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The Eagle Tree(8)
Ned Hayes

“That’s an old-growth tree,” Uncle Mike said, “and more significantly, there are— Watch out, March!”

I let out a grunt. I had stumbled into a deep pit that was half-covered by blackberry vines, and I was forced to turn my attention from the vast canopy overhead to the ground in front of me. But I did not slow down in my headlong rush through the bushes and the stinging nettles. I was interested in what he was saying, but Uncle Mike does not need me to say words for him to continue speaking—my mother often needs this, for some reason. Instead, he simply keeps telling me information that is useful.

“You’ve already found a place where a tree fell,” he said as he pulled me out of the crater. “See, a truly ancient forest is full of root craters. The ground gets really uneven, because when the trees fall, they create these big pits, and the smaller trees try to fill them up. You with me, March? God almighty, look at your arms.”

I looked down at my arms. Below the bandages, on my forearms, the vines had scratched me, so that there were lines of blood along both of my arms. It was an interesting pattern. I was considering whether to add to the pattern with more scratches when Uncle Mike took a cloth out of his pocket and wiped the blood away.

I still looked down at my arms. I could see where the pattern was before. I could imprint it there, if I focused.

“Gosh, I can see what they mean,” said Uncle Mike. “The people protesting to save these woods are right—these trees are almost untouched.” His voice was different somehow. It was exactly the sound in his voice that I heard at the funeral of my great-uncle.

Uncle Mike’s words resounded in his chest as he spoke, as if he were a hollow tree. “It’s an undisturbed old-growth forest. You can tell because there are gaps in the forest canopy, between the trees. The trees in a regrowth forest are mostly the same height, so the canopy above is pretty consistent in height—you see what I mean?”

Shadows moved across my face as the leaves far above shifted in an unseen breeze. They wafted back and forth, like Mr. Clayton’s face shifting in the light, from one dark color to another.

I was standing still, looking up at the shifting leaves, when the family of deer appeared. They stepped quietly out of a grove of Cascara Buckthorns, Rhamnus purshiana, all of which were growing so close together that it was hard to believe even a single deer could make its way through the branches, much less a family of them.

A large mother deer stood taller than me. And beside her were two fawns, whose limbs seemed thin as blades of grass. Their spotted skins flickered in the uneven forest light, blending into the mottled colors of the fallen leaves and vines and branches that compose the forest floor.

“Well, buddy, I’m sure glad you stopped moving your hands and making those sounds,” whispered Uncle Mike. “Otherwise, the deer would never have come out.”

I looked down at my hands and arms. I could still imagine the patterns that the thorny vines of the wild blackberry made on my skin. They were shadows too, permanent shadows on my skin. But I no longer had the urge to add to the pattern. And Uncle Mike was right—my hands had stopped moving before the deer appeared. I had been looking at the Buckthorn grove, and I hadn’t made a sound for most of that time.

I knew it was important to be silent in the forest if you want to be part of the woods, but I did not realize how quiet and still I had become.

The deer disappeared seconds later, blending back into the grove from which they came, as if they were part of the trees and had stepped into our reality for only a moment.

After the deer, we moved through the forest for another thirty-four minutes, stumbling over vines and evergreen huckleberry, and losing our way several times in the darkness of the woods. Finally, Uncle Mike found a clear space in the forest, a miniature meadow. There, in the center of the meadow, was the tree I had been hungering for.

The Eagle Tree.

The tree was a vast cylinder of wood. It filled the sky. The limbs stretched out above me, a great canopy sheltering the rest of the trees, as if they were its children. I stood back and felt the breath coming sharp and quick in and out of my mouth. I reached up with my hands, feeling the air in the meadow around the tree and stumbling through evergreen huckleberry bushes and sword ferns as I got closer and closer to the densely scaled ridges of the tree’s bark.

When I reached the tree, Uncle Mike reminded me that my mother did not want me to climb, because this tree was too high. I do not know what she based this assessment on, as the brush at the forest floor and the variability in the canopy that surrounded the Eagle Tree made it difficult to get a precise height from our house. But I estimated using basic geometric principles. The Eagle Tree was probably taller than two hundred feet. Perhaps as high as three hundred.

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