The Amber Hour
The forest was almost gone. To save time, the developer didn’t chop the trees down, but simply drove over them. What had been an evergreen woods was now a pit, furrowed with treadmarks, littered with jagged limbs. One of the trunks was still attached to its splintered stump by a long, twisted strip of bark flayed by the dragging tractor. The exposed wood gleamed pale and stark as a broken bone.
A sliver of forest remained — mostly Virginia pine — but one serviceberry stood upon the edge of the pit. Once hidden in the center of the grove, the destruction exposed it: April-naked, fluttering with white blooms, luminous in the slanting afternoon sun. In the breeze, its petals shifted. Let’s go have a look at that shiny tree, you said, and so we sludged across the churned-up earth and jagged stumps. As we walked I tried not to look — yet I couldn’t help but see the beads of golden sap glimmering on the downed trees, already hardening.
Is this the stuff that gets petrified, you asked, those gems with insects in them?
I said: Yep. Sap.
Maybe we should take some home?
They aren’t amber yet, I said.
You touched a drop, and it adhered to your finger as you pulled away, spinning a spider-web thread until it became so thin it seemed to vanish, though you said, It’s still there. We walked on.
At last we stood among the pines. A pleasant resin scent rose from dry needles crunching under our feet in the silence. The ground around the serviceberry tree was strewn with fallen petals. Look, shells, you said, then corrected yourself: No, not shells. Skulls. You looked at me. What’s the word for those white things?
Petals? I said. Your smile of relief lit up your face.
That’s the word, you said, and tapped your head. My skull is like an empty shell, somedays.
I didn’t know what to say.
An early bumblebee rose erratically like a slow bubble ascending through thick liquid. In the slanted amber light of afternoon everything somehow seemed more real than usual. The white flowers on the tree were now edged with gold.
What kind of tree is that? you asked.
Serviceberry, I replied. It gets its name because it blooms in time for Easter services. That’s not precisely true. Settlers in the Appalachians gave the tree its name because in winter the ground froze solid, and anyone who died was placed in storage until spring. When serviceberry flowers, the ground is thawed enough to excavate a grave, and the funeral services can finally be held. I imagined the bodies of the dead, stacked like wood; imagined the living digging the graves, and planting their friends, then standing around the pit, murmuring the prayers delayed by winter. What service do those words perform, I wondered. Are the dead comforted by the presence of the living?
As I wondered this, I noticed something new. Beneath the tree, between its roots, was a hole in the ground. The hole was perfectly round, about the size of a newborn baby’s head. Scattered serviceberry petals lay in the burrow’s mouth.
What made that hole? you said, pointing, and I replied, I don’t know. I suppose I could have guessed, but these days it’s best to keep my answers to your questions simple. You began examining deer bones you’d found, picking some up, leaving others. Then you straightened, and turned, and said, What made that hole? as if the thought just occurred to you; and in a way, it had.
I said, I don’t know.
Does the animal still live there? you asked.
I think it’s gone, I said. I suspected whatever dug the burrow fled when the tractors came. But where does an animal go in winter, when its home is unexpectedly destroyed? I don’t mean the burrow, but the forest the animal inhabits: how many trees must die before the animal cannot sustain itself, and disappears? I showed you the petals that had fallen in the burrow, lying undisturbed: proof nothing had been in or out.
I think you’re right, you said. But it feels as if it’s here. You paused. Do I sound crazy?
I said, No. You’re not the only one to feel an animal can haunt a place. In fact — Then it was my turn to hesitate. Do you want to learn some Latin?
Sure, you said. So I continued: The word animal comes from the Latin word for breath which also means spirit.
How come trees aren’t animals? you said.
Maybe Latin-speaking people didn’t understand that plants respire.
You gathered all the fragments of the dead deer’s skull and tried to put it back together; but some of the pieces were missing. Eventually you laid them on the ground again. You asked, Do these trees know the other trees are gone?
It was too late to keep it simple. I said: Well, I don’t know if trees can know. But I’ve read that healthy trees share their nutrients with trees in distress, even trees reduced to stumps. There’s a network of mycelium underneath the ground: a fungus that draws its food from the roots of trees, but also performs the service of connecting all the trees, whole or injured, for miles. So stumps might remain alive if they’re connected to healthy trees by these unseen strands. And the trees with branches respond to the stumps. I don’t know if that is knowing. But it’s possible the forest isn’t dead.
Oh, you said, and the breeze shook down more petals into the hole between the roots and you asked, What made this hole?
And I said, I don’t know. I wish I knew.
Next day, you wrote to me to say, Last night I had a dream — I think it was a dream — that we went walking in the woods, and discovered something marvelous, but now I don’t know what. What happened yesterday? I wish I could remember.
For me, that day is fossilized in light forever. We are still there: we wander through the woods, slowly and erratically. You ask me questions; I remember for us both: The world is gold. The cold sun sets and the sky grows dark. A storm will soon arise. But here the light will last an eternal moment longer. When we turn around to look, the forest is still breathing. The shining blossoms on the serviceberry tree have not gone out.
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