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Thoughts in the Woods

On my first morning in an isolated cottage in the Appalachian Mountains, I sit on the deck looking into the forest. I look into the higher branches of oaks, tulip trees, sycamores and maples, and through a tiny gap to a distant mountain ridge. I see the rich dark greens of moist deciduous woodland and bright spots of sunlight sprinkled on the green foliage and on the bed of fallen leaves that cover the ground, where brown and cream and dark red fungi and mossy logs and stones tell of damp weather.

The warm air reminds me of Februaries in Brisbane and discomfort of school uniforms – those thick tunics with shirts and wool neckties striped with the school colors, the long socks and later the black cotton stockings and suspender belts, heavy black lace up shoes, the gloves that must be worn in public, the big panama hat. There were heat-wave days when we were allowed to wear our gym tunics in class – square necked green cotton tunic, matching green bloomers, short socks, tennis shoes. I seem to remember that this began after a rash of faintings in morning assembly during a heat wave – hymn, prayers, Old Testament, New Testament, hymn, prayers, announcements. Our teachers remained stockinged, corseted, and high heeled.

And I remember working in Nigeria years later, with a team of entomologists in the forest – counting grasshoppers in the great humid heat, as we tried to figure out their lifestyle, mortality, the causes of their pest status and the best way to manage the problem. Nothing had prepared me for the wall of warm moisture I encountered whenever I walked outside, the air so thick even breathing seemed difficult.

Here in the early morning, as the dew in the tree tops drips noisily onto leaves below, I hear four different bird songs, but cannot see who makes them. Looking onto the leaf litter below my deck, I see a small, deft, brown bird foraging silently. Nearby is a strangely bright patch of orange, the size of a golf ball, and I go down there to look. It is the only flower I have been able to see in the dense woods – a tiger lily, orange petals curled back to meet on top of its drooping head, and underneath, spots on waxy yellow, the long white stamens with brown anthers at their tips. It is a bright jewel in a world of green and brown.

Young saplings, a foot tall with half a dozen big leaves, wait for the time when a large tree falls, allowing them the space and sunlight to make their urgent growth – not wasting an opportunity. By mid morning, groups of cicadas in different parts of the forest sing – within each group the individuals sing in unison. First there is a slow soft noise, rising fast and shrilly to a crescendo, then falling away again to almost quiet. Occasionally there is the sound of a busy woodpecker. Each creature is busy with its reproduction and survival. And I hear drips, moisture accumulated and still finding the ground after a brief light rain shower. Behind me, there is the soft whirring of a fan – otherwise the air feels dense and too heavy to make a breeze.

By midday the cicadas stop and I hear instead the squawking of some distant hidden bird. A dark brown butterfly spends five minutes ambling close by and I notice small dots of light going by – tiny flies whose wings are lit for a few seconds by sunlight. A few large flies land on the railing. With the light above now I see sections of a few bright threads – spider webs across space between tree trunks. A squirrel descends in silence from the top of a tree, running down its trunk to the leaf litter.

The quietness of this nature is imposing. I am a part of it on the deck of my rustic cottage. Along with all the trees of this rich forest, I mature and grow old and die. If I burn, the ashes will become part of the dust that helps create a brilliant sunset. If I decay, the molecules that formed the living body will become part of other living things, and the messages encoded in my DNA will disappear forever. Some of these trees will have passed on their DNA to offspring, but not all of them, and not me either. My time here will end without a biological meaning other than the re-use of constituent parts.

In the heat of early afternoon the silence in the forest is palpable. It could be that there is some persistent very high-pitched insect, though I suspect it is tinnitus. But there is moisture and in the air there is carbon dioxide, and those green leaves obtaining sunlight are busy building complexity. Beneath the apparent lack of activity and in the great silence a huge invisible biochemical industry is in progress, and from those millions of little flat green leaf machines a vast source of potential energy is being created. Most of the leaves are intact. A few have insect damage from earlier in the season. All of them are rich green with only minor differences in hue.

The light in the forest decreases and increases and I know that clouds are building. If there is a breeze somewhere out there it doesn’t penetrate here. Mid afternoon and the sweat begins to drip down my neck in spite of the fan and I get sleepy. My mind goes back to times almost completely forgotten. Queen Elizabeth, young and newly crowned, visited Australia in the summertime. All the Brisbane schools were to take part in a display at the big exhibition grounds – the biggest arena available. The thousands of children would make a huge E.II.R. of bodies, upon which she would gaze in the February heat. I was to be part of one of the dots. I remember playing truant on the practice day in order to go swimming. I remember taking part in the display on the equally hot big day. Dozens of children fainted in the heat. I wonder what the poor Queen made of it all.

I remember Mother ironing with the sweat dripping from her face down onto the clean clothes – I think it was Mondays – seven shirts for my father and five detached starched collars for the weekdays, and twelve or more shirts for my older brother who wanted a clean one for the evening’s courting. My sister and I did our own ironing.

Window screens became popular and my mother scoffed – well, they’ll get no breeze now. Our houses, built on stilts, were supposed to gather what air movement there was, and screens reduced that. So we had air, and a multitude of moths and mosquitoes at the lights fascinated my unschooled brain. We all sat out on the wide veranda on the hottest evenings to get what breeze there was, talking in the dark, with just the red glow of mosquito coils and my parents’ cigarettes. No one had air conditioning then, and I don’t remember fans either. We came into beds under mosquito nets hanging from a circular hoop above the pillow. I remember waking heavy in the head those hot humid days. The first department store to get air conditioning made a killing.

The great humidity eventually brought rain and how wonderful it was to run out and get wet through, to arrive at school so wet we were allowed to remove shoes. Washing remained on the Hills rotary hoist for a day and was then brought in to the washing line under the house, where it sometimes remained for several days to get dry. Mildew grew on the walls of my bedroom, toadstools covered the lawn, moss covered the slate roof, Mother rejoiced that the 40,000 gallon tank was full, Father cursed the amount of mowing and scything, the car skidded on the clay surface of the driveway up the ridge to our house, frogs croaked and the poincianas bloomed, flying foxes enjoyed the palm fruits and grasshoppers ate the acalypha hedge.

But this hot moist green forest is new to me. Though I see leaves drop now, in three months time they will rain down in their millions, and leave the skeletons of trunks and branches. The cottage will be bathed in light, and the brown walls of natural, unpainted wood will be warmed with sunshine through the many windows as the days become colder.

On the north side of my cottage, outside a screened porch, is a flat area covered in moss. Its not easy to tell directions most of the time, but I have a mental map of the area and know that my doorway faces north. I rest here in the splendor of a warm dark forest, exploiting as best I can, all my senses, my memories, my small understandings and my sense of being alive in the world, and know who I am.

– Elizabeth Bernays grew up in Australia, then studied agricultural pests in developing countries. After being a professor of entomology at Berkeley and Regents’ professor at the University of Arizona, she obtained an MFA. She publishes in various literary journals and won several awards including the 2007 X.J. Kennedy prize.