These woods were made for nine-year-old boys. The leaves are carpet enough and the dark trunks of hickory are walls enough for the architecture of imagination. Already they run ahead, laughing, while we tarry behind. The young dog scampers, the old one trots. How they must pity us, the nose-blind, who can sniff only the uniform, stoic must of a wet and late autumn. I wonder what olfactory bouquet entertains them. The old one has found a half-chewed turtle shell. There must be a circus of smells – alkaloids, phenols, pheromones, the ribald humus, the ethylene of post-ripening, and the crystal twang of fungal filaments woven into the rotting wood fibers of the limbs all around our feet.
I drag the sky into my body, but cannot smell anything with much detail. Yet there is an emotional complexity that may surpass whatever the dogs sense, though I don’t presume to know how this day feels to them. Those threadbare clouds of autumn and the first chill unlock in me memories of her and that trip we took to Duluth, a city crowned by golden maples on the rim of a darkening lake full out to the horizon. I only remember her eyes. We didn’t touch each other the whole time. That would come later and then, like the winter, the touching would subside. And so, although I do not perceive the chemical nuances of autumn, I know her subtleties such as they take shape in humanly ways. One October breeze across the wet leaves can evoke an entire symphony of nostalgia, regret, nudity, wine, embarrassment, and a dull-burning rage that summer is over. The day aches inside me. What I mean to say is that if I have a purpose it is to be a place for the day to ache in this way.
To be nine. Life would be fine, if I were nine. Time would unwind if I were nine. Look at them, walking like fancy ladies with their hands on their hips that make exaggerated swings until they can stand the impersonation no longer and howl in laughter. Shoving one another. The first awareness of sexuality has dawned on them, a kind of spring that forms a contrapuntal to the fall around us. The sweet gum tree litters the floor with its ornate seedpods, filigreed globes pierced by two dozen holes, each surrounded by what appears from up close like wooden solar flares. Or from another angle, each hole looks like the gaping mouth of a bird, its beaks twisted elegantly. But for them, they are balls. Woodland testicles. And the pine needles form abundant and convenient, albeit slender, phalluses. Giggles all around. Man is the measure of all things. It is innocent enough – and accurate enough. After all, the woods are lousy with sex and its consequences.
We walk the old logging road. It appears to be abandoned – the woods slowly closing in with sprigs of ferns cropping up to erase human intentions. A grotesque spider hangs at adult eye level from a branch above. The three boys had not noticed it, but my companion did. “Look,” he says. “What will it do in the winter?” I wonder. For us, the wood is chopped and the harvest is in. But for the spider? What about these creatures that live, as it were, leg to mouth? They have nothing stored up, save in their flesh, which is meager to say the least. Will it die in the cold? Or will it hunker in somewhere under a crag of bark or a lip of soil and go torpid? Does it know the seasons are turning like a blue stone wheel around us? It may not know, I suppose, in a propositional sense, but perhaps in its body it knows that in the same way it knows how to weave its web. Knowing and doing and being are one. What is its life to it? Does it think, does it have that internal dialogue, swinging as it does for such long periods of waiting there in the infinite woodland? Or is there only an internal static, like on a radio before radio stations?
They boys have found a hump of soil, pocked here and there with shards of white quartz. My walking companion says it may have been made to dissuade off-road vehicles. I had assumed it was natural – that maybe it was an old trunk tucked under a blanket of soil. But that sort of thing doesn’t happen on its own. I see it now: the hand of man. I see it too in the thick row of spindly pines along the logging road. And in the road itself. The knoll is hardly four feet high, but enough for a game of king of the hill. More shoving and grappling. They test their muscles against one another – always ready to call foul, to change the rules, to feign a loss of interest should one suddenly wind up downhill. All you need to know about social compacts and wars, about monarchies and treason, about the unspoken norms of democracy is played out there in the flailing of arms and the bracing of legs. How close we live to violence and the wilderness inside. Yes, civilization harvests the woods but the woods in turn harvest the peace of civilization, the leisure to be unnecessary and beautiful. “Boys!” we call. It is time to head back to the cabin.
They run past us and ahead now downhill. It is a liminal age. Throw them in the lake and they set about like fish – you can drink a PBR on the pontoon with an easy spirt and a clear mind. Give them rubber boots and they take to the creek for hours like old explorers. Present them with the kitchen and they might even produce something akin to lunch all by themselves. But they are not yet ready to be on their own, we reckon, with the .22. And when we tell ghost stories there is genuine confusion about those glowing blue eyes in the woods, the eyes of star-crossed lovers who had died tragically at the hands of small-minded tribalists. Are they real?
