The land and the trees change with the seasons. The forty acres of land has been a part of my family life and lore for over 100 years. It has changed, the old shack is gone, and some of the roads grown over with small trees and grass, but the land itself, and the three freshwater springs that dot its landscape, are still there.
A ring of trees surrounds a small clearing, where a solitary man stands amidst the translucent autumn light filtering through the leaves of basswood and maple trees. He stands in my memory and occasionally when I return to that space, he stands there still, face wrinkled with time and squinting at the sun. There is a hat on his head, a cap, one of many that hang on the rack in his home. He peers thoughtfully at the autumn light, a look of wonder, perhaps even mystery, on his face. He walks slowly around the circle, looking at the trees. Is there a memory there of when those trees were small? They are wild grown and not planted. When did he first notice the now majestic basswood with the large leaves yellowed in the fall? When did he see the maple tree begin to reach its branches into the sky?
As he walks the small circle of the land he has owned for so long, owned by his father before him, a smile plays on his lips. A smile of memory perhaps of “making winter’s wood” with all those families or watching his best friend, long dead, walk the logging road to say hi and visit a while.
Our lives are marked by spaces I choose to call sacred. Spaces where we return to find peace and security in our relationship with the land. I watch the solitary figure, he walks through my memory, and I see in his eyes the special relationship his heart has with the rocks and the trees of this small piece of land. There is love and there are tears in his eyes. There are more memories than he can bear. His heart is so full of love for these trees and rocks, and springs of water, that have been in his life and heart for all of his 73 years.
Over the years the land has provided winter’s wood for five families; the springs provided fresh water when below freezing temperatures broke the clay pipes that carried water for part of the town; but more importantly the land was part of his family, in fact the land was family.
For my father and grandfather, the land was a refuge and a touchstone for family history and memory. It was where my grandfather had his shack, where wild raspberries grew and where there was always a cold beer in the spring. But in the expanse of the 40 acres there were special places, places where stories came up from the moist, black soil. There were places where refuge was taken for a kind of haphazard meditation, where fingers could be plunged into the loamy soil and the presence of ancestors felt as if they were still alive.
Each generation had its own relationship with the land and the land had its own relationship with each generation. The freshwater springs that the solitary man maintained when this place was his alone to tend, still bubble, never freezing, always with a clean fresh taste on the tongue when the cup hanging from a cedar tree is used to take a drink. Drinking spring water was a childhood delight, the cup cleared of spiders, used to drink and then the smile. My memory swells and I feel a tightening in my chest as I remember my first drink.
As the kaleidoscope of memories flash before my mind’s eye I see people who gathered on this land, the people before our family, the people long past, the people who have drunk the water, cut trees, peeled the bark of the birch, the people who stopped on this land for perhaps just a moment in time. The only constant in all of this, as people ebb and flow, come and go, is the land. Even the trees have changed over time, but the land, the roll of the hill, the gentle sound of the bubbling spring, they have been here before us, the land and the water, the rocks and the trees will be here after us. The only constant is the land.
Joy Harjo, Poet Laureate of the United States, writes in An American Sunrise, “I sing my leaving song. I sing it to the guardian trees, this beloved earth, to those who stay here to care for memory. I will sing it until the day I die.”
I think this is the song of the solitary man standing in the center of the ring of trees. It is his leaving song, this man, my father who taught me to love the trees, the rocks, the springs, the land itself, a love that I too will have, “until the day I die.”