Into the Forest (Jean Hegland)

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  Though the rain that falls so steadily on the ragged yard and patient trees might well be the same rain that fell a week ago, the calendar claims today's the first of February. We're down to eight and one-fourth teabags, and I'm more than halfway through the F's.

Today I reached Forest, an extensive and complex ecological community dominated by trees and having the potential for self-perpetuation. But before I could memorize the five major types of forest, along with their typical tree densities, climates, and soils, I was interrupted by yet another memory, and I raised my gaze from the page to look out the window at the forest.

As soon as Eva and I were able to toddle, our father took us on long, slow rambles down the dirt road that led from our clearing through the woods. We looked at wildflowers, listened to birds, and splashed in the clear trickle of the creek. We picked up leaves and poked at centipedes and waterstriders while he towered above us, patient and benevolent as a tree.

When we got a little older, Mother occasionally gave us permission to journey by ourselves down the quarter-mile of road to the bridge so we could meet Father on his way home from work. Don't cross the bridge, Mother would warn, until the bridge seemed such a natural boundary it never occurred to us to cross it.

What we really wanted to do was play in the forest. Every flower and bird and mysterious crashing beckoned for us to leave the road, to clamber up through the trees and ferns, but our mother insisted that we keep to the road.

"You're too young," she said when, at six and seven, we begged to go exploring. "You'll get lost. It's not safe."

"Please," we sang.

"What do you want to do there, anyway?"

"We just want to explore," we pleaded, "go for walks, maybe build a fort. We'll be careful."

"You can build a fort in the clearing," she offered.

"It's not the same if it's not in the forest."

"But there're ticks and rattlesnakes and poison oak in the forest."

That stopped us for a moment, until Eva reasoned, "There's ticks and rattlesnakes and poison oak in the clearing, too. Remember when Daddy found a rattlesnake in the woodpile?"

"Well, what about pigs?" our mother asked.

Mother hated wild pigs. They lived in the forest like ghostly roto-tillers, seldom seen, but leaving deep gashes in the earth where they rooted for grubs and bulbs, and dirty muck holes where they wallowed in the streams. Although no one we knew had ever been hurt by one, they seemed to embody all our mother's fears about the forest.

"They can weigh two hundred pounds. Their tusks are sharp as razors. Even rattlesnakes can't bite through their hides. They eat dirt and carrion," she said. "They could kill you. What are you girls going to do when you meet one of them in the woods?"

I was ready to stay forever in the safety of the clearing when suddenly our father broke in. "It's okay, Gloria. It'll be all right. Like it or not, these two are bound to play in the forest sooner or later. Besides, pigs are shy. Eva and Nell'll make enough racket to scare off every wild pig in Northern California. Hell, if there were any bears left, they'd run them off, too. I say let the girls go."

Mother glared at him, but in the end she backed down. She gave us each police whistles to blow if we got into trouble, and she bundled us in rules: we couldn't wander out of whistle-range of home, we had to stay together, we couldn't put our hands or feet anywhere we hadn't first checked for rattlesnakes, we had to submit to a tick search before we came back inside, and we couldn't eat anything but the snacks she packed for us.

"Don't you girls ever eat anything wild," she reminded us each time we left the clearing. "Do you understand? Wild plants can kill you."

Okay, Mother. Yes, Mother, we promise, we said as, thrilled and scared, we edged towards the woods.

Ours is a mixed forest, predominantly fir and second-growth redwood but with a smattering of oak and madrone and maple. Father said that our land had once been covered with redwoods a thousand years old, but all that remained of that mythic place were a few fallen trunks the length and girth of beached whales and several charred stumps the size of small sheds.

When we were nine and ten, Eva and I discovered one of those hulks and claimed it for our own. About a mile above our house, we found a redwood stump that rose out of the forest floor like the broken hull of an ancient ship. It was hollow, and the space inside was large enough to serve as fort, castle, teepee, and cottage. There we spent every minute we could steal or wheedle for the next two years.

A tributary of the creek that borders our clearing ran near the stump and provided us with water for wading, washing, and mudpie making. We kept a chipped tea set up there along with blankets, dress-up clothes, and broken pans, and there we passed our days, playing Pretend.

"Pretend," one of us would say, as soon as we reached the stump, while we were still panting from the exertion of our climb, "we're Indians." Or goddesses. Or orphans. Or witches. "And pretend," the other of us would answer with the hushed intensity the game required, "that we're lost." That we're stalking deer. That we're going to dance with the fairies. That a bear's coming to get us and we have to hide.

Back then, it seemed the forest had everything we needed. Every mushroom or flower or fern or stone was a gift. Every noise was an adventure to be investigated. Frequently we glimpsed deer or rabbits or heard the call of wild turkeys. Occasionally we saw a grey fox or a skunk. Once we caught a glimpse of a bobcat when we were hurrying home to supper much later than we should have been. Twice we ran across rattlesnakes basking in the summer sun, but each time we were able to back away without disturbing them. Later we came across a pack of wild pigs, dark and blunt and thick-cheated, snuffling their way contentedly through the autumn mast. Immobilized with terror, we watched as they poked and grunted beneath the oaks and finally drifted into the forest without a backward glance.

We never told our mother about the snakes or the pigs, and she began to call us "wood nymphs," laugh at our tangled hair and scratched arms, and forget to check us for ticks before she let us come inside. It was all idyllic, and at the end of a day in the forest we would abandon our imaginary lives and hurry back to the clearing and our parents and the cozy realities of hot food and steaming baths and goodnight kisses.

But then Eva started dancing and all that changed. In the beginning I tried to beg or bribe her to come with me into the forest. "Not now," she would say. "I've got to work on my fouettés. Maybe later." On those few occasions when I was able to convince her to pack a lunch and venture into the woods, our games felt forced and childish and we always seemed to return to the house sun-burnt, tick-bitten, and bad-tempered. I tried going up to the stump alone, but my time there always seemed to drag; the distant crashings of pigs or deer made me jump, fallen branches began to startle me with their resemblance to dozing snakes, and finally the forest came to mean nothing more than the interminable distance between home and town.
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Excerpted from Into the Forest by Jean Hegland. Copyright © 1997 by Jean Hegland. Excerpted by permission of Bantam Books, 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.