that would get away. We decided to expose ourselves to the mouth of the river where Lake Superior opens wide and the seagulls surf for food. It was our last day before breaking camp, and I so loved the sea gulls. I felt the current of the river rush against my veins, the sun’s rays giving promise. I was eager to be witness to the sluice of water against the rocks and to feel the wind, wild on my face—Hiawatha wise.
Linda McHenry is a wife, mother, grandmother and outdoor enthusiast. Her work has appeared in “Glimmer Train;” “Read This,” the “Montana State University’s Literature and Arts Publication”, “Raphael Village,” “Forge Journal” and “Halfway Down the Stairs.”
© 2011, Linda McHenry