To Dwell in the Forest
For years we did not see the sun without adventures. Over us, the canopy of trees grew blindingly close together and light was a filtered thing. To go to an open spot in the forest – to look up and see the sun – was an adventure, a mission of manhood, and a danger. What could have caused a barren cicatrix in the great forest, and what might that maker of openness do to a man exposed? But our people would go, see the sun some few brief moments, and come back to tell the wives, children, and those without courage, what the phantom burning ball looked like.
We were content, though shadowed. Our lives knew the order of the trees, what gifts and perils came from what nameable altitudes, how to navigate the squatting trunks. Some of our clan might climb, and some became comfortable with the arboreal. But, for the most of our people, the ground was home.
I know nothing of this. It was not yet my time.
Rumor is, that, on an adventure to the edge of one of the mysterious holes in the forest where the sun could be seen, the one who was to be our greatest warrior stumbled, and upon reaching out to steady himself, absently took down a small tree. Imagine: had he not gone to see the sun, he would not have encountered the tree at all. In our past, there had been branches breaking, and the falling of rot: but this was a full tree, sapling though it might be, already in the warehouse of its ascendancy.
It is said he placed but a hand on it and fell forward, taking the tree with him.
His companions were astounded. They could not help him up for their wonder. Most, it is said, bent double to look at where the tree transitioned to horizontal, unable to touch it, their eyes drawn into slits and the silence withheld like the sex of noble children. A world is changed in moments that have no geometry.
With the inrush of new possibilities, the sight of the sun was forgotten. Beginning with similar saplings, the adventurers – now becoming warriors – began to test the pushing over of trees. Some trees would come up by the roots, and some would snap; though most would sway and remain defiant. Soon, the ground was crawling with small trees that had by our warriors been sent violently into the horizontal plane.
It was later, in small steps, warriors learned to work two, sometimes three, to a tree to bring down almost substantial trees: those with leaves high enough to make the under level of the canopy, to drag down when toppled the neighboring intertwined branches, to make smart holes in the dense green above.
With that first return of our new warriors came the knowledge of breaking trees. We practiced, and came together to push over trees nearly as thick as a man. Our work became the understanding of trees repositioned, trees impoverished. In months, the people had pushed over thousands of trees. The bodies of wood lay about in subjugated piles and we sat upon them and rolled them about for fun and a child or two was crushed by stray wood encapsulated in momentum.
Yet, soon, the novelty wore off. Trees of modest size had gone from vertical to horizontal, but they were still in the way, though differently. Above the people the high canopy still persisted and kept us separate from the sun, though more light leaked through and our ancestors became accustomed to it.
But then, one unremembered but special day, a man licensed himself to be a carpenter. He took an apprentice and set to turning the stray wood into lumber. Lumber was not simply a tree pushed over. Lumber could be stacked. Lumber could be turned into order and cross order and depth. And, with the peg, the carpenter could turn lumber into houses, into fences, into ladders. We could live beneath the trees without needing their canopy; we could with horrible ladders climb into the depths of the higher greenness; we could fence the open land we were giving birth to.
And, bare generations later, our elite developed an understanding of the carpenter’s potential other tools. Families of new and enigmatically powerful tools: tools that might make a man worth the work of many men; or make the work of many men the author of one outcome. At some point, the saw was born. It sang its coming ascendancy into our growing and grappling society. We listened enraptured by the song, lusting after the saw for its form and intent, if not for its simple curing existence. With this, our relation to the trees could yet again spring forward. To understand the saw was to be a different race.
Shortly after the enlightenment, our people made saws of all sorts and breeds. Saws a man could use to nip down a small tree, and saws that a crew of men would use in wicked coordination to gnaw at the heart of the giants of the forest: trees without natural predators, with no need of anger or fear; trees that against the blade merely hummed a lullaby rhythm and then went murderously down.
The saw could bring light everywhere.
Our ancestors pushed back the edge of the forest. Ever further away it went in all directions. Soon, our war parties had to walk for days to reach a worthy tree. They began to organize into expeditions, carrying their wives and children, pack animals and provisions; disappearing into the brush to flank a stand of trees, to strategically work often from the backside towards home, cutting a small forest from the larger one. Rails of wood carried lumber back and forth, the excess rotting in the rains.
There is no date in specific when it was first noticed that some of our best warriors had unselfconsciously grown leaves on their backs. And when the first thatch child was born, everyone for miles came to see the oddity. But the child suckled and moved, if stiffly, like a full flesh child, and he was let be. The hair of our women more and more waxed fern-like and in the suddenly full sun their heads would at times lean into the light.
But still the warriors brought back lumber. The sun was now open for all, and to see it was no adventure. The forest was beaten back and the thatch children, the bramble children, the stick children did not even remember it. The forest was a rumor they might one day adventure to see, dragging themselves slowly across the good earth plain, each slow step sucking its moisture from the soil and pausing before, by pure will, being pulled into the next committed act of locomotion.
Locomotion is a memory that is dear to me. I have heard of running and walking and I can imagine these things, but I do remember fondly dragging and I once myself did drag. I do not remember when I stopped, but others had rooted before me and at last when I rooted I could see no others still busying about in their houses, no others preparing to make war on the trees, no others making children by any other means than the casting out of their pollen.
We tell our story branch to branch, rattle it in our leaves, ensure it moves across the dendrites of all our people. The story of how a shadowed people learned to battle the trees and beat back the forest, rising then themselves up into the sun: the story of a people who would not remain subjects under the canopy, but who could invent a way to make the legendary sunlight their own.
I have passed it through my limbs, shivered it in my mature leaves, and sent it out in the buds that consume me. The gift is now yours. Across the next fingering limb of our canopy, tell it.
Ken Poyner lives in the lower right hand corner of Virginia, with his power-lifter wife and a number of house animals. His 2013 e-book, Constant Animals, 42 brief but unruly fictions, is available at all the various e-book sites, and you should go buy it so he does not have to haunt you. Recent work is out in Corium, Analog Science Fiction, Spittoon, Poet Lore, Mobius, and many other places. He webs at kpoyner.com.
Sandra Giles teaches at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton, in the department of Literature and Language and in an innovative bachelor’s degree program in Rural Studies. She holds a Ph.D. from Florida State University. Her work has been published in such journals as The Southeast Review, Wilderness House Literary Review, and Writer Advice and in anthologies such as On Writing and Shout Them From the Mountaintops II: Georgia Poems and Stories. Her work has received awards from New Millennium Writings and the Southeastern Writers Association. She has also published articles on teaching writing, including co-authoring a chapter in Creative Writing: A Guide to Its Pedagogies, forthcoming from Southern Illinois University Press.