I composed this short story for a final project in my forestry class, and it has been further revised since. Enjoy!
You wouldn’t think we’re violent to look at us, but when the cabin burned up and took our family, the world turned black. That was summer about thirty years ago, but the heat of that blast has burned its memory into the landscape. 150,000 acres gone, just like that. We survived because we had been sitting up on our hill, the one that overlooks both valleys, taking in the California sun with a stiff onshore breeze at our backs. Maybe the wood stove was burning a little too hot, maybe it was a stray ember off a cigarette; whatever it was burned quick enough that nobody got out alive.
Soon after groups of people started coming in and poking around, bringing tools and bags of seeds. It made us happy to see new spots of green in all that black, but it wasn’t long until we realized something was off. They all grew up scrawny and brown instead of thick and red, sharp needles instead of soft fringes. And another thing, those people never left. They cut gashes through the landscape, winding roads big enough for two trucks to pass. As those new trees grew more trucks started coming in, the same ones that had cleared out the valley when we were young.
Back then, the clear cutting was more difficult and we still had a fighting chance. The machines moved slower, their saws took longer to cut and they didn’t know much about us. When they got too reckless we could even shake them out of our limbs, fell a stump and crush a crew, but soon they learned to exercise enough caution so that we couldn’t keep up. These days they fly above, dig below, prod us with rods and topple us with sharp metal teeth. They know us by name, location and they hold our fibre under the microscope. Every once in a while these their knowledge works out to our benefit, but more often than not it results in swaths and slash piles with just one or two old growths left as a sad reminder.
Though the new trees they planted weren’t our kin we felt compassion for them. Those people picked out the strongest until the weak and deformed were all that was left, and then they’d grind those down too and start over. The operation produced so much material that they built a processing plant on the other side of our hill; there the bark-stripped skeletons would go in whole and come out in planks, poles and particles which went into more trucks to be driven far away. Stands of timber grew up and fell down regularly and the longer we stood on that hill, the more the valley below became a maze of dirt roads that divided tree from parent tree and animal from habitat. Even that bear, the one that used to scratch his back against on our trunks, moved off in search of a quieter home.
In that stand of pines our stoicism became our greatest flaw. No matter how tightly they bound up their roots they were always ripped out of the ground, and often it seemed like the only way out was through another fire. And that’s exactly what happened— in a flash, the forest ignited again. The flames came right to the tips of our roots, but we weren’t scared. That time we felt a burning inside that made us numb to the heat, a feeling brought on by thoughts of old family and hopes for a new beginning. It blasted through the pines toward the processing plant, chasing those people right out of the valley. They didn’t bother to come back after that, and when the pines grew again their growth went unchecked.
If we could somehow express to those people that feeling inside us, maybe their ideas would change. Far down that valley, beyond the clear cut and beneath the mountains, I can see a road much wider than any they built here. There the trucks zip by and leave behind a trail of oxidized air thicker than this whole forest could purify. If they fully understood the way we burn, maybe they’d take our energy and put it to better use. We’re partial to people, and we’ve tried to nurture them from the beginning. We used to provide them their weapons for protection, low limbs for shelter, shade for rest and fires for warmth. We gave them life and we gave them knowledge; we were with them in their garden and we were still there when they left, yet our fruits make them think themselves entirely independent and needless of our care.
Still, we stand resolute, and occasionally the winds whisper of a coming change. On milder days gusts of air blow through that remind us of the water that moves through our cells and the moss growing on our branches. Though sometimes faint those breaths are never missed, as they contain a distilled purity which never fails to straighten the tip of even the droopiest hemlock. The greener among us suspect people are starting to realize all that we do, while the eldest are quick to check their growth. Some think it’ll be a while yet before our presence is taken seriously, and I believe they’re right. But that doesn’t change how we feel when we breathe that air, the lightness that could only come from an energy like the one inside us.
I’d be a sapling to think we’re safe. Sometimes all I taste when I breathe is the heavy smoke of fires, which occur more and more often. The few pines that grew back after the last one swept through here have all contracted a kind of infection that makes them bleed out from the burrow holes in their bark. Those that aren’t dead are close to it, and with another warm winter they’ll die out before I can grow another ring. But I wonder about the source of that wind, and on those nights when the stars hang above our branches I quietly make my guesses. I like to imagine they’ve somehow found a way to put our energy into their trucks, that they’re catching the lightning before it strikes us so they can use it to see in the dark. I picture them using our bodies to build structures that reach heights I could never dream of, built within borders that segregate people from animals and not each other.
It’s been a while since I had a drink, and I’m not sure my limbs will hold out much longer than those of the pines below. You might say my cones are cast. With some luck, the next fire that sweeps through these valleys will crack them open so that new seeds can take my place. I send my life on the wind, wishing our kids to take root and grow as tall as us. I know there’s a good chance they’ll never get there, but if even a few reach this height, maybe they’ll taste those special breezes more often and hear in them not a whisper, but a shout of joy.