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Amber Paulen

Tree with its Life in the Air

Another long excerpt from The Body’s Long Madness:

Valerie begins where she left off, at the crumbling walls of a long ago abandoned paper mill. She ducks into what must have been a window or where someone punched a hole into the weak brick’s side. She moves carefully over to the opposite wall, careful because the decaying debris that make up the floor give the illusion of trapdoors, obscure holes or rabbit holes, like in the old barn, whose rickety wooden floor never failed to engender the foot with a surprise. Looking down there is a creek rushing; the pounding sound feels cool from up here. Between herself and the creek is a strip of thick muddy earth where there winds the roots of sturdy trees, there are big rocks and much green.

The old paper mill, with its orange bricks that are slowly becoming dust, is like getting a glimpse of the earth given back to the trees and the fragile underbrush and the weeds, ferns, flowers, fungus, moss, birds and bugs, back to the natural cycle of life and then decay. Here, at the old paper mill, Nature has regained her control. She penetrates into every weak crack, she fill every forgotten hole as she slowly, so slowly removes the old orange bricks from their place, so that in fifty years time, the small ash tree that has sprouted in the center where the brave shaft of light nurtures it completely, will be all that remains. The ash tree, the ferns and the underbrush, the rabbits and the beetles, the moss and the mushrooms and not one brick, not one sign of the human-will for dominion, for in the forest there is no such thing, there is only the cycle of life and decay.

Valerie moves on and as she walks down the well-trodden path, her mind naturally drifts. It takes her up through the dampness that are the droplets on tall branches, up and above the auburn forest to ‘her forest,’ the forest Valerie knows best. She travels by route of memory, which works mysteriously and slightly by association, back into the silent forest of childhood. There, the creek does not rush as fast as the one she is following nor do the trees tower so stately; it is swamp-like in the springtime, frozen in the winter, humid in the summer and at its best in the fall. It must have been the fall of a shaky adolescence when she would walk down there everyday, sometimes with a book, sometimes without. She would follow deer-paths or her own paths crunching through tall grasses, to sit on the earth near to the slow flow of the shallow creek, to watch and to listen and to sink her whole soul like one might bury one’s hand, into the fecund earth-song around her.

Mostly Valerie went down to the forest for ‘her tree.’ The tree with its life in the air. And for a shaky adolescent the tree became life-symbol, became a real life-force, for absolutely nothing else that she could see in the world around her was as mighty and powerful as that fallen tree with its mass of petrified roots flanked upright and its majestic body laid out broken and prone. She would scramble up the curved side of the trunk, wary of the flaking soft bark, to sit among the bright orange funguses and dull white mushrooms and small shoots and light green moss and bright green moss that had so delicately grew atop and pushed their way through the decaying body of the dead tree. She sat cross legged and engaged herself in a very distant stare that encompassed all of nature in her nearest periphery in very underwater way, for like waves, the vegetive substance came lapping and all of nature seemed so perfect in its residence within her.

Hoping down from the great width of the trunk which was its height, Valerie would go to the wooden roots. Where they had tore themselves from the earth by the greatest weight of the tree’s height, there was now a shallow dingy pool, wide enough. Valerie would get as near to the stoic roots as she could and would trace her fingers along their twisting formations that curled all around each other without any hint to any pattern. She would stand there staring for an hour at least in another blank wonder, “This was it. This was all the magnificent tree had to keep itself alive.” But what roots they were! What girths! What masses! And these roots were only the beginning. Who knew how far their counterparts have withered, now ant food and mole food, in the moist earth. How the dust and dirt still clung, how the smaller and weaker roots still hung like thread now brittle. And she wondered how long ago this catastrophe happened. If she was even alive yet. Were her parents alive? Had anyone heard it crash through other boughs and branches in its great descent to meet with the unbending earth? Was there anyone else who knew of this trees existence? a body of a tree which would eventually disintegrate, meet deeper with the earth in its everlasting union, give back a fair amount from what was taken.

