Spring 1991, Volume 8.1

PAULINE MORTENSEN

Tree Planting Camp

By day the sun bore down and glued the shirts to all our hides, gummed up the saliva in the corners of our mouths and made us all spit dirt. It was our two-month trial by fire, our immediate way of making ends meet, our private bit for ecology. But who cared about that? Sixties' talk. We were way past the big ideas. We had arrived at the immensity of small things, where the sharp pitch of ground and the clump of obstinate grass had become our entire world. Where the knot of disbelief unraveled with every throw of the arm and strike of the wrist, to shout why the hell were we there. Where the rhythms of the earth, sun-snow-sleet-and-rain, seared along our spines as we bent and rose, and it was hard to think past the numbing need at the tips of all our fingers.

But like I say. We were way past the big ideas. Small things devoured us. Made us think of ear throb and toe ache. Tree bag drip and sapling rot. Grass snakes. Glove holes. Canteen rattle. We crouched along, hustling over burnt log and boulder-climb, and found ourselves in no-man's-land.

From frozen May to burning June, a mountain-sun-blistering June. Until the roads had become bare of snow, bare of ice, bare of mud. And the Forest Service C.O. said we had to get all the trees planted before July, before it got too hot for the trees. Because it was late June, and we were fast approaching the end of something.

In the eighties I think about that spring. Here where I am in my fenced-in yard. Kids at my feet. Denny and I socking away enough wine coolers to block out any sun.

That May it took twenty-seven miles on an ATV to get us to where we were going. Twenty-seven miles over snow-drifted logging roads, breathing the blue exhaust and holding our ears against the aggravating whine of a two-stroke engine. Denny and I were the first of the tree planting loads into tree planting camp.

I remember every detail of that first day. The way Denny sat apprehensive, wedged against the fiber glass roof, a long mattock handle jabbing him in his left side, the two of us exchanging glances through the haze of blue, unable to speak of our new love across the tin can whine of the Cushman. There he was, Denny, my new bride-husband, my handsome prince, my salvation. Denny, the city boy, braving it out in the woods for me, out in strange new territory, because if a woman could do it—piece of cake.

And after the long ride it was such a relief to unload, to stretch the compressed spring of our bodies, back and around, such a relief at last to turn from the assaults of motion to the indulgence of stasis, such a relief to stretch our road-weary bodies that thought they knew the meaning of pain. Such a relief to throw out the gear in a heap and face the adventure of setting up tree planting camp in the snow. It was that brief moment of pause that I remember, a moment of castle-building grace poised like a frog on the end of a stick. And then the boss, my brother, like the rude little boy that he was, flipped us into the weeds with his parting words, "I'll be back with some food. Tonight if I can make it." And then the laugh.

He laughed and cast our love forever into a different sphere. A sphere where the echo of his machine retreating safely down the road, along the ridge of crystalline draped pines, came back to me slowly like a bad joke, a tinsel-tree draped joke working back through all that I had ever endured in the presence of brotherly jest. A joke about the new married couple abandoned in the snow. A sure death, but what a way to go. I could hear it in his laugh and in the memory of everything he'd ever said to me. "Little boys know what little girls are for, even if little girls don't."

And recognizing the joke, and trying to think past it and the absence of food and the coming of the cold and the dark, I heard my own Denny say, "At least we have each other. Thank God for that." Was it then to be a comfort or a threat? The old joke, knuckling in as it did on the edge of survival fear? The old joke and survival fear—together again after all these years. The evening anchorman would read, "Husband and wife, crack tree planting team, freeze to death in Idaho's frozen wastes. Film at eleven."

As the Cushman got farther and farther away, the echo of the whine became audible at ever diminishing intervals, as we stood in the snow waiting for hope to spring eternal. Waiting for sound. Waiting for volition. Waiting for the deep chill to set in. The thought had occurred, "Why did we not think to bring with us food or matches? Someone had fouled up." Someone, my brother, should have recognized the treachery of a mountain road, the short dotted lines on maps that materialized into hours on the seat of the pants. As incriminations came cascading in, Denny said, "Oh well, he will be back. He will be back before it really gets serious."