One of them lost a tooth last night– the tooth that had long sat akimbo as the adult tooth pushed up from the pulp beneath, like an oversized hunk of quartz, slightly out of place. How adulthood breaks up through us, cracking and peeling its way through the soil, shoving unjustly until it is there: king of the hill. And he had put the tooth under his pillow in our bedroom at the cabin. The tooth fairy brought a handful of quarters, which he collected solemnly the next morning in silence. I feigned a mixture of surprise and drowsiness. I had listened from my bed above when he met his mates downstairs for scrambled eggs. He said nothing about the tooth fairy. Is it because they wouldn’t believe – that he feared they wouldn’t believe – that he didn’t really believe or at least want to be caught believing? Did he not want to be caught wanting to believe?
Oh, how nuanced the business of growing up! It happens in those moments there with a handful of quarters wondering where they really came from. The calculations about what to say to your dad, your friends, yourself. A handful of quarters becomes the price of learning contrivances, the adult kinds of make-believe. The quarters become fare to get him to the other side of the river. Nine year old boys, it seems to me, are stepping on that boat, unprepared for the crossing. But I am still nine or at least still crossing and unprepared.
They miss the turn from the logging road to the small path that leads back to the cabin. We holler for them and they come racing back uphill, oblivious, with the dogs. How far would they have gone, we wonder, had we not called them back? The chilled air and the hallow blue drum of the sky remind me of German poetry. Give us just a pair of days, noch zwei… The hiker is fine. It is the hiker who feels compelled to give words to the evocations of the hike who you must worry about. He will always feel dejected and lost upon return. You must remind him that it is not his fault. There is too much space between language and being – between the root and the word ‘root.’ Even the young dog can only bound and zag amidst the bric-a-brac. His movements are just as inadequate as any spoken account. Expression is always indebted to experience, forever disappointing it.
The frustration can feel like a prison. We are trapped, perhaps, in these bodies. Why carbon, why not silicon? Why the humanoid form – this upright ape posture – why not any, or every, other? To quote from the venerable Father Copleston and his treatment of the pre-Socratics: “…in spite of all the change and transition, there must be something permanent. Why? Because the change is from something into something else. There must be something which is primary, which persists, which takes various forms and undergoes this process of change.” There must be some original stuff – Urstoff, for the German poets and philosophers. The sweet gum (shall we say?) endures throughout from seed to sapling to tree. The person (could it be?) abides despite being baby and then boy and then the man hollering for his own boys to get back on the path. Would this be your nature, your essence – the authentic you hunted and celebrated by Disney and fascists alike? And if so, why couldn’t it be lifted entirely from the body? That permanent you – that which does not itself change but lives through the change unchanged.
I think about when he was only three and how back then we knew him as a girl and he had a different name. This is an age before you learn the pump-jack motion of your legs to make the swing go all by itself. The father must push. It is his honor, or should be, because if he is wise he knows it is a short-lived needfulness and he wants to be needed. The child on the swing traces the largest arc, to be sure. Change is most apparent there, at the end. But follow the chain all the way up to the beam atop and you will see that even the topmost link rocks slightly at the same tempo. Even the beam, though you cannot see it, is rocked by the swing and this rocking is transferred into the pillars that are sunk in the ground. Even the earth vibrates at the swinging of the child. We just can’t feel it, the same as we cannot smell what the dog smells. We should never confuse the inadequacy of our senses for knowledge, let alone certainty.
There is nothing permanent. Or, if there is, it is far distal from us. The soul, you know, is not the self. The One requires the Many and the Many go up and down as if on a swing in and out of the One. “It is death to souls to become water,” so says Heraclitus, but take heart because “from water, soul.” The day has me all around and is distributed across skin and into sore ankles and sinking knees. There is the barbed wire fence marking the property line. We know it through the eyes but also through the legs, which must lift to cross the spot where a limb has fallen and, like a gentleman, is now holding down that line of rusty barbs for us.
The old dog has had enough and pants serenely, lapping at the meager inch of water in the creek. He takes his rest on the porch at the back of the cabin. The young one prances, confident that there is more – surely there is more – to the day than all this. This has only been a warm-up, right? From here we go on to the real thing, right? The boys too are ready for more and race to grab the .22 from the woodshed. I load the gun with five bullets each. And then I watch as each in turn takes aim at the rusty can on the nail in the fallen oak trunk. “Steady, now,” I say and watch as they calculate an imaginary straight line from their eye down the barrel, through the trapezoid blue shapes between the trees, above the leaf litter, and into the organic imprecision of the woods.