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In the Wilderness (Kim Barnes)


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  When John wasn't working as a carpenter's apprentice, he took me into the mountains. He had promised that in the fall he would lead me to the breaks of the Salmon River, where pheasant and chukar made tunnels through thistle; we practiced our aim on the hundreds of ground squirrels whose burrows mounded the high meadows. But he had gone camping for the weekend, and I was stuck behind a plateglass window dusting Bag Balm.

I imagined him wading the shallows of a mountain stream--the breeze still cold off the higher snow fields, the fish smell of fresh water, the pitched hum of insects waking to the sun. Nothing felt more right than being surrounded by pine and cedar, fir and spruce, the tamarack that bared its branches in winter like a common town tree.

Even better was to be with John in the woods. I loved his love of the forest, his knowledge of animals, his accuracy with a rifle. I loved pleasing him with the accuracy of my own marksmanship. I loved the way he spread his flannel shirt on a bed of needles and covered me with his body. I loved looking past his head and seeing the sky, not just a piece of blue, but the whole of it from horizon to horizon. I loved the way the ravens called as they passed over, not a warning or hoarse caw of fear, but a cry of acknowledgment: there, there.

Standing at the counter, longing for the presence of ravens, it came to me that I could go into the woods anyway, by myself. Tomorrow was my day off. I could go fishing, take my .22, find the squirrels and shoot them. I would cut off and bring home the wiry little tails, as John did, proof of my good eye and independence. But I wouldn't go into the closest mountains. Instead, I would go to the Clearwater, back into that place from which I came.

The next morning, I loaded my fishing rod, tackle box and .22 into the car and drove the river road east. It felt strange at first, doing something like this without a male companion, but as I left the city I felt the uneasiness lift. I was on a road I knew well. The river, slowed by dams and straightened by dikes at Lewiston, quickened upstream. Even though the North Fork no longer ran free, the Middle Fork still flowed in below the dam and lent to the Clearwater River a remnant of its remembered current.

As I came into Orofino, the sight of Dworshak Dam stunned me. No matter how large I remembered it, its enormity didn't seem real. I had felt the power of the river, had seen it tear away trees and float entire buildings during spring thaw: I tried to imagine the workers detouring the water in order to pour concrete and anchor steel. It seemed an impossible task.

I crossed the bridge at Greer and wound my way up the mountain. The grade ended abruptly, spilling out onto a flat expanse of cultivated fields, already green with new wheat. In the distance the trees formed a protective circle and the hills rose even higher into dense forest and alpine meadows. Even if the river and its canyon had become something foreign, the Weippe Prairie had not.

I rolled down my window and breathed in the rich smell of damp earth and early flowers--balsam root, dog fennel, lupine and camas--that floated on the heavier perfume of pine. The tears that stung my eyes surprised me, and I let out a loud "Hah!" It was a good noise, a sound of skepticism and control. It worked. I shook my head and tried to remember the road I would follow through Weippe and on into Pierce, the series of turns I would need to take in order to reach Reeds Creek.

At first, Pierce didn't seem much different. There was Kimball's Drug, the Confectionery, the old Clearwater Hotel. But as I drove slowly down Main Street, I realized what I wasn't seeing: people. No old-timers sat in the hotel window, pinging empty Folger's cans with spit. No women stood in the doorway of Durant's Dry Goods, testing the warm weather with bare arms and pinned-up hair.

The school, I knew, had been closed and condemned, the children bussed to the new building, halfway between Pierce and Weippe, pledging allegiance with the Weippe Gorillas, the team we had once considered our arch rivals. But the post office, it should never be empty. Just then a dog barked and a woman bellowed for it to shut up. I relaxed my grip on the wheel.

Everyone is at work, I thought. Later, on the way home, when I come back through, it will be different. I picked up speed, heading toward the hollow, fighting the sense of urgency rising in my chest.

Pole Camp was gone. Only the shop remained, a dustier shade of red, but still standing. I pulled off the road and stared at the clearing where our circle had been. I looked closer and saw the house that Clyde and Daisy had built, the one with a genuine foundation. The forest had closed it in, but the windows were curtained, the burn barrel still upright. I searched the clearing for the stumps our trailers had rested on, the outhouse, anything that might verify that my life there had been real.

