We had not walked for three days.
On our first day back out, as we reached the turn at the bottom of the middle pasture, my heart nearly broke in two. What had previously been thick with wildflowers and grasses was now a 15-foot-wide swath of mud. During those three days, tires taller than a round bale had pressed over it repeatedly, from dawn till dusk. A foot-tall ridge formed the outside edge. As I walked, the mud sucked my boot soles down, and I pulled up hard to release them. Each step sounded of strangely soothing squelched muck.
Walking farther, I saw the creek–the one that had sold us on the property, the one with the swimming hole and lined with heavy limestone slabs. It was not running. Instead, it stopped at a hole, like a shallow soup bowl filled with mud and tire tracks, and wondered where to go. On the other side of the bowl, water stood, stagnant and murky, scattered with debris. So looked the second and third creeks.
Trunks, billows of leafy tree tops, inch-thick scraps of bark, and other shrapnel lay across our trails. We climbed over some; others were impassable. Saplings were pinned to the ground without the mercy of being severed. Even walking on unscathed paths was not without injury: The meticulously constructed landscape, before a study in chaotic perfection, was now strewn with amputated branches jutting upward. Raw stumps sat naked. Neon orange stripes of spray paint pirated one’s line of vision.
By the time we emerged from the woods, I was positively murderous. I was forlorn and dejected. I was crushed. (And all of this while not generally being prone to sentimentalism.) Our forest had been manhandled. And we had ordered it to be done.
I gave myself a few days to digest things.
I thought of the felled trees, many in their sixth or seventh decades. They had stood quietly and looked down over the changing land, from hay fields to tobacco fields to fields planted with patented seeds. I thought of lost habitats. Would the owl that cries “who cooks for you” still call to us? But mostly I thought of the creeks and their majestically arranged stones, of the little pockets of whitewater, of their tranquil babble. Would they ever flow again with the same earnestness?
And I also thought of change. It is the one constant.
I know the leaves will dry, be swept off by the wind, and return to the soil. Downed branches will decompose, making homes along the way for small creatures of all kinds. Mushrooms will emerge from the decay. And those little trees that hadn’t any chance of growing big and brawny are now in the race.
A few days ago, I returned to the woods. During my break, the creeks swelled with heavy rain. The water began to flow again, in some places forming new paths and already softening the trauma. Elsewhere, the forest was also decidedly alive. A fawn hid in the brush. A turkey hen sat on her eggs (until our German shepherd sniffed her out). Toms gobbled in the distance. Birds swooped and sang. And just before we walked out of the shaded woods into the pasture, the heady scent of flowering honeysuckle overtook us.
Walking back to the house through a field of swaying white–daisies, yarrow and clover–twinges of sadness and guilt remained, though now overlaid with hope and trust in the process.