Forest From the Trees

 

“Sixteen years of persistence.” His old eyes scanned the horizon: treeline, lab coats, and punchy fingers poking at handheld devices.

“The first tree, over there, it’s a maple. Only one in the park.” He smiles, “We had the very same one in our yard. As a boy, it seemed larger than life. And just like life for little boys, we climbed it, got scraped up by it, tamed it, stuck it with nails and plywood, and claimed it our own.”

“Did you have such a tree, growing up?” His eyes never leave the trees. Periodically, he taps his leg with one finger, as if recalling something in those memories he’d rather keep buried.

“Sixteen years. Hard to believe all that time has passed. But we’ve done well enough. A lake, trails, wildflowers, 1,776 trees—a coincidence. By the time we’ve opened, we’ll have doubled that number.”

He surveys his trees, his lake, and his trails.

“Look! Over there!” He points to a frozen deer. “We’ve done well enough.” One of the labcoats rushes towards it, arms outstretched, and the deer turns and gallops through a tree. He laughs and applauds the spectacle.

“I suppose that’s one issue we’ve yet to figure out. Certainly a fence should fix it. See that though? We’ve even fooled the animals.”

He picks up a stick and draws a line in the dirt.

“The ground, that’s real. We’ve shipped earth from all corners of the United States. Even buried some arrowheads here and there for added authenticity—er, they’re real, too. Well, crafted in a factory, but real stone.”

“Thinking of taking a stroll? It calls to you, doesn’t it? It does, me. Have you ever walked a trail in the rain? Snow? Would you like to? Just a turn of the dial. Temperature, too. On these trails, cold and snow aren’t correlative. You won’t even get wet when it rains, if you’d like it to. Wonderful, really.”

“I know what you’re thinking. The point is moot. These trees don’t give off oxygen, they can’t make more—we do. But the experience, the experience is total—a digital arboretum. Don’t you see? The real trails, they’ll be smoothed over. They’ll get paved. They’ll fell the real trees, replace them with cement walls, and those inside will wish they weren’t. This place? It can’t be paved. It can’t be built upon. If you so wish to leave, you need simply choose one direction and run through it all. If the land is sold, we simply move it all to the left some, or to the right. You understand my point.”

“People long for escape, yes? Whether it be in the wilderness, or the internet. We need a place to go, to be understood, to be silent, heard, to hear. Our experience is a strange one, wouldn’t you say? We may not offer seeds, or fresh air, but we can give our visitors the illusion they long for. It’s only as deceptive as any other escape.”

“And in 100 years, it’s possible these are the only trees to immerse oneself in anymore. It could very well be that, by then, we’ve all moved to Mars. I only wish I could see that far into the future, to prove myself wrong. But our trees will welcome whatever unfortunate souls come here looking for life.”

“It sounds almost sinister. I sound defensive, my apologies.” He taps at his pants. “I’ve dealt with many investors, businesspeople. I’ve had to state my case to people who look to bottom lines, profits. It leaves a bad taste. Imagine, this experience for free? One day I hope to allow true freedom, but the investors insist an entrance fee.”

“Once opened, it’ll be twice the size it is now; over 4,000 trees. I’m personally designing over 10 trails. Our engineers are working wonders, and we’re only limited by our imagination. I’d love to have the bees up-and-running by then, but they’ll likely come as an update.”

“Four nations have already shown interest in what we’re doing here. In 100 years, we could have parks all over the world—when we’re all on Mars. Incredible. The businesses can keep taking what they will, and we’ll still have preserved our natural world in some form.” His smile slipped, his eyes slid to this shiny square-tipped black shoes, and he lost himself for a moment to a head full of digital trees.

“It’s not perfect. I mean, it’s not the perfect solution. But it’s the best I’ve got. I truly love the outdoors, you should know. I loathe what’s coming. Do you read poetry?

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Yeats. I think of these lines often.”

