by Scout Arnone of Portland, OR
We were technically trespassing on BLM land, but we needed a place to practice our newly forming forestry skills. It was a beautifully managed, even-aged stand of Douglas Fir that stood silently in the winter’s last attempt at snow. Foreboding and statuesque; surely this is what angels looked like. Nothing resembling man or birds could inspire that level of reverence and adoration. It was darker and quieter standing in that stone-cold forest hall. Waves of snow ghosts drifted down from heavy branches like the fluttering of laundry lost in the wind. Sloppy, wet snowflakes kissed the back of my neck by surprise. I scrunched up my shoulders and let them run, melted, down my back. Somewhere, warm deer breath was drifting up and melting snow, and now it piled limply on sword ferns.
We were increment boring; a practice in determining tree age. The process is simple: you have a borer and an extraction tray. You drive the borer in with powerful twists and it carves out a pencil-like rod of wood from the tree’s outer edge to its center. The extraction tray is inserted into the borer to remove that piece of wood, then you count the marks on it much like someone taught you to count the rings on an old stump when you were young. They showed you that the light parts were the spring wood and the dark rings were the thin and tough autumn wood.
Thankful I remembered my mittens that day, I brushed first the snow and then moss from a deep furrow in the bark, positioned the borer neatly perpendicular to the tree at breast-height and began to turn hand over hand until the teeth caught the first layer of wood. After tearing through the cambium, I set about burrowing my way like a bark beetle into the sapwood, the first twenty years were not hard to press through. I briefly remembered 9/11 and Y2K and realized all at once that the tree did, too. All the chemical makeup of those years was etched into the wood. My memories, too, as far back as 1992. Rings were recording a host of bad boyfriends, an awkward puberty, the time I met Smokey Bear and cried, rug and rope burns. Entering the heartwood, my arms began to tire as I counted the number of rotations of my drill.
And then the tree groaned. Loudly from all around. It emanated from all parts of the tree and was echoed by its neighbors. It was startling and I looked up. No branches swayed in the breeze, no movement at all. I did a few more rotations, and with each rotation, the groan turned into a click. Like someone knocking on a door or a bone snapping. For a second, I recalled, in horror, a short story I had read about a scientist who heard a faint chorus of screams one night and searched high and low looking for the sound. Turns out, it was the trees and plants crying out in agony as they were cut and trampled. No, couldn’t be. This is science, not science fiction. The sound was a change in pressure, nothing more. But am I sure? What do I know?
The years grew increasingly tougher as I tore through the memories wood had kept secret. The carbon I ripped through was the same that hung in the air during the Clinton impeachment and then the Persian Gulf War. I drove deeper into the fall of the Soviet Union and of the Berlin Wall. I persisted through the Watergate Scandal and through the Vietnam War and the Moon Landing and the Kennedy Assassination. My pink mittened hands drove my borer deeper into the Civil Rights Movement and the Watts Riots. The tree continued to groan and click.
The silence of all other things around me amplified that audible change in pressure. I made no noise now, tried to breathe even softer.
Soon I finished my rotations and the tree fell silent. I slid in the extraction tray and made one rotation backwards. Careful to pull out the tray, I saw what the tree had produced was not the hardened stick I had expected, but a long and slender noodle. It was soft and fragile, and it broke as soon as I touched it. I tried to gently place it in my collection tube, but it crumbled before oxygen had enough time to dry and solidify the rings.
The tree would sap over its wound in a few months and continue to put on rings and so would I. I felt baffled. A vast giant, sixty-seven years old, wounded by a girl, twenty-six years old. Both soft inside.