I was taking shelter from a personal storm when I came here. Surrounded by trees tossing like whirligigs, or breaking out of the lethal ice palaces cast over them, brought a host of metaphors to mind. But no self-centred metaphor could describe that May storm. I saw that nothing lies between us and nature - the whole sentient swirl is one and the same - the forest and I were in this crisis together. As time passes it becomes apparent that, though shockingly violent, the storm may have opened the forest to new life. And yet, the land is also perpetually endangered by the human desire to restore order and normality, or to profit from disaster. Our ignorance about forest care for the forest's sake has been humbling and unnerving.
Nothing makes more sense than when I work among those battered trees. For three years I've been obsessed with assisting their recovery, acutely aware that my own healing and survival is implicated. Before this, I was in love with another piece of rugged Ozark land in a deep valley right beside a creek and more obviously rich with plant and animal life. It had been the site of a small town with a gristmill, all long-since gone. Most of the land in Missouri has been cruelly worked over at one time or another and then abandoned. I felt settled in that bottomland but like the shallow-rooted trees of my new forest home, an unanticipated change led to a painful uprooting. It was a paradoxical gift. Daily the land mirrors my own psyche back to me.
In winter the forest appears a study in sepias and greys, lifeless and depressing, if that is my own mood or I'm yearning for some stronger statement of passion. Pared down to the bones of an ancient landscape that has been burned over so many times, it sometimes seems that living here requires surrender of all ambition for lasting greatness. And yet, at twilight, after Missouri blue-sky days, the mosses run like viridescent rivers among twinkling rocks covered in crystal flecks. Every shape and shade is highlighted. Surrounded by a rim of delicately drawn lines - etched to protect - I am often in awe that this place has become more than a haven - it is my home.
When Greenwood was saved from clear-cutting, it was already a second-growth forest, sprouted from previously cut stumps. Few trees here are standing centenarians. One massive white oak survives in a clearing where the once-more-vibrant community of young families used to gather to picnic after a swim at Jam-Up Cave. Another grandmother oak, under which we had placed a vision-quest platform, fell to her knees in the storm. We lost many of the largest trees since the storm came through when all were in leaf - heavy with rain, wind-resistant, and rooted in sodden soil that lies thinly over ruptured rock. Forests like this tend to be crowded, making their roots less extensive; if their fellows fall, they are even more vulnerable to windthrow.
Until recently, secondary forests were thought to lack biodiversity compared to old-growth. But bobcats actually like our kind of forest with its underbrush, glades and rocky outcrops. So do other forest mammals. Last August 2011, a neighbour watched from his deck as a mountain lion took down a deer. They are thought not to breed in this state but who really knows? This forest is a no-hunting zone for man and doubtless the wild creatures know it - deer are abundant. Down the ravines toward the river, it is likely that bears den happily in hollowed-out stumps or tree tangles. A tree-climbing grey fox travels through our yard: in winter to look for orange-peel scattered on the garden, in summer to scavenge for pears from an unpruned Moonglow.
Participating in turning apparent destruction into an opportunity for something different to happen in the health of the forest, and in my relationship to it, quickly became less about normalizing things and more about an ongoing interactive art form. I've invented a kind of landscaping that I suspect few have had the time, opportunity or inclination to indulge. I use logs, branches and rocks of which there's an endless supply. Every log that could not be salvaged for timber or firewood has remained on the land to return its nourishment to the ground and to help retain rainwater. I use them right where they fell to create moisture-absorbing terraces along hillside contours, stop erosion of seasonal creek banks and forest paths, or highlight special areas with circles and curves. All these constructions will decompose decorously to form soft shapes on the land.
Where trees were uprooted, I have pick-axed and raked the soil back into soft beds for native plants or mosses to settle. If the root wads have become homes for forest creatures, I do not interfere. Along the curves where roots used to run, snakes often lie curled in hibernation. In warm weather, gorgeous but venomous copperheads, massive but harmless black rat snakes, and a myriad other native serpents will emerge. Several of the upturned trees have left deep passages to the underworld that inspire the mystic sculptor in me. Using whatever I find right there, I follow my artist's intent in initiating them and then leave the rest up to nature. I do this landscaping in the cool winter months when life is quiescent. Turning up a flat rock to find a red-spotted salamander nestling there, displacing a log that turns out to be a wild bee hive, finding red ring-necked baby snakes curled into a root, are signs that I've run out of time.
Certain old stumps and snag trees have become shrines and totems to me. The way they stand in a clearing or are painted with the miraculous hues of lichen, moss and fungus, delights me as few human artefacts could. The arrangement goes beyond each spot to the shapes of the land itself. Skid trails made by the mules we used to more carefully salvage storm-downed trees have been turned into flowing paths. When raked they soon become carpeted with moss. I've started introducing human elements - a dismantled bronze airfan, a broken wooden ladder, a personal ornament - always half-hidden.
Some of these days of labour end with a soak in the woodfired hot tub, which as the season warms is shared perilously with tree frogs that match the grey of the metal stovetop or the cedar barrel at whim but don't seem to sense heat. A few get cooked. Other frogs, gathered at the forest ponds at twilight, sound en masse like a distant waterfall. Bats wing their way to water too. Full moons caught in the trees' net glow especially bright here. Claiming the night with their dream-sharp shadows, coyotes call from their river runs. I'm learning to dream with the land and to follow its secret desires.
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[The image above is of a beautiful ceremonial snake plate I have that was made by Susan Minyard. You can see more of her work at Sweetwater Pottery here.]