Valerie took upon herself the duty of restoring the tree back to its former vitality, for she saw the purpose the tree now had and that it was equally as vital. Valerie did this by allowing the power of the tree, dead as it was, to pass through into the power she felt like a hard gem within herself; she shared her life-force with its life-force and the tree did the same, only the tree was not something singular, like Valerie had then thought herself to be, the tree was this amazing force, this divine underground-life, as human’s call it: life after death, life everlasting, heaven. The tree with its life in the air.

What Valerie went to that ‘tree with its life in the air’ for was for a different thing each time. The meaning behind the tree grew the more she made the walk to go and visit it, the more she sat on it, the more she explored the full length of its horizontal trunk and the tangled bunch of hard roots. Valerie would stay there for hours, stuck to the visions she was allowed to see, visions that seemed at her to the time to be given to her by the tree itself. Visions and thoughts that caught their roots within her, like the tender white roots of the fresh saplings that had caught themselves up in the dead tree; visions and thoughts that she had no choice but to keep to herself, for Valerie could not explain them, she knew they were much greater than anything she had words to describe, something much greater that throbbed through her as if it were the whole world throbbing through her. Valerie kept her secret and vegetative life in, she let it grow; she shared with the tree what she could.

No one else went down to the forest; no one else knew about the tree. It can still be said that the tree is Valerie’s life-force, for what that tree gave and implanted within her is so much like the tree itself, which has by now at least become a dusty pile of old bark and stronger and much older saplings, fungus food and fertilizer—but still palpable, still living within her.

Along the well-trodden path in the forest behind Amalfi, Valerie takes to a stone that juts into the quick-flowing creek, which is now runs besides the path on which she is walking. The stone is sun-drenched and Valerie situates herself on it without any problem. On this stone Valerie takes a rest and Oh! how she feels! with the sun showering down upon her and the sound of water rushing besides her. She thinks that she probably won’t be walking any further, that she know the value of good spots. She lies herself along the rock as best she can, the surface is angled into the water and she braces herself on its sides; she throws herself out into the water, which must be clear because it looks brown like the color of water moss and water stones and creek bottoms.

The other creek, now in mid-January, has ice skirting its nearest periphery as the water continues through the carved-out center and flows underneaths, flowing and carrying chunks of ice and broken off sticks, flowing oblivious to the deep-freeze. Surrounding the creek is the silence of frozen nature. Bare tree branches balk with the weight of ice-crystals, they make a sharp Creeeak! when the slightest breeze stirs their stiff constitution; piles of snow may fall from high-off and unknown places; the tiny chickadees and blue jays and stately cardinals flutter from slippery branch to slippery branch or fly down to leave paleolithic scratchings in the dusty snow. And when the snow falls, it falls and the air becomes some substance between liquid and solid, between sure and not sure. When passing through the speckled whiteness there is the thought that the whole world has become this lightly falling illimitable substance without definition.

“Funny to be thinking of snow under the melting Mediterranean sun,” Valerie thinks with a slight smile on her lips, with her hair falling back. But the way from ‘her tree’ to the creek in winter is not far at all; the distance between such memories is much more subtle than what can be calculated by usuals of time and space. “Michigan is not very far at all,” she reminds herself. “And if the state of Michigan is not that far than it is equally not as far to come to that vegetable-other that I am, just like that other that I feel I was in Michigan. Because aren’t we all the same ‘I’ anyway?”

As a playful cat pounces on thread, so Valerie’s mind jumps on the question, which gives birth to other questions, which curly-cue around her mind without great efforts to be answered but as questions that whirl because that is what they are. Like this, Valerie sinks into her most oblivious and most blissful nature, without care, without pressure, a floating blissful feeling, like a rock which juts into the water without disturbing the quick-flow but making the current part around it.

When some hikers pass Valerie’s departed body by she barely notices their taupe colored hiking outfits and their fancy hiking sticks; she barely hears their strong shoes breaking leaves and twigs; she hardly realizes when the whole day slips by in this way. When Valerie does stand up on the stone, she fleetingly wonders if she is moving or if it is the creek that is moving around her, so drugged is her state of reality, so languid are her quick thoughts. It actually takes a measurable amount of time to regain the answers to most simple of questions: Where am I? How am I? and Who? Valerie starts off again, now in the opposite direction.

Bracciano, Italy
June 2008


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