Sunday, April 18, 2010

Self-Reliance 2 – In the Forest Primeval

This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic,
Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms.
Loud from its rocky caverns, the deep-voiced neighboring ocean
Speaks, and in accents disconsolate answers the wail of the forest.

-From “Evangeline” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow-

Autumn is hard upon us and the days are growing shorter. Less than a month ago I could make my rounds in the forest until well after eight at night. Not anymore.
My rounds are no longer the leisurely walks of summer. No longer contemplative. Or rather, no longer just contemplative. Or perhaps, contemplative in a different, more concentrated, more focused way. Now, I go with a set and urgent purpose: to gather enough suitable, dry firewood to get us through the winter.
Admittedly, I have a good start. There are now eleven pickup-loads of wood stacked under heavy sheets of black plastic along the fence, in a neat pile about twenty feet long by four feet tall by three feet deep. But I’ll need another four pickup-loads to get us through the worst of winter. And unless I’m reading the signs wrong, it may well be a hard one. Twenty loads, then, would make me feel a lot more secure. It’s only mid-April (like mid-October in Ohio, I remind myself, because what I learned as a boy in the rural Midwest is still my yardstick and my standard) and already we’re getting some freezing temperatures in the mornings, even if afternoon temperatures reach levels that my mother, Reba Mae, used to refer to as “sweater weather” – afternoons when a shirt with undershirt and vest are comfortable, but when you can still work up a sweat gathering firewood.
The chilly mornings mean fog and a low cold-cloud cover until almost noon. On days when office work keeps me from going to the woods early in the afternoon, I still hike in through the underbrush on my normal rounds just before sunset and free up all of the windfall fuel I can find, propping it against tree trunks to let it air in the wind. In this season of the year, I never go to the woods without a machete, since I tend to abandon the rude paths and forge headlong into the thicket, watching for signs of fallen branches. The timber lying on the ground is a liberal mix of green and “dry” wood. The beech (coihue) that grows under an altitude of 800 meters (2,625 feet) is “live” – not so the southern beech (lenga) that grows just below the timberline in the snowy upper mountain forest, and that flames scarlet in autumn before it sheds its leaves. Also “live” are the radal and the Patagonian laurelwood (laura). Winter scenes in Ohio were always “black and white” because, there, about the only non-deciduous trees were occasional pines. Snowy winters here are “green and white” and these are the trees, along with the native cypress and the exotic North American pines (mostly Douglas firs), that make it so.
The leafy beech, radal and laurelwood really suffer during the snowiest winters. It’s as if they were from another era, when this was a warmer clime – like the ferns and cane and vines that flourish in the underbrush – and never adapted to the change. Their foliage catches and holds the heaviest, wettest snows that weigh down their branches. Still days and heavy wet snows are these trees’ mortal enemies. The snow’s weight rips the branches from their trunks and sends them crashing to the forest floor. The radal with its larger, rounder leaves suffers the worst, sometimes growing so heavy with snow that its trunk will split open like a book. 
When they’ve turned to deadwood, all of these are good to feed the woodstove – though the dense, hard laurel is the one that will hold a fire for hours and the hardest one to find. The dead dry laurelwood, then, has become my “gold”. I no longer see dead, fallen trees as a reminder of my own mortality, but instead, let my heart soar at the sight of the laurel’s skeleton, which, even in death, remains more useful than I’ll ever be.
I’ve set some rules for gathering firewood in these seventy-four acres:
-No cutting standing timber, even if its dead. It’s only fair game once the wind lays it to rest on the ground.
-No laying bare the forest floor to get to the windfall. Birds and rodents and lizards live in the underbrush and feed on its fruits. A “clean” forest is a fauna-less forest, and the idea is to preserve this natural habitat.
-No cutting green timber to reach the dry. If you can’t get to the deadwood without destroying the live, it’s not yours to have.
-Under NO circumstances will the cypress be considered firewood. This one I imposed because the noble nature of the Patagonian cypress (one of the region’s three main native conifers, the others being the Fitzroya – or alerce – and the monkey-puzzle tree, also known as the araucaria araucana or pehuén) makes it much sought-after for use as outdoor siding and fence posts. It’s not uncommon for local boys to allege that they’re gathering “firewood” when they are, in fact, gathering posts for a fencing or construction job. Nor is it uncommon for them to cut cypress green if they can get away with it. If this rule weren’t enforced by people like me, it wouldn’t be long before there weren’t a single stand of cypress in the forest, except where the rocky crags made it too hard to reach.  
These simple rules were made for others who occasionally come to the forest for fuel. These are now a privileged few, members of families that had “worked” this woodland long before I ever got here – several generations before. Truth be told, they come here little now – some because they now have natural gas piped into their homes, others because it’s easier for them to go someplace else, where the warden isn’t so picky about how they work. Because that’s the other rule: If they want to get firewood from the grounds I care for, they have to ask permission, tell me where and when and show me what they plan to cut. Otherwise, they can expect me to come down on them like gangbusters.
