From a work in progress, Lacking Character
At Last, the Reading Public Gets the Trees It Deserves
—after Cormac McCarthy
“Science slanders matter.” —Schelling
In all honesty, I can’t even say I know much about trees except to say that they seem to be all over the place. But the Reading Public should admit that I have committed myself to a few things. Minnesota, for example. That’s a place. It’s even a state. Also, a lake with a name: Lake Mandubracius (ridiculous, I admit, but I’m new to this). And there are boulders (about which I’ve already said too much). So, since it makes you happy, I will say something more about the trees. Writers often do. Only painters seem to enjoy them more, use them, profit from them in all sorts of ways. Musicians I think couldn’t care less about trees. In fact, I suspect that most musicians are afraid of trees. Something about them. If only all of my readers were musicians, I’d be free of this obsession of the Reading Public!
I hope now that we can return to the wide-open spaces of the American interior, and I promise you solemnly, there will be trees, lots of trees.
From their camp at the crest of La Cordillera de los Arboles, they looked south toward Mexico, the vast Sonora, unbroken except for the dwarfish mesquite and chaparral that give the desert floor a fuzzy appearance, a world without qualities. About two miles out a pickup truck sped west, like something in torment, a long spiral of dust growing broad and indefinite, a trailing thought too grim to finish.
Mexico was a past that had lost all promise, not least because the pickup was carrying four drug gang foot soldiers with AKs and a grenade launcher they were always eager to use, and, worse yet, they were trailing Jake and his little party. For the moment, thank God, they were off the track.
Looking to the north, La Cordillera de los Arboles swooshed elegantly to the left, an enormous, rhythmic, comma-shaped line of pin oak and dry-green loblolly pine. They could just see where the comma’s trail ended, a swale softly settling to a hard-green river bottom of bald cypress, soaking in a patch of wetland fed by a shallow river running over brightly-polished stones. They would need to get to the sanctuary of the cypress grove by the early afternoon if they wanted to avoid the drogistas and the worst of the heat. Once they got to the trees and the wetland, Rory could make a moss poultice for the nasty gash in Jake’s shoulder, still oozing beneath the bandanna the girl had wrapped around it.
The girl was another kind of problem. She would slow them, but it couldn’t be helped. After all, it was she they’d come for. Their boss had given them each a ten dollar gold piece and nailed two more to a post, promising the money to them if they brought her home. He was called the Artist because of his imaginative knife-based talent for conflict resolution. What made this task difficult was that the girl loved those gangsters and their drugs, and she was none too happy about leaving them, especially since it meant returning to the Artist and his knife tricks. When she imagined him, he was pushing back his hat of fine-woven fibers, a black patch over his right eye, balancing a V-42 stiletto point on his index finger until a little drop of incarnadine blood puddled beneath it. The Mexicans were nurturers in comparison to the Artist.
As Jake saw it, if the horses held up, they’d make it to the trees. They could get water, then, in one of the clear ponds, full of darter and snails, up close to the river. The horses could eat the river grasses, and there’d be plenty of silver or rosy-eyed perch for dinner.
So, tired but dogged, they saddled the horses and cut the girl loose from her stake. She rubbed at the raw welts on her wrist but climbed quickly on to her horse without complaint. She was in withdrawal from one or more opioids, and so was starting to think that the best thing for her was to arrive somewhere, anywhere. She was a hard girl after the long months in the criminal camp on the desert floor, and she’d seen her share of addicts piled on the ground their bones clattering like castanets. She was a girl who paid attention and learned, Jake gave her that, but he also knew he’d have to treat her without pity. Pity was something he didn’t have time for. So what if she had some bloody welts from the leather cords. Let her keep still then.
They kept to the deer and boar path through the pines. It smelled wonderful, like rarest oxygen and dirt, dry and purged of every impurity. It was just simply World and it was so pleasant that it was distracting from their perilous task. At one point even Rory looked over at Jake and, well, he didn’t smile, but he seemed to think about smiling, which was a lot for a man whose face looked more like a carved mask of some island god, the slits of his eyes hard against the sunset.
The grove of ancient cypress that awaited them was thriving side-by-side with the dwarf palmetto and a fairy world of dream-like Spanish moss. The bark of the cypress is red-brown with shallow vertical fissures. Unlike most other species in the family cupressaceae, it is deciduous, hence the name “bald.” The “knees” they send up above the water line add to their elderly charm. But for Rory and Jake, it was just shelter, a place to hide before the long, open, and dangerous ride toward the Palo Duro and then the little tobacco shop in Amarillo, where the Artist waited, whittling and whistling “Danny Boy.”
The cypress swamps are home to marsh wrens, bittern, and red crossbill, and, high in the trees themselves, the barred owl and pileated woodpecker. Also, the ruddy ghost rail is a bird of legend. I linger on this point in order to determine more exactly the real character of trees and the nature of the comfort and aid they offer birds as well as, on that one day, our friends.
