Listening

Last week, my daughter, six years of age, who draws pictures of does that prance beneath the stars, asked me a question as I placed the chainsaw aside.

“What do you do?”

I described tie hacking as well as I could. “Daddy has a special job that no one else does. He cuts down trees to make railroad tracks.”

“Do the trees grow back?” she asked. “Where do the animals go?”

Image provided by Jonah Kruvant
Image captured via foresthistory.org

I can’t forget her reaction – that face, scared and hurt – and then the pause after my explanation and what she said.

“How could you, daddy? How could you?” Her eyes – I couldn’t make out their sky blue color, like my own, beneath her veil of tears.

The scent of morning dew in the air, the aqua sky with dotted clouds, the rays of the sun seeping through branches of trees, illuminating leaves of every color and shape – there is no better place where a man can do his work. I take in the tranquility of the forest as I clear the trails of fallen trees, listening to the whistling of the wind, the crackling of twigs beneath my feet, and the silence that follows. Only then do I lift my chainsaw in the air and let its blast echo through the wood, completing a task that both brings me closer to the land and takes hold of me with the sharp sting of guilt. To destroy what God creates, to connect and then tear apart, to feel oneness with Nature in my soul – how can I go on? It is a feeling that has slowly seeped into my bones like an uncontrollable disease, like the depression that took the woman of my life, which has spread through my veins and tries to conquer my brain. If only I could cure it once and for all… the chainsaw that weighs so heavily in my hand, its edges sharp enough to infiltrate my skin, could end it in a matter of moments.

For the past week, work hasn’t been the same. The trees seemed different to me when I rode my truck into the forest. I’ve seen the inside of many a tree, felt its bark the moment before it fell, heard the thud it makes when it hits the ground. When the last tree descends to the earth, it is not as if one life has ended but the lives of a nation; though each tree breathes and grows on its own, every element must work together or the forest cannot survive. The forest itself transforms into an eerie and vast emptiness that now exists inside myself.

Then last night, at the bar with the others, I barely listened to the old tales of logging camps; I didn’t relate my usual story about my father, the only hook tender in Maine who could drink all his men under the table and still work more hours; I didn’t chime in when the high climber lamented that he would soon be out of a job because of the new steel towers; I didn’t even commiserate with the whistle punk when he announced he was quitting because he’d soon be replaced by a radio. When I finally spoke, it was with a suggestion.

“What if we replanted some of the trees?”

My words were met with stunned expressions at first, and then laughter, long and hard. In my truck, on the way back home, while gazing ahead at the endless road, and clutching the wheel with my hands, I felt a tugging in my stomach. All my life, I had been certain. I never doubted the choices I made. Now questions occupy my mind, and there’s that feeling of suffocation that envelops my throat. It is as if I am drowning. For I cannot speak it. The wife I thought I had is gone, my father never approved, my only mother is Nature, and the others know me as a man. What kind of man with a life like mine feels so strangely compelled by Nature that he hates to destroy it?

The tugging was still there when I stepped inside my cabin, taking off my boots so I wouldn’t wake my daughter. The girl who could no longer look at me the same way.

And this is what brings me to this place. Why I walked away, to be alone among the trees. When I lift the lumber with my slasher, the whirring of its engine causes animals to scurry and plants to quiver in fright. A man must make a living and I have always been a man of the wood whose labor instills in him eternal strength. Generations of my family before me have worked the same lands and I always knew it was what I would do. To this day, I remember the first tree I ever cut down, a twenty-eight year old aspen in the backyard, and the smile on my father’s face when he saw me do it. As he said to his men, we clear forests so man can build – so he can create. No matter how many forests disappear, there will always be more. So I cut. While the creatures of the forest seek a new home for their young, I see the faces of my own child in the trunks of trees as they fall and it is then that I remember why. It is for her I do it all.

I tell myself this each day. Yet I cannot dispose of this damned feeling. And then the storm comes, the wind blasting through the wood like a truck thundering down a highway, leaves battling to hang onto their branches, which sway and snap and fall and die. I cover my face with my arms until it has passed. When I open my eyes, it is to a forest that has become lifeless, with trees like skeletons, stunned into silence by its nakedness. It is dusk and the trees have become shadows of their former selves.

Unlike the trees, whose leaves will appear next spring, she will not return. The sound of her voice, that earthy smell, how I once made her smile…I could have saved her. I could have made her happy.

I lift the chainsaw so its blade rattles above the hair on my arm. I will let it cut, a personal sacrifice for what I have done to Nature, for it is the only way I can be forgiven. I will let the blood gush out and fall into the leaves so that its scent will permeate this place and stain the earth, for nothing, not even my oneness with her, is ever permanent.

Then I see her through the trees. A doe, its eyes locked with mine.

I stop. I turn it off. Man must live with himself. I am done with work for the day. It is time I went home for dinner.

Writer, teacher, and student of the world, Jonah Kruvant’s novel, The Last Book Ever Written, was published by PanAm Books in April 2015. One year later, he released a short story that takes place in the same world as his novel but from a different character’s point of view. His work has appeared in Digital Americana, On the Verge, and LIMN Literary and Arts Journal. He received an MFA degree in Fiction from Goddard College. Order his book and short story at www.jonahkruvant.com.