After a long winter drought here in the Catskills, it is springtime and the water has come, a week of heavy rain. The forest is thankful with upstretched arms, the leaves erect, the ferns sitting high, a sweet-sour smell pouring from them, and the immensity of droplets on leaves produces ricocheting sounds in the woods. As if the whole place was a cacophony, and unbearable; yet the knowledge is secure that each drop hitting the slightest variations on leaves produces small and singularly meaningful moments in the life of water racing from cloud to earth.
I never expected that a deep sadness was in store for me with the drought that has befallen the mountains. Backpacking with my daughters in the dried-out woods, I remarked that the trees on the ridges were self-pruning, tossing their leaves to the wind so that last August it looked like autumn. These were woods that had never in my lifetime been so dry, and it didn’t seem right.
I spent many years in the deserts of the American Southwest, and I respected thirst at the stream bed of the canyon bottom, the howl of longing for water in the arroyo, the creosote bush with its stomata out for the brief mist at dawn. Life at the edge of survival.
I thought I could become a desert rat. But too many times I looked into the faces of the forest people who had gone to the desert to become wedded to its romance, and something in their terribly weathered skin, in their burnt eyes, in the scale of the visions that they had seen that seemed to hollow them out suggested there’s a subtle madness in living where no great number of Homo sapiens was ever meant to exist – such as the American Southwest.
There are folk too numerous to count who should have stuck to the shade and humidity of the deciduous forests, the wispy ones who were only vaguely present in the desert anyway, with the awful brightness of the sun in their eyes, understanding not at all how geologic time scours us into little more than a memory of bone cast in stone.
So that their very look, their regard, physical presence, voices, aspect, reflect that corrosive action of the Southwest.
I couldn’t handle it myself. I longed too much for the green life, mosses and streams amid gardens arranged as if for gods of ancient China. I returned home to the north country where I was raised, and to my original state of forest dweller. From a young age, sent into the woods by parents who knew well enough to not fear the woods, forests were always and everywhere, and the natural state of things was plenitude of the waterways that the green forests fed. The rills, streams, cataracts, waterfalls, the rich golden water of the slant sun on a warm afternoon, the silvery streaming water at dusk lit with the creamy whiteness of the full moon rising. Cream-green air and the summer forever with the song of the hermit thrush and the wood thrush, sharp crystalline drippings of song. Walks that seemed to last forever in the fern fields, alongside hills of the tall hemlocks. These walks: conscious of footfall, running eyes over the earth, at ease and awake as never before. I have sojourned like this many times, without thought, free of the tyranny of past and future, in mental liberty, and the paths in the green woods with the sound of rain made it possible.
This April, a great storm, lots of rain, flood warnings: I saw a fisher cat out my window, and went to follow him in the woods as the rain fell. On the trail up the mountain past explosions of forsythia yellow in bloom, I smelled the sugars of the pines and the ferns beside the swollen stream where the fisher fled. I climbed for a long time. There was a brief moment when the rain ceased, the clouds opened, sun streamed down, and I shook my head like a dog to get the wet off my face.
Now there approached fast on the trail, down-mountain, a specimen of Homo ear-buddicus, with the faint tinkling noise of a machine in his ears.
The willingly deafened creature passed, and I was overcome with despair. The frisson of derangement passed too, and only confusion remained. What madness is this? Why silence the music of the waters? Why, when the forest is full of sounds and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not and sometimes a thousand twangling instruments…
…hum about mine ears; and sometime voices,
That, if I then had wak’d after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me; that, when I wak’d
I cried to dream again.
The sun was swallowed in cloud once more, the rain doubled its force, and I walked on in the woods. My boots were soaked, pants soaked, and the air was cold. The water rushed. There were choruses of water, refrains, a music; passages of songs I’d heard, voices of friends, children; rain staccato, a metronome of droplets, parts of a composition unfolding with each footfall as I rose higher on the mountain in the streamers of fog, through braids and tassels of water in the new green of the moss and the fern. The lace-like rivulets, a chromium half-moon in the sky. I saw the moon reflected bright in the racing waters and in the vernal pools, evanescent, left aside from the driving flow. Into those moonbeams on the surface of the water I stared for a long while, until night fell, and the rain stopped, and the world was engulfed in ancient darkness dripping.