Between the Trees
The car slowed and then abruptly lurched to a stop as if the driver tried shifting the gear into park before he put his foot completely on the brake. The door flung open and he exited the car too quickly for his own good, tripping and falling into the cool and damp dirt hidden from the sun by the canopy of leaves and branches. Interestingly, it was in the dark soil that he paused for the first time that day, with his face next to the ground where he could feel the earth breathing beneath him.
The night before, he hadn’t slept for a moment, anxiously awaiting the first sign of sunrise to pack up the car, and he had been in perpetual motion since. Even while driving on the long and straight stretches of the freeway, he restlessly tapped his fingers on the steering wheel, heart rate keeping up with the odometer as he thought about everything that led up to this. It wasn’t memories of his father or the dozens of times they had driven together on that very same road that filled his head. They had been replaced by angry feelings towards city council members and the big business enterprises he had spent countless hours arguing with by phone and once at a meeting in city hall. He thought about being at work the day before, casually checking the district website only to find the planned deforestation had been approved and scheduled to begin immediately. Bastards. He had almost gotten in his car and started driving that instant and he probably would have had he not known he needed a plan. So instead, he went home and hastily made preparations as his blood slowly came to a boil. Now, with the fresh smell of the forest and the faint softness of the pine needles crunching under his weight, he finally took a moment to rest and breathe.
There had always been serenity for him here. Enough childhood summers exploring the contours of the mountain to recognize landmarks in rocks and trees that, to everyone else, faded into part of the ubiquitous landscape. His father knew it even better – first showing him the clearing where they would set up camp, miles away from the trail and even further from the road. He closed his eyes and listened closely for the gently whirring sound of the distant creek flowing with the crisp cool water of untarnished melted snow. His frustrations and anger dissipated and his intensely furled brow relaxed under the shade of white alders and sycamores until his ears caught the mild churning hum of machines somewhere far off, unnaturally rumbling the ground beneath him. His muscles tightened back up and he leapt from the ground onto his feet in a single syncopated movement. Reinvigorated with anger as a call to action, he flipped open the trunk and removed his pack, slipping the padded straps around his shoulder until the weight of the bag, and maybe the world, settled and dispersed on his back. He leaned in and reached far into the trunk folding back the red and black blanket concealing the smooth metal barrel of his twelve-gauge shotgun. He placed his hand on the butt – hesitating, ever so briefly – before fully removing it from the vehicle and hoisting it to rest on his arm. His father had never liked firearms and this was the first time he had even brought one. But the circumstances had changed, and so, there would have to be an exception made – just this once.
He slammed down the trunk and locked the car. Then he started hiking, but much faster and with greater purpose than his normal leisurely and explorative pacing. He moved quickly, passing in between the shade and bright patches of sun flashing across his path like strobes that narrowed his pupils and tunneled his vision. If anything was going to stop him from his father’s pine, man or machine, it would have to kill him or worse, because the amalgam of emotions and adrenaline throbbing through his blood made him an unstable force, tearing through the forest with precision greater than any computer could render.
Every branch and stone looked and felt familiar as he wove his way between the trees, fueled by crisp air full of the invigorating mountain aromas. His movements became so fluid and natural that his mind strayed and played out thoughts of doctor’s visits that turned into hospital overnights. The uncomfortable lights in the hospital bleaching every memory in a shroud of unnatural fluorescence that had probably exacerbated his father’s cancer.
He should have carefully removed all the needles and machines supporting his painful existence and carried him all the way here – to breathe the fresh air instead of whatever concoction was pumped through ceiling fans or straight into his nose from tubes and tanks. For a man who felt more at home exploring the California coastline than in suburbia, it wasn’t right for his last breath to be pushed into his lungs at a hospital. So, on the late afternoon when his father told him, “You have to find me somewhere I can lay to rest. Where the bastards can’t ever get me again,” he knew exactly what that meant.
“Okay popps. Don’t worry. I’ll take you to our spot. But that’s not gonna be for a while alright? And in the meantime, I’ll go to Home Depot and I’ll buy as many plants as I can, and fill this whole room up until you can’t even see the walls. How does that sound?” He didn’t reply. He didn’t need to. He just lay his bald head on the pillow as a content grin parted his dry and cracked lips.