Then Denny, in order to vanquish seriousness, who was standing alone at the top of a bank of snow, his fists Tarzaning on his chest jumped and yelled "Geronimo," and came sliding and dying all the way down to my feet. And who could be chilled by that? Or by Denny in his wet parka zipped tight, the thin little hood poking up like a bunny, holding his sucked finger up to test the direction of the wind. An act which became our incremental jest. Every time it became a question of Daniel Boone skill, up came the finger to show that a Boy Scout was always prepared.

Up came the finger in order to keep things light. Things like shelter, food, and fire. Little things like that. It was that finger, licked moist on all sides that would keep at bay for a time the doubt. That would remind me that whatever else happened I had married him for love. Whatever that meant at college. Whatever that meant here. Love stretched out and measured in totally separate spheres.

I suppose the difficulty lay in the greater history of things. In the reality of seven brothers who chided their little sister about going away to college and bringing home a dude. Seven brothers who could level a forest in one breath and guzzle-empty a canteen in the next. Who said that if I ever found someone who would marry me that I'd have to bring him to the woods to see what he was really worth. I would have to bring him in for the ultimate big-brother-approval-and/or-comparison test.

Heaven help us all if I took him there for that. Denny in his dude boots hobbling down a road. Denny in his parka skin, drowning in the rain. Heaven help us all if in my mind it will always come back to that. Denny over our backyard barbecue pit, burning up our best steaks.

But the trench should count for something. The trench Denny dug between us and the melting snow. The perfect little trench around our tent and down the road. It ought to count for something, because I believe it kept us dry. Although it is hard to visualize the trench when first you see the bunny.

Perhaps it is merely a question of being out of place. Displaced. Misplaced. He seemed natural enough at the time, Denny in the lounge of the student union twirling his moustache over his History of the Music of Western Civilization. He was okay there. Or Denny with his guitar on the platform at Pizza Villa puzzling over the passions of a blues ballad. Or Denny finagling a key from a janitor friend the night of the Sophomore Stomp and sneaking in five of his friends and their dates into the biology building for a candle lit supper ˆ la formaldehyde. I suppose these were the reasons that I married him. If one can ever really put a finger on that. And parking. I can't rule out parking and submarine races. And all that other claptrap of young love.

But there in the snow and later in the sun, Denny was trapped in the pastoral present which I had invented for our summer's work, and he had no more chance of crawling out of the mud than any of the other stumps and logs on that particular tree planting plantation. He was in it up to his neck.

But, of course, this is all too complicated for, say, relating at a party with friends. "So there we were on the edge of the world." It is the way we might tell it over barbecued beef. A person rehearses these things. Runs it by in the heat and the cold, so that the punch line always comes out in the right place. I have to practice it until I get it right. Build it up into the story of He-Man and the Ice Princess. Otherwise life's a bitch.

So there we were on the edge of the world, in the Cascades, or the Coeur d'Alenes, or the Bitteroot. Pinpointing place is important for romantic reasons. There we were, somewhere together, standing as one on an open saddle of three converging, snow-drifted roads, without a match to our names. "What do you want to do?" Denny kept saying. "I don't know, what do you want to do?" I kept saying back. The conversation tossed back and forth kept it from settling into something definite. It helped to relieve the uneasy feeling beginning to form in the pit of our collective stomach. Finally we knelt together in the snow and carved igloo blocks with our hands, to make way for our tent, with Denny doing his best to keep things light while I began to lose the feeling in three of my toes.

But it wasn't so much the events of that first day, as they dropped one by one after themselves like ice cubes into the bucket. But the memory of events, raising its spectral self across the days of the morning after. The sun-bleached days dragging themselves out into our present. But like I say it was the small things that made our world.