“Tell me, what do you think when you look upon all this? Does it unsettle you? Are you moved instead by what may become? That this may very well be what remains of our natural splendor? Pre-emptive, and hopefully for nothing.”

The sun begins to set over the trees, some tips glitch and appear to the left of their trees. Labcoats gather in these areas and take notes, punch figures into their devices, and carry on into the night.

In silence, the two men sit and watch the last crystals reflect off a lake. Recorded crickets begin their symphony, and the labcoats walk the trail, single-file, with their eyes scanning for inconsistencies.

Out of the darkness, light shoots into the sky and bursts to color.

“This was not my idea, I should tell you. The investors thought it’d offer a little something more to guests. I find it tacky and outside the scope of our work here.”

Halfway through the display, the fireworks freeze in the sky. A loud boom stretches into the night, stuck in explosion, and pierces the ears. After a moment, they disappear from the sky.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle.”

“Same poem.” He smiles.

“Part of me hopes this exists only here, as an oasis; maybe as a cautionary tale. Though I fear I may be asked to build many, many more.”

He draws circles in the dirt with a stick.

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

“I must leave you now. I suppose I should get some work done today. Six months until we open. There’s much to be done. Investors to please. That sort of thing. Would you like some free passes? Leave your email address and they’ll send them to you.”

He kicks up dust as he walks, his shoes now in need of a shine. Just as darkness overtakes him, he turns around once more with a smile that pierces the night, “Six months! Remember! And twice as big! It’s not at all as complicated as I’ve made it, you’ll see. A true marvel. A real experience. You won’t believe your eyes!”

“After all, what’s left to do but enjoy what should rise in the wake?”

A Walk to Remember

“Come with me – I need to show you something.” Darla reached for Janine’s hand but instead found wrist. No matter, as long as she had something to tug, something to spur herself towards the cave, then she could muster up some courage within herself.

“I don’t know…” Janine said as the two started down a winding path, barely recognizable from bramble and vines leaning into them.

“I don’t know about this.” She said again, in case Darla hadn’t heard the first time.

“I’m not even wearing long pants.” She pleaded, breaking free of Darla’s grip to pinch a prickly vine between two fingers, gently forcing it away as she carefully made her way through. Darla had already plowed through, her forearms taking the brunt of scratches.

Without homework excuses, Janine ran out of ways to say no to Darla’s demands.

“We won’t be long, I just gotta see if it’s true.” Darla’s words trailed her, made their way into Janine’s fuzzy ears and echoed around her skull for a few moments. Already deep into Jenkin’s State Park, some other trail Janine had never been on, there wasn’t any going back.

The trail bent and curved at a steep descent, the two grabbing bark to steady themselves on the way down. Rocks followed their downward grace, tumbling and bouncing until they could take no more. Janine was first to find even footing, turning around just in time to watch Darla coast down the dirt wave, a trail of dust kicking up behind her.

“We’re close!” Darla said. “Turk told me it was around her. He swore it!

“WHAT is around here?” Janine said, her patience wearing thin. Dusting herself off, she found that she’d missed a pinch at some point, licked her thumb, and rubbed dried blood from her shin.

“If I told you, you wouldn’t come.” So coy. “Just a little farther. Come on!” She said, hustling through some more brush off trail.

“There’s no way we’re going to find our way back. You know that, right?”

“Sure, sure.”

After too many bushes, too many vines, and too many mosquitoes, the two girls finally made their way to their destination.

“See? Turk wasn’t lyin’!” In the middle of forest, a clearing. In the middle of clearing, an abandoned house. It must have been white once, but turned yellow from years of neglect and decay. Faded graffiti penises, green and blue, clung to wooden panels like Christmas tree ornaments. Mostly emptied vodka bottles, some refilled with piss, offered the only indication that anybody had been there in the past year.