That, in fact, was how I got the job. That was when a rich city slicker showed up in his Cadillac SUV, accompanied by an arrogant foreman, whom he put in charge of “cleaning up” and fencing a half-dozen enormous lots he had taken over, a couple of which were next to mine. From the start, I didn’t hit it off with the foreman (Octavio was his name), whose idea of a forest was a bunch of trees standing in bare dirt. Left to his own devices, when his boss drove that shiny Caddy back to the city, his first mission was to slash and burn the forest floor.
Then it was time to fence, and that’s where Octavio and I clashed head-on, or rather, where I clashed head-on with the leader of his work crew.
The story of why I felt this was any of my business, however, starts way before:
When my wife and I first showed up here seventeen years ago, we were stunned by the natural beauty of the surroundings and immediately ended a search that had taken us years of travel and months of house-hunting in Patagonia. This was it. The search was over. After one adventurous real estate agent showed us the place – others had no idea where it was and weren’t really interested in finding out – we came back alone to have another look. As soon as we pulled in under the century-old beech by the dirt track in front of the house and got out of the car, a wiry man with a leathery face and a stubborn jaw appeared out of nowhere and, by way of greeting said, “Did you buy here?”
I said, “Buenas tardes,” and stuck out my hand. He limply took it in his rough paw and gave it a perfunctory shake, but firmly repeated his question.
“Did you buy here?”
I knew the tone well. My grandfather had been just such a tough-as-whet-leather rural type, with the same kind of no-bullshit eloquence. The question wasn’t, “Hello there! So nice to see you. Did you lovely folks buy this place? Oh how nice, we’ll be neighbors and have tea together!” No, no, it was more like, “Did you buy here? Because if you didn’t, you’d best keep right on moving, stranger, ‘cause you’ve got no business here.”
Back home, in a remote rural place like this he might have underscored his question by carrying a double-barreled shotgun loaded with birdshot or rock salt in the crook of his elbow. Here, however, the weapon of choice among the natives was more casual, a machete, say, or an axe. But in this case, all the guy had in his hand was a coligüe cane walking staff, which didn’t look very threatening…not to me, anyway. However, once I got to know this man, don Federico Miranda, I would realize that, had he wished to that day, he could have dropped me like a sack of potatoes, so adept was he with that cane. On more than one occasion since his sixty-fifth birthday (he was now well over 70), he had done so with other men, by means of a swift, smart crack on the temple or behind the ear. (One of his step-grandsons once described him as “the meanest old man I’ve ever known”). But don Federico wasn’t mean, just hardened by his life as a rural laborer and sick and tired of city slickers finding ways to grab pieces of wilderness that they had no right to. Him, he’d soaked this ground with the sweat of his labor all his life. And he’d earned the right to play warden.
I said, “We haven’t bought it yet, señor, but we really hope to. We were here with the real estate agent and decided to come back for another look on our own…if that’s all right?”
So don Federico relaxed and showed us around. When we moved in, he was the one who sold us our used woodstove, the one who showed me the trails and where to find windfall firewood. If I asked him for advice, he gave it and when I didn’t, he sometimes stood by in bewildered amusement, watching me try to figure out on my own how to survive in rural Patagonia. His advice was as laconic as his greeting had been.
“Better gather firewood while you can,” he said, our first autumn here.
“Well, I’ll get what I can now, and if I need more later, I’ll gather it then,” I said.
“You won’t be able to,” he said bluntly. That was his advice. Take it or leave it. When it started raining in mid-May and didn’t quit until the second week in June…when it started snowing, I understood what he meant. That was the last year I left the issue of firewood “for later”.
So anyway, when don Federico decided, after half a century of living “up here”, to move “down closer to the road” where it was easier to get his wife the medical attention she needed at the time, a new self-appointed forest warden was required, and I, as the only man living on the edge of the woods, was “elected”. The “job” didn’t require much – just a love for this spectacular natural area, a willingness to challenge environmental predators, and the self-confidence to do so with no legal authority whatsoever.  I became the one who, when strangers showed up and started poking around in the neighboring meadows and woodlands, would appear out of nowhere and ask, “Did you buy here?” And if the answer was “no”, I would have to say, “Then you have no business here,” and be ready to back my words up.
For years, I protected the surrounding hills and forest on the sole strength of my convictions. That was usually enough. There were a few minor incidents in which the police had to be called in. One in which a judge acted in my defense. But it wasn’t until this foreman called Octavio and his men came along that things came to a stand-off.
At some point during their fencing of the absentee-owner’s land, they decided not to spend any more money on “store-bought” posts and started invading the seventy-four acres of forest adjacent to our home to cut young green cypress trees and use those for posts instead. By my calculations they had already cut over a hundred from deep in the woods before I was on to them.