There--behind the lightning-struck yellow pine, we had had our secret place. There my cousins and I had eaten thick butter-and-sugar sandwiches, quarreled and made up, come for solace and pity after a whipping. I wondered if at twilight the elk still came into the meadow--beyond where the wash shed had stood--to eat the marsh grass and whistle their calves in.

A few miles farther, I passed the Jaype mill, whose name I had always heard as initials--J. P.--still huffing out its smoke. A solitary loader swung its jaws over a deck of logs, lifting six or seven at a time and placing them precisely between the hard metal ribs of a rail car. The familiar activity was a comfort, and I drove on toward Cardiff, where the church and parsonage stood skirted by a bog of mud. I did not slow to look. I wanted the woods. The creek would be there, the meadow where I had seen the fawn, the hollow with its sheltering trees. No matter what I did, no matter how many times I left, I could always come back to the woods.

I hardly noticed the clearcuts behind the stingy buffer of trees left standing along the road. The logging didn't surprise me. I expected to see raw stumpage and slash piles, the knee-deep gouges left by skidders. This was part of the life there, the sound of saws as familiar as the wind through the trees. But this wasn't the forest. The trees could fall but the forest would somehow remain, always out there, always removed and separate from what we called timber.

I turned onto the dirt road that paralleled Reeds Creek, my old Chevy chattering across ruts, working my way back to where I knew the branches shaded the deeper holes and fat trout wallowed in silt. The hollow lay just across the meadow, hidden behind the thick grove of pine. Already the sun had crested and begun its slide behind the mountain, and I knew the house would be dark and cool.

The creek seemed changed, shallower and muddier (had it ever been the strong clear flow I remembered?), and as I wound my way back, the water thickened. Within a mile the current was dead, dammed by a mass of slash.

I stared at the mound of roots and limbs, at the bulldozed wad of dirt and stumps. Fingers of water had found their way through, following the curve of branches, seeping between rock and wood. Behind the mound the ground was scraped and pitted. A sheen of oil slicked the stagnant pools.

"No, not here," I whispered. "Please, not here." I stepped slowly from the car. Insects skimmed the surface of the water, yet the water remained still--there were no fish to rise.

It was as though I had been hit, as though I could taste the blood in my mouth. I reached into the backseat, loaded my rifle and shot. A small explosion of dust erupted from the slash. I shot again, then emptied the .22 as fast as I could pump. I pulled all the ammunition I had from my pockets, reloaded and shot again, pulled the maps and Kleenex from the glove compartment until I found the last box and aimed and shot until my ears rang.

I hated it. I hated the dozer that made it, the man who pushed it there, the company the man worked for. No one was innocent. I slumped against the car and cried. Something had broken--whatever thread it was that tied me to my life there. The water that had fed me, cooled me, cleansed me had been choked off, turned to sludge.

Alone in the woods, the air and sun still unchanged, the throaty trill of a meadowlark reached me, and I felt an overwhelming sadness--not just because of the creek, but because of the flood of memories and feelings that swept over me. It was as though seeing the creek this way had released all the emotions I had tamped down and buried since we left the house in the hollow.

What I mourned was the loss of myself: that girl who had fished long into the warm summer afternoons, who had believed in a world held solid by family and the encircling presence of trees. I wanted it all back: the red shack; my brother still a comrade who would accompany me into the darkest glens; my mother in her apron, bent over pies, listening for the dieseling idle of my father's pickup; my father bringing in the cedar-scented air, a man for whom the world had made itself simple.

I knelt and gathered the dirt in my hands. It sifted through my fingers like powder. The land had been scavenged, scraped, then burned to sterile ash. I knew nothing could ever grow there--not in my lifetime, not until the wind and rain had covered the scar with sediment deep enough to nurture the seeds that might fall from the few remaining pines.
 
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Excerpted from In the Wilderness by Kim Barnes. Copyright © 1996 by Kim Barnes. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.