I live in a Forest.
It has always been so for me, since my family moved to south Mississippi from the Texas coast, sometime around 1980. My first memories of this place, seen from the back seat of a car on I-59, are of enormous pine forests shadowing the land. Lacking mountains, Mississippi is dominated instead by trees. Only in the flat Delta do the woods withdraw a little, hugging the bayous and rivers veining out from the Great River; elsewhere, one can go for months - or even years - without seeing the horizon.
On our little 1.65-acre Angle, we have no less than 120 trees. The variety never fails to astound me when I consider it: longleaf pine, shortleaf pine, cedar, bald cypress, magnolia, bay, sweet gum, poplar, sycamore, water oak, red oak, red maple, silver maple, beech, dogwood, hickory, pecan, redbud, holly. Then there are the ornamentals: Japanese red maple, Japanese magnolia, chinaberry. Finally, a hoar pear tree holds fast in a remote corner.
In her book Sacred Demise, Carolyn Baker recalls the word the Lakota use for trees: translated literally, it means 'The Standing People.' Living among trees, one begins to understand the true meaning of this, especially in a region of the world where forests rule. I say 'rule' as it is fittingly describes their existence here. In this Angle, the Standing People are Lords, and they suffer us to live among them.
Our particular house was built in the 1950's, the yard sowed with the usual invasive lawn grass found anywhere from east Texas to the Carolinas. The roof has only a gradual slope, though, so the longleaf needles do not tumble easily off it; several times a year, I am required to ascend the roof, rake in hand, and remove a pickup bed-sized load of needles to prevent moisture buildup. Likewise, from midsummer to mid-autumn I must rake the yard before mowing it, as the longleaf needles quickly bog down our ageing Snapper. Removal of giant pine cones is a constant throughout the year; further, late summer becomes dangerous, as the weight of an occasional green cone becomes too much for its bough and snaps off, becoming a 1-pound missile that I estimate would knock me clean out. I have found them almost completely wedged into the ground.
The Standing People, like any other folk, have families. Although the fire required to bring longleaf seedlings to life is not present, saplings of other tribes appear quietly all the time, given a few weeks' or months' allowance. In the areas where I am attempting to restore the woodland after years of lawnmowing, nurseries form, where can be found the children of holly, beech, sweet gum, shortleaf pine, and water oak. Upstart magnolia and hickory lean out of odd corners like sneaky teenagers.
The Standing People do not care for automobiles. We must yield the carport to visitors, as any vehicle left outside is soon gifted by droplets of pine sap. A massive limb crushed the top of my in-law's Prius a couple of years ago. Needles fly off my truck on my way to work, leaving a trail for imagined enemies.
The Standing People suffered greatly during Hurricane Katrina. No less than 25 of their number perished in our Angle alone. Tornado-spawn snapped some pines, pushed others over. I watched in disbelief as a 50-year old hickory fell. Other, smaller trees were smashed by falling giants. Some of the oldest longleafs, as well as a middle-aged red oak, had their shape and way of growth permanently altered, so that their limbs now for the most part grow in a westerly direction, as molded by the winds of storm. Five years later, I am still cleaning up.
The aftermath of Katrina was nearly as destructive to the Standing People. Some pines, their cores weakened by the tempest, succumbed to pine beetle infestation and died. But not a few others in our area perished as humans succumbed to fear and cut them down, ground them up, root and twig. They can hardly be blamed, I suppose, for falling trees damaged or destroyed many houses; but I could not help my sadness, thinking that any tree that had survived the hurricane would surely have proved they posed no lingering danger.
Here, in this Angle, we kept our trees.
But if the Standing People mourn their dead, they do so in silence, or in a language I do not understand. They only lift their arms to the Sun each day, eating earth, drinking deep. They suffer me and mine to live among them, keeping the summers shady, and shouldering the winter wind. The past moulders beneath them, and they dig in with their toes; but their will is turned skyward.
Maybe one day, I shall take my leave of the Standing People, and dwell in sight of naked horizons; but my heart will always be cooled by the memory of forest shadows. That, I deem, is no bad thing.
ENT. When Summer lies upon the world, and in a noon of gold
Beneath the roof of sleeping leaves the dreams of trees unfold;
When woodland halls are green and cool, and wind is in the West,
Come back to me! Come back to me, and say my land is best!
-- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings