Unlike the “other” world, background noise in the woods is very consistent. Once you become attuned it becomes very easy to pick out the more unusual sounds. Every animal and event makes a distinctive sound. I can hear deer up on the hill when they pass by, the click-clack of squirrel claws on tree trunks, whether the water level in the creek below is running high or low, the wind as it changes direction and the slow, cautious plodding of raccoons moving through the brush in the late evenings as they plot a raid on Dooley’s food dish. The human being is ordinarily not a stealthy beast unless they intend to be and the approach of a man coming through the woods is a sound I should have easily picked out. So, I didn’t know what to think when I saw a man sitting on the wood chopping stump in the front of my secret cabin. He was smoking a hand rolled cigarette and staring at a chainsaw on the ground in front of him. I walked to the top of the porch steps and gave him a glare that was supposed to evoke an explanation of why he was there. I guessed he was close to my age (fifties). He was husky, with a yellow gray un-trimmed beard. His thinning hair was combed straight back to a ducktail flip. He had a ruddy, deep lined, rosacea spotted complexion typical of the heavy scott-irish influence in rural West Virginia. I don’t remember much about what he wore with the exception of his work boots. The boots did not match. There was a black combat style boot on his left foot and a traditional brown work boot on the right. My dad had taught me that, as a rule, when two men meet unexpectedly the first one to talk is usually perceived as the weaker of the two. Apparently the stranger also knew this rule. He looked up but said nothing. There should be a second rule that states if both parties know the first rule, the rule is no longer in play. Except, of course, if you consider the first rule as just a suggestion there would be no need for a second rule to remedy the conflict of a simultaneous application of the first rule. (Oh, Lord, I’m sounding like a Congressman) Regardless, he was the trespasser and I felt I was owed the first “howdy”. In the twenty seconds of silence between us the residual paranoia from my previous life in Florida created a dozen or so possible scenarios to consider. I narrowed those down to four. 1. He was going to kill me, burn the cabin down and eat Dooly for lunch. 2. He was going to kill me, move into the cabin and eat Dooly for lunch. 3. He was going to kill me, leave, and Dooly would eat me for lunch. 4. I should forgo the rule and my sense of entitlement and say something. “Little foggy this morning, eh?” His name was Kenny. He lives about two miles away in an old, rusty, tarp covered sport trailer on a small piece of flat land along the road to town. I had seen the trailer but never imagined that someone lived there. I learned later from Irene he had moved to the woods in 1974 as a disillusioned post Vietnam veteran. In the early years he spent a number of days in the town lockup for various forms of civil disobedience and was something of an angry nuisance to the sheriff and the community. She assured me that he had mellowed with age and was thought of more as a colorful character than a threat. He had come to visit with a simple business proposition. On a small piece of paper he had hand-written a fifteen-word contract, which, if I signed, would allow him to come on to my property for one year and cut dead and fallen trees to sell as firewood in the winter months. He explained that I would benefit by having trees that often fell across the trails and roads on my land removed and I could stop by his place for free firewood anytime. Kenny’s proposition was simple and direct, no “ifs”, or “buts”, no asterisks, introductory offers or hidden clauses. Kenny could have taken the wood and I probably never would have known but he had taken the time and the effort to do the right thing. This was what I had moved to the woods for. I agreed, signed the contract and watched Kenny walk back down the path to the river. I don’t really know Kenny, but I hope his firewood business is successful . If he appears back on that stump one morning next year to renew the contract, I want to be able to say “howdy” first, offer him a Swisher Sweet Double Barrel Run cigar and compliment him on a new pair of matching boots.
Sunday, July 20, 2008
I went hiking this morning. Dooley chose to stay behind to keep an eye on the cabin. Somehow I suspected he was likely turning ideas over in his head to get the two strips of fried bacon I left on the kitchen counter. Dooley, as you might remember, is short. He is skilled at chasing chipmonks under logs and into narrow passages, but, without a a rocket pack there was no way he would ever get to that bacon
I was walking trails that were originally traveled by early inhabitants of these mountains, shortcuts between ridges and hollows used to visit neighbors and to travel to town, a trip that takes me about 20 minutes by truck. For them, it must have been a full day’s trek. As usual I was enjoying the smells, sights, sounds and peace of Nature. I’ve been in the woods for almost a month now and it has been a very comfortable transition from the contrived “other” world I left behind. Stopping under a walnut tree for a break I lit up a Swisher Sweet Outlaw Double Barrel Rum cigar and, unfortunately, began to think. Unlike the “other” world, everything in Nature exists for a reason and exists because something existed successfully before it. It is a system of shared wealth and sacrifice. What survives in Nature does so because it works. Every creature, plant, and rock has a role to play. I couldn’t, however, for the life of me, figure out what my role as a human being was. I was feeling uncomfortable and profoundly disappointed in myself. What, in my day-to-day life, did I contribute to sustaining these wonderful woods? Was I just a parasite on the top of the food chain, taking and never giving back? Somewhere in the past a human animal was born with one too many brain cells and decided his “superior” mind was exempt from the Laws of Nature. This never occurred to me in the “other” world. From under the walnut tree it was clear. Man’s artificial ecosystem has no checks and balances. Mistakes aren’t dealt with by extinction but with clever fixes. Except for the occasional bear mauling, plague, third world starvation, and with our self imposed sanctity of human life rule we have no balancing natural population control. We require more and more of the Earth’s resources each day to sustain us, far more than we should be entitled to. With no evolutionary selection process to weed out the successful from the harmful, Man’s unproven changes have had an instant and jarring impact on this earth in the short time we have existed as thinking animals. Sadly, I am ancestor to that first mutant human and with all those extra cells I was unable to think myself out of the guilt I was feeling. The American Indians had it right. To them, if I remember correctly, all things in nature were treated with the same respect they had for themselves, no more, no less. Before eating animals killed for food they would thank the animal for giving up its life so they might eat. The early American Indian must have must have had just the right number of brain cells. Maybe that was the answer. Respect. It was all I had to give back. When my cigar was finished I continued on the trail a short distance and then, feeling a little better about myself, headed back. When I got to my secret cabin the bacon was gone and Dooley was sleeping upside down wedged between a table and chair a short distance from the counter. Out of respect I let him sleep.