“I don’t like this, Darla.” Janine said, her eyes fixed on a gaping hole in the home’s roof. Boards once blocking windows sprawled the front porch, their exposed, rusted nails a deterrent against any night trespassers unaware of the area. A blue tarp dangled where a door once stood; Janine noticed it as Darla was already halfway through.

“I’m NOT going in there!” Janine yelled, tossing looks in every direction to make sure her raised voice hadn’t alerted anybody who might be squatting in the house.

“Don’t be such a baby! Get in here!” Her high-pitched voice sheltered some insecurity, a silent trembling never admitted. Against her better judgement, Janine crept towards the house – a sigh in the middle of the woods – and pushed the tarp away, exposing light barely shed.

“It’s so crazy in here! Janine!” Even under a midday sun, the house managed to find shadows to hide in. A bright light shined from another room, Darla’s phone, and beckoned Janine towards it. There was no way she’d be alone in there.

“Check this oouutt.” Darla stood mesmerized, her shaking light trying hard to steady on the wall.

The ceiling peeled, it bend towards the girls, insulation guts spilling out and piled on the floor with old boards, dirt, and asbestos. Someone had spray-painted most of the room blue and tagged over it in black paint. On the lit wall, a perfect circle had been outlined in red chalk. Within it, another. An intricate pentagram rested within the inner circle, and yet another, smaller circle at the center of the Satanic symbol stressed a cross’s intersection; expanding all the way to the outer ring. Curved chalk lines danced from the intersection and center circle, a crude chalk lizard laid between the bottom quadrants. Flames, or symbols looking a lot like them, rose from the the center horizontal line on both left and right sides.

“This is too detailed to be fake.” Janine said, her eyes stuck studying the wall’s beckoning call.

Janine shined her own phone’s flashlight to flush the room of darkness. Under the lizard symbol, on the floor, a recently-killed snake laid curled between two candles barely used.

“Darla…” Janine started, backing away from the room and towards blue tarp.

“Turk said some crazy things went on in here, but I didn’t believe ‘im. But he swore it – said his brother’d been here a few times and saw some kids making weird noises. Said he saw them set a cat on fire. I didn’t believe ‘im.”

The two girls turned around and found their way back to the clearing, outside the house, their phone’s still shining.

“That was crazy! I kind of want to go back in. I wonder what’s upstairs?” Darla thought of all the other secrets the house might hold.

“We are NOT going back in there.” Janine was visibly angry, confused. “We’re going home, Darla.”

“Fine. Ok.” Darla caved like the roof.

The two started back the way they’d came, plucking vines out of their way and scrambling up the way they’d come down. At the top, both noticed a dead snake. Warm blood crawled along dirt, mixing and turning black in spots.

“What the hell is this?” Janine yelled, her own high voice raising to match anxiety.

“I don’t know. Let’s just keep going.” And they did. More pushed aside vines, more scratches on Janine’s legs. Their pace picked up, and though the two had exhausted too much energy already, they raced back to humanity.

“What the fuck is going on?” Janine said, unable to hold back tears. Another curled corpse sat directly in front of the girls. “Why did you bring me here?”

Darla said nothing – she’d never heard Janine curse before. She stared at the snake for a few moments, breathing heavily and wiping away tears and sweat of her own.

“We’re almost out. It’s not much farther.” It wasn’t. Within 15 minutes Darla and Janine’s sneakers met asphalt.

“Probably just some asshole playing a joke.”

“Takes some kind of weirdo to think dead snakes are funny.” Janine shot back, her nose curled and mouth frowned. Darla had never seen her this way and promised to herself never to bring her anywhere like this again – not that she knew of any more.

“I just want to go home.” And the two walked down the long road, pockmarked with potholes that made for a dangerous drive. Just before the road turned, a chalked circle had been drawn in the middle of the road, within it, a smaller ring. It beamed in the light, identical to the one in the house. In its center, another dead snake.

“They know where we came from. They know where we’re going.” Janine whispered, afraid to speak at all.

