I’ve never considered myself a tree-hugger. In fact, the number one cause of potted plant death is my attention.
When I was still relatively new to camping (and being outside), I volunteered to go on a hike with my coworkers at a Kentucky State park. My supervisor was an amateur botanist who grew his own herbs and sold homemade soaps. He took the opportunity to forage for wild herbs and mushrooms which he would name and have us sample. I was in awe of him. I felt that he was privy to the language of the place. Where I saw an oak tree (I come from Texas and all trees are either oaks or pines to me), he saw old growth. And he really did hug the tree. He was at home.
I did not feel at home. I enjoyed the hike, but I did not know the language. We came across an old family grave site over a century old. There was no other sign of their having lived here. The trees had survived them and nature did its work incorporating them into the forest so that the stones were worn smooth and we were not sure who was the mother or father or sister.
We came across a lake at the other end of the park. Small, bleached shells covered the shores and there was a manmade smell of rot, courtesy of a nearby factory. A black oily substance floated on the water and stained the shells. I understood these words: pollution (of the water) and graves (monuments of human death). I only understood the language of the forest through a process of subtraction (minus the pollution, minus gravestones, minus us tourists).
This past October, I found a clearing in the old arboretum on campus (at the University of Idaho). “It looks like a scene from The Walking Dead,” my friend told me. I couldn’t help but think of those gravestones. I came back again several times after that. I wanted to understand that space. I wanted to hear the language of the place.
Though, again, I only understood the clearing through subtraction. I drew pictures of the trees surrounding it. There was a fresh-cut stump. There was a sculpture built out of a stump, oxidized metal discs stacked one on top of the other (a tree trunk) and smaller metal discs branching out of the top. This surrounded the clearing.
What even is a clearing? An absence. A break in a copse of trees-trees-more trees. How do you draw one? How do you focus on the space in between? It was just an open space (and spaces have no meaning attached to them). I needed to make it a place I understood.
A place is imbued with history. Some of these memories are imaginary—fictionalized zombies clawing out of the earth beneath the leaves and attacking two walkers passing through.
Some of these memories are real. I brought my dog Nala to the clearing in the arboretum to play fetch. But she wouldn’t stay in-the-lines. She grabbed the tennis ball and without pause ran between the sugar maples (these trees were labeled with plaques) and across paths and back to me at the edge of the clearing. I threw the ball. This, again and again.
Perhaps the problem I have with mapping out a place is that my pristine, rigid lines don’t reflect either natural boundaries or the boundaries created by my memory (both of which stretched beyond the clearing).
The boundaries of the state park were also breached by pollution outside of it.
Places, I suppose, exist more in relation than through categorization. When I tag places in these posts, I’m really locating myself in a place. Marking “you are here” is my way of placing myself at the center of a more-than-human universe.
You can check out “Into the Clearing” on Exposure.