I was rushing now. It was already mid-afternoon and I’d only just made it to this infrequently used parking space in the forest. There was a jeep here and my own tiny car, equipped with studded tires that enabled it to go places meant only for jeeps. It was snowy but not snowy enough to need the snow shoes I’d brought along. I pulled the car’s entire contents out and crammed it into the big sled which had barely fit over the passenger seat on the drive up.
I heard footfalls behind me and then a voice: “Wow, I guess you like to get your exercise when you ice-fish!”
She was a petite and athletic lady just finishing a lap on the short hiking trail that could be accessed here – obviously the jeep’s owner.
“I just like to get to the fish who don’t see other fisherman all winter.” This seemed the most honest spur of the moment response. She had sized things up well at a glance. Other people didn’t start ice-fishing trips here. There are places all around the lake where one can pull up along the shore and be fishing within 10 minutes and these were the places that most people fished. You couldn’t see the lake from here though.
Soon I was literally making tracks along the gated access road through a half inch or so of fresh snow, the sled whispering a constant “shhhhhh” behind me. This was the easy part. Eight minutes after leaving the trail, there was a yellow diamond on a thin tree marking a rough trail through the woods and I eased the sled onto this, pulling uphill now. In a moment I could make out the lake far below me through the trees and I left the trail to begin the tortuous descent.
No-one can fully appreciate what came next who hasn’t attempted to move a heavy sled through trackless forest at least once. Forests vary enormously across geographic regions but here in southwestern Pennsylvania we typically enjoy hilly hardwood forests with sparse thorny understories and no shortage of dead-falls, trees that repose now across the forest floor instead of maintaining the expected vertical posture of their fellow healthy trees. The athletic endeavour would begin now.
The first time I ever took a sled through the woods, I felt optimistic because I was heading downhill to the lake at a place very near here. But then I noticed that the sled runs away, crashing into the back of your legs over and over, sometimes at about knee-height, sometimes a direct hit on the Achilles’ tendon. Uphill is tedious and taxing on the leg muscles. Downhill is more aggravating and painful though. I’m trying to perfect the technique of leading with a pole affixed tight to the pull cord rather than simply pulling the cord but I wasn’t using this technique today. At each deadfall I was forced to pause and think seriously about the route, looking ahead to the next few fallen trees as I tried to pick out the most advantageous path. This included some estimation of the thorn thickets – blackberries mostly and greenbriars and wild roses too.
It could have been worse. I recently read of a new theory pertaining to the great Devonian and Carboniferous forests of Pangea and to something I’d never given much consideration to. The primitive trees that overtook the earth following the Cambrian explosion may have preceded the evolution of fungi by tens of millions of years. More correctly, if the theorists have got this right, the clade of fungi we know today as the saprophytes and specifically the white rot fungi, those fungi that consume cellulose and lignin, had not evolved yet. So, today we take the rotting of wood for granted; dead trees very slowly merge again with the humus from which they sprang. But that’s hardly automatic and it’s fungi that take the lead in that breakdown today. So what happened before saprophytic fungi?
These geologists (who you might as well call “historians,” once we’re on a pre-human time scale) now posit deep accumulations of dead bio-mass, or simply “wood” during this era. And it’s pertinent to our time because, of course, this was the source of those solids, liquids and gasses we know today as fossil fuels, the stuff far below my feet in a layer called the “Marcellus”. I grew up thinking that lush swamps and the trees that fell into them were slowly desiccated and then compressed below strata over millennia to form such things as coal. I’d never pictured a continent covered ten meters deep in dead trees. And now I could be more thankful than ever for the work of fungi. If this forest land were covered in a mere two meters of dead trees, it would be so much harder to pull a sled across today.
Just before stepping out onto the lake, a full hour after leaving the car, I found myself caught in one last patch of thorny roses, several barbs harnessing my heavy fleece jacket. My impulse was to yank and twist and rip through it but I knew better and paused, pulling my arms backwards, the thorns popping out one by one until I was free. It was a very small reminder not to fight nature but to adapt and work within her constraints.
The light faded quickly as I pulled the sled along the shore, found a spring for drinking water and threw up the crude half-shelter I’d spend the night in.
Later I was comfortable in the double sleeping bag, the forest much darker now and my tiny wood-burning stove still smoking next to me. I had the immediate concerns of survival to preoccupy me tonight as well as the simple joys of time alone in the winter forest but I was also still thinking about people and more civilized places. My good friend Joe’s mother had died of Alzheimer’s a few days earlier as he’d let many of us know by email. I hadn’t responded yet and this bothered me. I hadn’t because I find it the most awkward kind of thing to write, especially concerning someone I’d never met. I hadn’t because of a deep fear of writing pablum or of writing things I don’t really mean. My dad is good with these sorts of things; I’m not.
But I found myself tonight thinking about nature – hard not to in such a time and place, really – and about death and how vital a part of nature that is also, a moment in a long biological cycle for each organism I shared my forest with and for each of us as well. For each of us there comes a climactic moment when we find ourselves exhausted and frail from a lifetime of great struggles and we long for final rest. I imagine it something like that. Momentarily, our physical constituents will begin to merge again with the earth from which they’ve been borrowed. The survivors feel incensed that it all comes too soon, entraining the sophistication and intellect of human creatures in this primal gyre but if we accept nature instead of fighting it, we accept this too. If it weren’t so, the planet at large would soon be piled ten meters deep in humans, like so many fallen carboniferous era trees. Instead, nature renews itself in death.