The next day was Saturday; he got up early and drove to pick up plants for his father’s hospital room. He bought a hand truck and as many indoors plants as he could fit on it. An assortment of succulents, some aloe and a peace lily he found out of place behind a planter, left on its own to synthesize in the shadows until that moment. Plucking it from the shelf and placing it on the cart with the other dozen or so plants, he wheeled the entire purchase into one of the already forming lines at the front of the nursery. After a short wait, he was at the car loading everything awkwardly into his backseat and trunk, slowly pulling out onto the main street and eventually the freeway. And despite his father’s terminal illness – and the impending fear and uncertainty it brought that he tried to ignore but snuck into the window of his thoughts like a burglar in the night – this was actually a beautiful morning, and it seemed everything was going smoothly until he parked in the hospital lot. He was slowly guiding the hand truck full of greenery towards the automatic sliding glass doors at the entrance when he was stopped by two security guards who stepped in front of the walkway.
“Excuse me, hold on a second” the first guard asked when he bent over to examine the plants, as if people didn’t bring flowers to hospitals every day, “Where are you taking those?”
“They’re for my father. He’s on the eighth floor,” he explained while wondering when hospitals even began employing security, and already attempting to move around them.
“Well that’s fine but I’m afraid you can’t take the cart up,” one guard said, as they looked at each other for some kind of authoritative fortification.
The other added, “You’ll just have to bring what you can carry and leave the rest.”
“You’re kidding me? It’s one trip in the elevator to make a sick man more comfortable. This is a hospital not some correctional facility.”
“Well of course, but it’s a safety issue. You just can’t wheel big carts through the hallways. What if there’s an emergency and the cart is blocking some doctor’s equipment or something?”
Unfortunately, he could admit to the logic there, so reluctantly and without much more intransigency, he pushed the cart around to the side of the building and began unloading the first of a few trips. This time he walked freely past the guards and the glass doors, arms comically full in an inconvenient attempt at resilience that almost proved too much as he rode the elevator, struggling not to drop anything. Entering the room and placing everything down on the little table under the television, in a movement that required a slow hip hinge to keep level and prevent soil spilling from the ceramic pots, he turned and saw his father’s face looking up dubiously. “There’s more. Hold on. I’ll be right back,” and he walked to the side of the bed and placed his palms on the contours of his father’s shiny head and kissed his forehead in between them.
“Yeah I got plants for you. Loaded them on a hand truck but they won’t let me take it in. So, I have to carry them by hand.” He consciously removed any undertone of frustration from his voice, speaking with an airy jaunt that would imply he was happy to bring them, being careful not to aggravate his father’s ever shortening temper.
“You’re kidding me?”
“Nope. That’s exactly what I said. It’s not a big deal though. It’ll only take a minute,” he offered, already regretting mentioning the cart. He should have just taken the trips and called it a day, no one the wiser. But it was too late for that; he had already riled his father’s petulance.
“Bastards. They’re everywhere. Even in these hospitals. You know, I asked them to wheel me outside so I could sit in the sun and they said I couldn’t. Said it would be contraindicated. Can you believe that? I lived my whole life in the sun.”
“I know Popps, I know. They’re not bastards though, they’re doctors. They want to help.”
“Eh – They’re all bastards. And I’ll tell you something else. They’re winning. They are always winning. But don’t let them. You just can’t, you know? Bastards.”
Now, that very same word echoed out, muttered into each exhaling breath of his own as he made his way through the woods, closer to the clearing where his father’s tree grew up from the ground, next to the small circle of stones he had learned to build a fire in, and where the earth was permanently flattened from the pressure of a tent and its only two occupants. And they were going to cut it all down for what? So they could build a road connecting the coast to the inland for tourists to drive out on for the weekend and leave empty beer cans and graffiti and post a few pictures on Facebook? It was egregious.