First I called the police. I was told by the duty officer that if the posts were being cut on private land and used on private land, they couldn’t act unless the owner of the land from which the posts were being taken filed charges. I had no idea who the owner was. For as long as I had known the area the forest had just been, well, the forest. I had never thought of it as belonging to anyone. Only as a natural area that needed protecting.
Then I called the forestry service. They also asked if I was the owner and when I said I wasn’t, seemed to lose interest. They said they might send somebody “one of these days” but that for the moment they had neither vehicles nor men to spare. But then I recalled that the Border Guards (a paramilitary force that often fills the gaps left by other law enforcement and security forces in Argentina) had an Ecology Division, so I called them. I was in luck because the officer in charge was new and, as the old Spanish adage goes, “a new broom sweeps clean.” The officer listened patiently and with interest to my story, asked me a few questions, and finally said, “Maybe I’ll come out that way this afternoon and have a look.”
I never expected what came next. In fact, I was discouraged after the call because I knew I couldn’t go up against this band alone, especially since they were backed by a landholder with money and influence. But that afternoon, the officer arrived…in a Unimog duce-and-a-half, with five heavily armed troops in the back-end, plus a plainclothesman and driver, and two motorcycle troopers for an escort. The officer hopped down from the truck, introduced himself and asked, “Where are they?”
I said, “Get into my truck and I’ll take you.”
He obliged, after twirling a finger over his head at the truck-driver and at the two motorcyclists, and barking, “Follow us!”
Like I said, we came down on them like gangbusters: twenty-five freshly cut green posts, chainsaws, axes and other tools, all impounded, and the work gang’s boss, written up for not having proper authorization or receipts for the posts.
How word got back to the owners of the land, a thousand miles away in Buenos Aires, I’ll never know, but they almost immediately got in touch with me through a local real estate agency – which, it turned out, had an axe to grind with the foreman. What would it take to get me to administrate that forest permanently? My answer: A full power of attorney as its warden.
And so this piece of forest primeval, this piece of nature, this piece of paradise, has become an integral piece of my life. I’ve fenced it, put up gates and put up no trespassing signs along the dirt road that separates the rugged, craggy, north section that borders on a lagoon from the hilly, boggy, south section that fronts on a glacial lake. I walk it and hike it and guard it as if it were my own. I barely open the trails I use for my rounds, keeping them as hidden from and inhospitable to others as possible. I’ve let its perimeters grow over with impenetrable thickets of dog rose and thorn bushes to discourage invaders who might jump the chain-link fence. Where furtive poachers cut holes in the fence, I immediately have it mended and crisscross it with barbed wire to let them know I’ve been there and that I have my eye on them. If they tear down a no trespassing sign, I put one right back up and redouble my rounds of that area until I’m sure the poachers have been discouraged. If I find them, I send them packing. If they hide from me, I look for them. If they run, I give chase. It has worked well. Lately, the only tracks I find when I’m on my rounds are my own. But every now and then, someone will try me, to see if I’m still being vigilant. They keep me on my toes. They keep me from getting lazy.
My gathering of only the driest fallen timber is as much a favor to the woods as it is to me. Clearly, I benefit by having a source of fuel, but so does the forest, because by removing it in the dry season, I am removing a potential fire hazard. This is a place where the wet season is intense, with heavy rains and snows for months on end. But the dry season is equally so, weeks and months when one match, one careless smoker, the sun on a piece of broken glass or a single flash of lightning can trigger a fire capable of consuming the entire forest. The forest needs me like I need it. It needs me to protect it from the exploiters and the uncaring, to protect it from decimation. It’s a job that makes me feel both proud and humble. Mostly, it makes me feel happy and privileged.
This afternoon, I’ve overstayed my welcome. I know the lay of the land so well by now that I dare stay longer and longer. If there were a full moon, I could make my way through the forest by night. But just the words “forest primeval” denote a condition of preeminence. I have delighted to the golden glow of sunset, seen the last rays of light filtering through the trees, as the sun sank behind Mount Capilla. Now, as I struggle to disentangle “just one more” dry fallen branch from the grip of the undergrowth, the fading light is gray. I feel the evening breeze rise and stir the leaves on the bushes. I hear crossed branches creak and groan like the timbers of a phantom ship. The humidity rises like a chilly hand from the forest floor and holds me in its grasp. I pluck my earlier abandoned sweatshirt from a nearby bush and slip it on. A roosting huet-huet (wet-wet) looses a warning shout that stands the hairs on the back of my neck on end. An owl whistles low, then lets out a sardonic cackle. It’s late, these sounds say. Go home. By night the forest is ours. You have no business here.
I swiftly make my way along the trail to the closest gate in the last of the fast-vanishing twilight. It’s new moon and will soon be dark as pitch. I get over the gate and onto the road home, almost at a trot. And I think to myself, “I’m the warden, the forest’s caretaker. Without it, I’m nothing but my everyday identity. The forest doesn’t belong to me any more than it belongs to its deed-holders. We’re only its guardians. The forest primeval belongs to itself. In a perfect world, we should be judged by how we treat it.