The soul is then released in a natural way, and finds it pleasant to take its flight. All that is unnatural, we recall, is painful while all that occurs naturally is pleasant. This is true of death as well: a death that is due to disease or injury is painful and forced, while a death that comes naturally, when the aging process has run its course, is of all deaths the least distressing – a pleasant, not a painful death.Plato – Timaeus 81d
I’d stepped over so many of them today and every day I entered the forest. And this is a good sign. Not too long ago, Pennsylvania’s young forests offered relatively little fallen wood and it’s vital structure for a vibrant forest ecosystem, providing substrate and habitat for a range of organisms from fungi to bear. But we don’t think much about the trees that lay horizontal now; they’re not special to us. But that’s because we didn’t know them the way the birds did who nested thirty or forty feet off the ground in their strong green branches. We weren’t among the generations of squirrels who appreciated this single tree for its reliable acorn shower on windy November days. We didn’t see the way this individual tree nourished an array of creatures and sheltered a community and played a vital role in the larger ecosystem of this deciduous forest. Each tree gave shelter and nourished a community we were largely insensible to, each doing its part for the larger forest with no central direction, each just doing what it could. And I’m certain great trees are missed most by the creatures who knew them best.
I stepped onto the lake just before the sun cleared the tree tops in the morning. I didn’t feel as cold as you might imagine and expectations for the day ran high. There was truly nowhere I’d rather be this morning. Just as I remembered the place from winters past, there was no-one within sight across the white expanse, a view that encompassed miles. The coyotes had passed along the shoreline overnight and I followed their tracks back to the spring which I’d dug out the night before to make a deep watering hole for myself. You can tell it’s groundwater because it’s not frozen on a morning that should turn all water to glass. The air was still and all was as close to silent as one could hope for in western Pennsylvania. A single mink had visited the spring overnight, perhaps seeking crustaceans I’d unearthed in my excavations.
I fished all morning in front of the spring at various depths, working the trench that I knew would lie below me anywhere a big spring entered. But nature gave me nothing this morning and nature was in charge here, without a doubt. I set my lines out in front of camp for a bit and luxuriated over bacon cooked fresh on the wood stove while watching for a flag. There was nothing and I was okay with that. Alternatively, I could have been at home on the computer, perhaps.
Susan and I have taken to watching whole seasons of a reality TV show in which 10 contestants are stranded, alone in the woods, at disparate locations and the last one to not go home claims the prize. We’ve watched a few seasons now and Susan shared an observation with me after our most recent session: It seems that the people who remain the most calm and roll with nature’s whims instead of getting excited and doing desperate things, are the people most prone to win it all – the people who don’t fight nature but rather adapt. Some realize early that they can only change themselves, not change their circumstances while some realize this too late.
Nothing was happening on the tip-up lines so I needed to adapt now and simply move. By the way, this is the most important adaptation one can normally make as a fisherman. Don’t get too hung up on the place you’d imagined taking fish. Be ready to move on and find a place where there are fish. They’re always on the move and you probably should be too. Chances are that they will bite most baits if you can simply get it to where they are. Incidentally, this is one of the best ways to stay warm out here on frozen water, pulling the sled around and cutting more holes.
Six new holes were soon cut over deeper water down the lake a bit, I’d checked my depths and lowered jigs and then baited tip-ups. Remarkably, the air was still this afternoon and I felt warm in spite of a temperature that never reached thirty. A small family of eagles watched as I began to pull up small fish and they grew excited as I finally iced a large one. I ran about for a bit chasing one popping flag after another, missing most hooksets, connecting with a few others.
I think that modern man spends too much time fighting nature, so much so that we become insensible to it. Encased in climate controlled dwellings and offices, we try to maintain focus on what pertains to ourselves and to other people, keeping even our minds away from the workings of the natural world, much less exposing our bodies to its vicissitudes. We flee from nature when we flee to the cities where all the food and the entertainment and the socialization is convenient. We flee from nature when we adopt controlling mindsets, as though we control much of anything under the broad cloudy sky. We disavow nature when we refuse to accept outcomes of our best laid plans that were not what we’d most wanted. We show our ignorance of nature when we imagine that we, and everyone else, should hide from such things as coronaviruses. In such a state of ignorance and detachment from the real world, from the elemental, we go on in hubris to imagine great constructs of civilization that may fly in the face of nature but it’s immaterial – this is what we mandate because this is what we want today.
And I think that yesterday’s analogy was imperfect and that I can do better now. The great compounding tree mass of the Carboniferous era isn’t really the same as a planet covered meters deep in undying humans. That’s unpleasant to think of anyway and wouldn’t work out well for anyone, especially those on the bottom. I think that such a mass already covers the earth but it’s not a mass of humans really but rather one of human ideas. The generations that went before experimented and thought and experimented again and philosophized, each individual dying in the end but leaving behind their own great skeletal “tree” on the mounting heap. Some leave behind the broad branches of an oak, shelter and nourishment to so many during life, but even in death underlying the generation who carries on. As humans, we mourn such losses but also go on imbued with and moving beyond the ideas of our forebears but always underlain with that deep interlocking dendritic substrate of ideas. Some we found in university books and some we found in simple admonishments around the breakfast table. The philosophers who went before leave their redwoods and our parents leave strong willows; all of which support us. With time and heat and pressure, the deep woody layers below yeild a dense solid base for present thought and perhaps even a cosmic source of energy.
How often have the grandest schemes of man failed because of his ignorance of this woody substratum, building grand new schemes on imagined foundations of marble? What conflagrations have been kindled by those who decided to burn the whole mass and start anew? How much do we each benefit when we appreciate the wooden strata on which we stand?