As Christmas approaches....
I'm riding a bus back from LAX airport and waxing melancholy. Tonight is likely the last for Lora's greyhound Chuck. He had a happy life, but one month ago Lora found a large cancerous mass on his liver and spleen. Three days ago he was sprinting around like a maniac, as greyhounds do, but something must have ruptured for good. Soon he will finally rest. I'm meeting Lora at a doctor's house, where Chuck will spend his last moments surrounded by loved ones. Yesterday, I visited my Grandma at the nursing home.... she turns 102 tomorrow, but she sleeps almost all the time now. She will pass soon, surrounded by loved ones. In this article that I wrote on the airplane from New York, I talk about saying goodbye to a favorite outdoor location from my youth that I will never be able to experience in the same way again. It's a time of transition, and in those times, it's good to remember what you gained from knowing the things that leave you. They don't leave you empty.... they leave you a changed person... changed for the better, one hopes.
Off The Map Side-Stories #3: You Can’t Go Home Again
During a break in the rain, I wandered into the forests surrounding my old neighborhood in upstate New York. The region had failed to create a white Christmas for its returning native sons and daughters, though it had tried to be resourceful. The forest floor had carefully collected and preserved the scant wisps of snow that had fallen on a previous evening, cradling them within the curled ridges of oak, maple and beech leaves. But unseasonable warmth had returned to the state, and even those small vestiges of wintry ambiance melted away.
Brown hues dominated the landscape, offset by the gentle greens of hemlock branches and the bright emerald shade of the lichen that coated several slabs of slate rock. The slate outcroppings had always attracted me in my teenage years. A circle of short cliffs ringed the highest hilltop, and a crisscrossing network of cracks made the leading edge of the cliffs vulnerable to fracturing and toppling over. My friends and I called the most dramatic section Split Rocks, and the overhangs at the base of these cliffs formed small caves that sparked our imaginations.
Occasionally other elements sparked within these caves, such as the candles that tipped over during my brother’s occupation and caught the neighboring trees on fire. He and his friends tried to urinate the fire into submission without success, and fire crews had to hike in with backpacks full of flame retardant to prevent a larger conflagration. My brother and I built some fortresses from fallen trees during our younger years, but mostly I preferred to wander alone, mapping the extent of the slate formations with pencil and paper. Days such as this one, when the leaves of the deciduous trees were bare and visibility across the forest was greatest, were always the best for mapmaking.
The rainfall picked up again, and I took shelter beneath the hemlock stands. Wildlife remained distant today. Only chickadees chirped secretively to each other about the human in their midst. The forest was no longer as quiet as I remembered, as the low rumble of combustion engines never faded into the background. True wilderness could not be found in Upstate New York, sadly. European colonists had laced the rolling landscape with roads, expanding pathways through every valley. Even hilltops had been cleared, though on the highest hills the farming and grazing was marginal, so many forests had a chance to reestablish themselves. When seeking solace and adventure as a teenager, I didn’t descend into the valleys; I climbed to the places that had been forgotten, where the relics left by previous settlers lay rusting amid the moss and blackberry brambles.
Despite knowing what I would find, I returned this morning to the foot of the Split Rocks and gazed grimly upwards at the mansion that now perched atop the most important hill of my childhood. During my college years, developers bulldozed a wide swath along the crest of the hill right up to the edge of the slate cliffs. Whenever I visited home, I would patrol the forest and rip down surveying ribbons, but my efforts did not keep the developers at bay for long, if at all. Now there is a castle atop the hill, and I must prowl like a thief in a forest where I once ruled, scavenging for memories.
Sadly, everyone wants their castle on a hill. I know I do. I actually grew up in a development not far away from here, and when that housing tract was built, undoubtedly it was loathed by some farmboy because it obliterated his favorite wooded playground. It’s a tragic cycle. Slowly, all the wide, open spaces get carved into pieces, and there becomes no way to escape the humming of combustion engines. We build houses within the hilltop forests and destroy a little more of the places we love. Until our species finds a way to stabilize its population, this outcome is virtually inevitable.
And yet, our destructive natures are balanced by the individuals and organizations that have advocated for setting aside public lands so that backyard spaces and wilderness areas will continue to exist. Within my home county lie state forests. I can drive a few hours to the northeast and southeast and reach the vast Catskill and Adirondack State Parks. And of course, these open landscapes dwindle in comparison to the network of National Parks, Forests and Wildlife Refuges found throughout the American West.
Public lands often find themselves under threat from irresponsible ranching, mining, logging, recreation and energy extraction interests, but they still represent hope… hope that humans are truly learning to curb their powerful appetites and will one day be able to balance their presence on Earth with the rest of God’s creatures. Our stewardship of the planet is a vast experiment, with successes and setbacks. I am optimistic that we can learn from our mistakes, and thrive, as a nation and as a community of species. But today, I must mourn for the loss of my own forest.
I can no longer return to the hilltop above Split Rocks, except as an intruder. At least I have my old maps to remind me of how things used to be, and the satisfaction of having explored every rock while I had the chance. Now the chickadees will have to visit these places on my behalf. The deer and raccoons can patrol the perimeter, and perhaps someday the descendants of these animals will reclaim the land, once humans find it in themselves to ease their grip and give some of the forests back.