Looking up, Jake could see not only the birds but also small gray squirrels (upon which the cypress depends to spread its seeds). Both birds and squirrels were in numerous small wooden boxes obviously derivative of the boxed assemblages of found objects created by the American surrealist Joseph Cornell. The boxes were firmly and safely wedged into the “crotches” of the tree limbs. Jake couldn’t help but marvel at them, never mind that his situation was so dire that he might not live to see the end of the day. Moreover, the full aesthetic impact of the boxes was lost on Jake, a man for whom everything was already surreal. It was the real that shocked him. And I think it was the real that he marveled at in those boxes full of bottle caps, a yellowed ping pong ball, a lexicon for upholstery buttons printed on torn newsprint, things that jays might have brought and stored if Mr. Cornell hadn’t taken care of it first. Come to think of it, the jays might have resented the intrusion into their job description. It is, after all, their job to steal buttons and such and hide them in little cubbyholes in trees. That is well established in both high school textbooks and peasant lore.
One of the little boxes was low enough that Jake could reach in and pull out the contents. He froze in horror. In his hand he held a bullet from a Sharps rifle Model 1851. That was the one with the knife-edge breechblock and self-cocking device for the box-lock. It was also the prized possession of one Alvaro “Chingé” Alvarez, he who the Chispés cartel depended on when death at a distance was called for. 1851 or no, Chingé never missed, and he was notorious for leaving one of his bullets, unmistakable, as an invitation to a death that was foretold and not far off. Jake did a quick pan of the surrounding hills. He palmed the spent cartridge when Rory came over to see what he’d found, although the stoic Rory would not have deigned to show alarm had he seen the shell.
For a moment, Jake thought that maybe they should spend the night there, but, on the other hand, whether they stayed or went Jake feared that it was all one to Chingé. Wherever they went, he was already waiting.
For their part, the squirrels were no happier than the jays about Jake’s meddling with their boxes. He had pulled a miscellany of seeds and nuts out with the bullet. The squirrels eat the many small green cones the bald cypress produces, and drop many of the scales with undamaged seeds to the ground. Germination is epigeal. Once on the ground, the seed takes its place with years of dry, frond-like leaves shed each winter by the deciduous cypress. This provides an ideal environment for germination.
While few people would think to do so, if one looks just beneath this cypress debris (easily swept aside) there is a vast network of drips of liquid color, mostly alkyd enamels, spreading to the forest boundary in a sort of natural “all-over” style strikingly reminiscent of Jackson Pollock’s No. Five, 1948, with its black base rising through brown and yellow to a white surface. A flute motif is provided by tubular, elongated, and thread-like filaments called hyphae of the basidiomycete fungae. (Of course, the filaments are a recent innovation by nature, not by Mr. Pollock, and are part of a product line dating back to the Mesozoic, although those beneath Jake’s boots were probably fungal apps released and then abandoned by Natquest.com in the late ‘90s—a very early example of digital pollution.)
Just beneath the colorful abstract expressionist surface—a very thin and sere layer of liquid colors—is the forest’s mechanics, its ductwork, which provides for heating, ventilation, and cooling of the forest floor, and in a manner that both the business community and local environmentalists agree is sustainable. In places where forests have been cleared away, archaeologists have been able to dig carefully through the “Pollock” superstratum and expose nature at her most ingenious. The forest itself may cause a warm feeling of distant admiration in a viewer, but to look upon what makes the forest work, a phenolic system of flexible fabric ducting (also known as “air socks”), is to see something truly rare. It is no wonder that nature is so often called a wonder of engineering. To see this is to understand fully the presence of God in the world. It was God that made the fabric duct available in standard and custom colors.
Finally, beneath the forest mechanics, sinking to profound depths known to German philosophers as das ur-grund, are three broad layers of “stuff” alternating purple/white/red with lovely, elegant, fleeting tracers, as if the “stuff” wanted to escape as well as “found.” (This is the world’s foundation.) Except for the tracers, these layers, seen in a cross-section, are plainly in imitation of Mark Rothko’s 1953 “Untitled: Purple, White, and Red.”
These final layers stretch from the forest to the horizon and beyond at a depth of, oh, let’s round it off at 300 feet. From that point on, the earth is hollow. If you bang on the “Rothko crust,” as it is called, with a frying pan (ideally) or any metal object, really, it’s not important (although a cast iron sautéing pan is deeply satisfying), you will hear a hollow clanging echo from immense depths up to the length of an American football field where lies the center of the Earth, approximately. (Contrary to legend, no, the center of the Earth is not molten but merely very warm, like air circulating from an enormous handheld hair drier.) The Rothko crust is not part of the forest per se, nonetheless the forest is dependent on it. Neither is it part of the soi-disant “drifting” of any continental “plate.” Rather, it is like a droning chord in the bases, the lied von der Erde, so to speak, on which the forest floats languidly, as does the flute in Debussy’s L’Apres-midi d’un faune.
Following his brief meditation on the miracles of the natural world, Jake looked back at his companions and found that the girl had placed Rory in a sleeper hold, or in Judo a Shime-waza (絞技), a grappling hold that critically reduces or prevents either air or blood (stateside, this is called “strangling”) from passing through the neck to the lungs and, in sequence, the brain.
Jake took appropriate measures with her, and they settled in for the night—“Chingé” and his prized Sharps be damned!—there among the trees!
Curtis White is a novelist and social critic whose work includes the novel Memories of My Father Watching TV and the recent book We, Robots: Staying Human in the Age of Big Data (Melville House).