“Where did you just take me, Darla. Where the fuck did you just take me?” Again, her voice rose. Darla said nothing. She did nothing. Herself frozen, guilt streaming through her body. It was her fault Janine was upset. It was here fault for all these snakes.

“JUST LEAVE US ALONE!” Darla yelled to no one, causing a murder of crows to take flight. They too remembered the girls.

“We’ll be fine, Janine. We’re going home.” Darla and Janine made a sharp left. Though there was still day left, they both watched the sun intently, making sure they’d get home before dark.

The Outdoors(,)man

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Yours truly

You get yourself into nature, get all immersed in the experience. You come home refreshed and look up some new places to see, maybe a waterfall. “I’ve never seen a marsh before!” You go go go.

There are lots of backpack options. “Do I need a water bladder? Of course I do.” What about this extra pouch with scratch-resistant lining? “I need that, too.” You’re a smart consumer so you read reviews. You choose a great one. Fits perfect, too.

Then you buy a camera. “Nature’s so beautiful – I need to capture it.” Everything you take in, you take out. Now that includes the nature itself. You see the waterfall, snap a few pictures, take a few more. Hike some feet, see a fine view. Snap. Snap snap. You come home refreshed and edit some photos, throw them up on Instagram, and watch the likes pour in.

“Maybe I’ll start a website” you say. “More people need to see this stuff!” And you begin exploring history. It takes you to Dutch colonists, it takes you to indigenous Lenape tribes. You begin learning about the Algonquian language group. You pick up every two dollar book on folklore you can find on thriftbooks. You read through ’em. Even though some are severely sexist – you consider the time period.The culture. Immersed again.

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Buttermilk Falls, Layton NJ

But what about those people who can’t go hiking? Your website needs to accommodate these folks, too. So you find a guy with a drone and you take aerial projections. You buy a GoPro knockoff because you spent too much on the camera and pack. You try your hand at making a virtual “hike” for a niche group of people who might want to spend time outdoors. You fail. Miserably.

You’re now a wealth of knowledge about trails and hiking. You never start a fire. You never snap a branch, never pull a flower. It’s all here momentarily, after all. Even you. Well, except all those pictures you took.

And you keep exploring. Your trails lead you farther away from home, farther away from your website about hiking. They lead you where you’re supposed to be: free from the everyday nuisances of people. That’s the deal, after all.

Then you come home scratching. “What a weird little bug bite.” You forget about it – only hurts when you’re wearing a belt anyway. Two weeks pass. The bite blows up. It’s 10 cm by 4 cm. You go to Urgent Care. “Looks like a spider bite.” At least you don’t have Lyme! You get your ‘script for cephalexin and head to CVS, then home. Hiking’s on hold.

You scan your camera’s viewfinder while slathering medicated aloe vera all over your back. Shouldn’t this antibiotic have worked already? The rash looks like it’s going away. You begin looking up your next adventure.

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Richard W. DeKorte Park, Lyndhurst NJ

No pain. It’s lost some of its redness. But it’s changed. Looks different now. “Why does my shoulder hurt?” After a few more days you return to Urgent Care. “I’ve never seen anything like this in my life” the doctor says.

 

“It’s grown! Whoo boy it’s crossed the median! Mark it as…16 cm by 12 cm.” He’s stumped. “We’re going to chalk this one up to ‘Weird Bug Bite’.” He orders blood be taken. “It looks like a bullseye rash now. How strange.” He thinks it’s Lyme. You’re prescribed doxycycline – the tough stuff.

The next day you receive the call with results. You already know what they’re going to say. You feel the joint pain. You answer anyway. Yup. You tested positive. How wonderful.

You keep researching. Keep finding trails. Once this thing goes down you’ll be back out there with your camera. You’ll be back in the forest. Back where you belong. This time, with an arsenal of DEET. And your website will finally come together. NJBeautiful will be a thing come Hell or high water.

Mark. My. Words.