Do you remember Joyce Kilmer –I think that I shall never see, a poem as lovely as a tree? It’s the only poem I remember by him, but I think he was on to something.
I’ve always loved trees –even when I was a child on the prairies where there weren’t any… Well, I suppose there were the guest trees that got planted along the sides of streets in Winnipeg, but unlike more human immigrants, they weren’t given an opportunity to mingle with other expats. Only when they were herded together in parks did a lucky few have a chance for social interactions -and even then it was a series of arranged marriages, concocted mainly for expediency, not empathy. Like birds in a cage, I’m sure that trees feel punished when they are separated from their traditional homes -their extended families.
But have I become too much of an anthropomorphist now that I’m retired? Or have I strayed achingly close to that other cognitive boundary that also seems to attend old age? James thought so, although it could be argued he spent most of his time on the other side himself.
When I moved to within striking distance of mountains, I began to treat myself to long, solitary walks in the forests that clothed the slopes like rumpled green carpets. Immersed in the fragrant mist of cedars, and enchanted by the variable textures worn by different trees, I would spend hours simply wandering along needle-strewn trails listening to the souffle of wind in the branches far above and the song of birds flitting from twig to twig. It was a form of meditation –of shinrin-yoku, the evocative Japanese expression for the benefits of just such an activity: forest bathing.
But when I retired, I decided I was spending too much time alone. That’s where James came in, I suppose. He was an active, albeit cantankerous pensioner who said he loved walking and showed me his cane to prove it. He kept telling me, each time I saw him in MacDonald’s, that he loved walking among trees -he said marching, actually, so I assumed he’d been a soldier in a different time. In retrospect, though, I should have realized that his more recent active duties were confined to urban parks… On sidewalks. Except to defend against passing dogs, or help him negotiate unruly curbs, the cane was more needed more for support than show -even though it had ‘city’ written all over it.
Nonetheless, he kept pestering me, so I invited him to accompany me around a nearby lake. Actually, it was a converted swamp, and except for a few roots, was relatively level –caneable was how I described it, I think. But he showed up prepared –leather boots that he’d kept from a military tour somewhere, knee-length khaki shorts, and a black sweat shirt with a fist stencilled on it for some reason. Oh yes, and a crumpled green baseball cap from Cuba that looked as if it had just come from the bottom of a drawer. He was ready and eager.
I had to admire his stamina for the first few meters. He seemed to have a swagger that the cane did little to dispel. It was when I stopped to stare up the trunk of a huge Douglas Fir that he began to suspect he would have to 911-me home. I reached out and touched the huge, rough furrows in the bark and caught him shaking his head out of the corner of my eye.
“You tired already?” he said, barely able to contain his disapproval. He grabbed my arm, thinking I was trying to rest against the trunk.
“I was just…” I paused, uncertain how to explain to him that I just needed to touch it. “This tree is probably over a hundred years old, James,” I managed to explain to his frustrated eyes.
“So leave it alone, then,” he said, starting to walk away with me in tow.
The trail became a little narrower shortly after that, and I began to have second thoughts about his ability to manage with the cane. He insisted on walking ahead of me, however. “Trail’s not very well managed,” he grumbled, his cane slashing at a bush that had the temerity to reach out from it’s designated area. “And look at these damned roots all over the place. How do they expect people in wheelchairs to manage?” He didn’t seem to be enjoying himself at all.
“I don’t think the trail is really meant for wheelchairs, do you James?” I thought I’d humour him.
He turned his head and leered at me sarcastically –as if I should know if I’d ever been on a real trail before. Grumpy old man. But as the guest, he opted for discretion and switched, mid-smirk, into an ersatz smile. “I suppose it must be too difficult for the rangers to keep everything from wrecking the trail,” he said, and I could see it was all he could manage not to roll his eyes.
I think he was expecting an apology or something, because he continued to stare at me with that silly grin until I caught up with him. “Sorry,” I said; I don’t know why. “They don’t have rangers here…”
“What do they have, then?”
I had to think about it. “Volunteers, I guess.”
He sighed; things were clearly not what he’d expected on the walk. But he cheered up when the trail approached the edge of the little lake. I could feel the breeze as ripples skimmed across the surface of the water. There were a few ducks swimming bravely into them like kids playing in the waves. I mentioned this to James, but the metaphor was lost on him the moment his hat blew off and into a thicket of tall bushes beside the path.
I was wearing heavy sweatpants and a long-sleeved sweatshirt so I volunteered to wade through the sea of brambles to rescue it. He waved me off immediately, however, no doubt regarding my offer as disrespectful –a comment on his age, perhaps. But I had other concerns.
“James, I think I’d better go after it –I have long pants…”
“I’ll go,” he interrupted, and glared at me for even suggesting it.
He pushed past me and shoved his way through the prickly copse. “Just because I wear a cane…” he said on returning, not bothering to finish an obvious point.
I loved his verb, but I didn’t say anything –he had a faraway look in his eyes. And anyway, I was too busy staring at the blood on his legs.
“Just scratches,” he whispered, obviously proud of his forage into the wild. “Had it a lot worse when I was stationed in Africa,” he added. “You didn’t dare go off the trail like this in Africa,” he said with a knowing little grin that seemed to invite an inquiry. “Snakes,” he said, in case I let the opportunity pass. “And in some places after a rain…” He paused to increase the suspense. “Blood suckers that dropped on you from the leaves.” His face tensed up with the memory. “Had to check every night before you went to bed… Nasty little buggers,” he added sombrely, and yet a touch nostalgically, I thought. “Sometimes I wish I could go back, you know…” He sighed noisily and stretched. “Life was more exciting when you had to watch out for things like that…” He sat down on a large rock near the water’s edge. “Danger made you feel alive –the world seemed more precious then. Precarious, but precious…”
I smiled, still looking at his legs.
“Why are you looking at my legs? It’s just blood…”
“That’s not,” I said and pointed at a little black mark on his calf.
He looked at the spot and shrugged. “Bit of dirt, eh?” He grinned; he’d lived through the dangers of a tropical jungle and was amused that I would be worried about a bit of mud on his leg.
I shook my head. “It’s Canada’s answer to Africa,” I said, picking the speck off carefully, and showing him the little legs.
Suddenly he stiffened and stared at me with a worried look on his face. “What is it? It doesn’t look like a spider…”
“Tick,” I said with a little sigh. “That’s why I suggested I should go after the hat.” I threw the little thing back into the bushes. “They hang from leaves or tall grasses and drop onto passing animals. Some of them carry Lyme disease in this area as well,” I added with a little smirk of my own.
He immediately chuckled at the news. In fact, when we resumed our hike, I could see him looking around with new respect. There was a spring to his step and I almost expected him to throw his cane into the woods. There were no more complaints about the trail and he appeared positively enchanted with his new world. He seemed… Alive. “I guess I’ll have to check my legs tonight before I go to bed,” he said with a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his lips. “Nasty little buggers,” he added, hardly able to contain his new-found enthusiasm.