The clanking sound from the impact of metal on metal reverberating loudly over nature’s peaceful hum rung out from the south and seized his attention without wavering his pace. He realized they must already be finished setting up their work site, unfolding tables for helmets and backpacks full of bright orange vests and brown paper bags holding bologna sandwiches with extra mayonnaise. Already turning on their machines of devastation, pumping exhaust high into the air where only birds and clouds should reside; probably joking about last night and how many beers they drank before nonchalantly preparing to destroy a forest.
Even at the very end, after all the crying and goodbyes that tore out his heart and soul and left his body alone to ache in the world uncontrollably – after his discovery of a bio degradable urn that could turn his father’s ashes into a tree to grow for eternity in their forest at peace – after he carried the sapling himself all the way there on his back, with its roots tied together in twine and his father’s ashes stowed carefully in his pack – and after he had planted it six years ago, and helped it grow with his tears and love and memories – after everything, and even if none of it happened, how could they do this?
Hadn’t they covered enough space with concrete and garbage for a metropolis that blocks out the sun while sucking up everything around it, building and consuming until the very climate itself is at jeopardy of collapsing around us? This is the world we now live in and there is nothing that can stop it. The very agency set up to protect the parks and forests failed to intervene due to the imaginary jurisdictions in place, the one made up by the very people wanting to cut them down to begin with. We’re all in too deep to step back and look at the flawed system we have invested everything into. And now as he hiked on, he feared it was going to ruin him in a way he had never imagined.
All the anger, culminating from the moment he heard about the road until this very second, ached and swelled him from his heart to his fingertips. He never broke the quick stride his trained legs had set until he reached the familiar boulder just outside of camp where he had once fallen and almost broken his ankle. As he passed by, rushing towards the clearing, he stopped short and laid his firearm against it, not wanting his father to feel its presence with disapproval. Then he broke out into a full run, arms free to pump at his sides and build the momentum as his feet touched the ground, landing momentarily on his heel before swiftly rolling to the toe and back up into the air. The remaining yards closed rapidly and he was standing in the clearing at his father’s pine before his thoughts had a chance to catch up with his body, breathing heavily and briefly scanning the perimeter for any signs of disturbance. Everything looked as it should, but he could feel the workers occupation somewhere in the distance, then all around him, as if the mountain itself knew what was about to happen.
He had chosen the Gray Pine with his father one day in the hospital while sitting next to him on the small bed browsing through options on the Internet. He remembered the day perfectly, and now, standing before the small tree, not much taller than a man but gigantic and bold in presence, he dropped his pack and approached it, placing his palms on the contours of the bark and kissing the space in between them.
“Hey Popp,” he said, releasing the syllables delicately within the empty spaces of his breath, not much more audible than a whisper, “it’s good to see you. I…” and as he began, the words failed because what could he say? There was no explanation or way to justify the unfairness of a cruel world as it attacked him personally. He felt little, picturing himself standing with the small tree in the massive landscape of it all, powerless, frustrated and unable to change a thing. So, he closed his eyes and somewhere between a loud thought and quiet word, he apologized. I’m sorry. You know I have tried. I really have, but the bastards are winning, Popp, and I don’t think there is anything I can do about it this time. I just don’t know what to do. I love you so much though.
Everything slowed down. Without moving his head or opening his eyes, he could feel the soft wind let up from rustling the branches overhead and a silence he had never heard before settled all around him. He dropped to his knees, soaking in the moment, and, for just a second, he forgot about his anger and sadness, the men with their agendas of demolition, and in that pause, he was with his father again—as alive as he had ever been, standing over him, projecting a sense of security that resonated his soul. In his mind he looked up to see a single tear drop from his father’s face towards his chest – and if he didn’t open his eyes in real life to watch the lone leaf fall from the tree to land perfectly on his shoulder, he didn’t have to, because he knew it was there. And when he placed his hand on his shoulder, with his eyes still closed, he clasped the smooth organic matter of a leaf in his fingers. He held it there, pressed into his flesh, and when he opened his eyes again, everything began moving. He stood up and put the leaf in his pocket, leaving his pack in the scattered shadows and walking purposely back the way he came until he reached the boulder and his weapon. This time he used the nylon strap to hoist it across his back before turning and slowly marching towards the sounds of men and machines, murmuring in his direction with the wind between the spaces in the trees.