For the thing about tree planting is this. No matter how much one explains it to friends, no one ever gets it right. What they see is the image of themselves digging a gigantic hole in the middle of their backyard to plant a three-foot sapling in the sixty-degree spring sun. They get this image between the summer coolers they have in their hands. Or maybe they see a farmer's field, rich tilled brown earth, which they walk through in bonnet and sneakers plopping in trees wherever they please. No steep-hill climbs or log-jam mush, no wetlands, drylands, or permanent charcoal duff. No hassles from the Forest Service omniscients, who idle above one on the road with the abstraction of one's paycheck in their hands. And absolutely no sickness at all in the pit of the stomach, when on sliding out of the truck into the rain or the sleet or the heat, into a day stamped "Get me the hell out of here" one discovers in the ankle, or the left knee, or the thighs, or the bottoms of both the feet some new place, some new raw place, that would rather not be touched.

The impression of ease is fatal and always blurs the nub. There has to be a way past that. Something to slip in between the chips and dip. And this is the part about the bath. That's the part that everyone can identify with—two months without a bath. The part about coming off the hill sweaty and cold and lying down in your bed in your old clothes and your sweat and not being able to take a bath. Think about sex without a bath.

So there we were in this big freeze in Montana, and Denny, being the He-Man that he was, tried to light this fire. Of course, we put up the tent all right. One of my brother's tents with half the pieces missing. My hands were blue from aluminum poles, but the tent stayed up. We made it stay up. The way we rigged it, it didn't dare fall down. Then we unzipped the front and threw all our stuff inside, just before it began to rain.

Planting trees, one can always count on the rain. Unless it is hot. It had been raining for some time, but who would have noticed? Who would have noticed that we had arrived in a light fog and insignificant drizzle, with so many other things to contend with? The ringing in our ears and the cramps in our muscles, and Denny in his squawking boots doing his famous duck-walk through the mud.

So there we were in the fog and the rain, a fog which might have crept in on little cat feet, but instead squatted down where we had planned to make our bed and fouled everything. So it was decided that we should build a fire, matches or no matches. To eradicate the tensions beginning to form at the back of the jaw, the clenched afterthought, the imposition hanging in the air. We decided to start a fire because it came next on the agenda. We would build a fire like the ones they taught us how to build back in Boy and Girl Scout camp. That was the smartest thing to do. Get the fire going in order to survive. And there is, as we all know, more than one way to start a fire. And then I found some matches after all. A Bufferin bottle of them tucked in my overnight case. It had been there for years, for emergencies.

So I put the Bufferin bottle in the pocket over my heart and buttoned down the flap, and we began to forage for dry vegetation—pieces of bark, sheltered grass, reindeer mass, and old man's beard. We worked with incredible optimism, rolling out felled log pieces, pulling dead limbs, and reaching with assurance into the snow caves around the bases of living trees. We compiled all the dead dry things we could find, and then, suddenly, realized—it had gotten serious. Because of the gathering dark.

Because it all came down to striking the match. It was the match that would weigh so heavy as a symbol. Even in a marriage of two months. Even in a marriage of twenty years, but who is counting. So Denny, whom I had come to know in detail that first day, took the Bufferin bottle from my hand. Denny, who became as crippled and rank as myself in the days after that, from the aging effects of May and June. Who stared his blank stare across our tent as he rubbed BenGay into his arms and vaseline between his toes, pulled bits of food from his beard, and complained about the weather. Denny who, that first night, took the bottle from my hand with all our hope inside to light fire. Where together we had built the tepee of tinder and had all the big stuff lying by. And Denny kneeling in the muddied snow said, "This will be something to remember. Something to tell our children."

Then Denny lit the matches one by one. And we watched each promising flame flicker out. He lit all nine until he was down to the last one. And we, with our bodies sheltering the match from the evening rain, begged it to burn. But all the matches he struck and held to the bark and shavings and wet grass. Cupped and held, cupped and held. And Denny said, "At least we have each other. Thank God for that." There in the snow in his knee-soaked blue jeans, the match sticks forming their own little pile of debris, he lit the last match. Then it too went out. The bent match stick twirling between his fingers until the end popped off. And then we were alone in the growing dark, and we were cold, and we were hungry, as they say, and we went together into the tent, our fabric of last resort, and made butterflies in the snow.