Friday, June 19, 2009

If We But Knew What We Do

When I was small I lived in the far north country of Minnesota. A twenty minutes walk could bring me to a dozen lakes, or to two houses. Besides that it was all forest, glorious forest that had not been touched in thousands of years. That was my land, my playplace, my sanctuary, my kingdom. I roamed those forests from sun-up to sun-down, getting to know the trees, the shrubs, each lady-slipper and violet that grew in their shade. Long before I could read I knew dozens of trees by their bark or their leaves; I recognized countless types of mushrooms and knew which we ate and which we didn't. The soft moss and centuries of fallen leaves beneath me, the sticky pine sap and curling birch bark around me, the countless needles and leaves above me, and everywhere hundreds of types of bird songs, fluttering wings, flying squirels and porcupines. It was a magical land, as holy and enchanted as anything this side of the grave will be to me.

Recently while I was telling my youngest daughter about life in those woods, we got on the internet and found that land. I showed her (from the vantage of a satelite photo) the house that I had lived in, the church nearby, and my forests. Many of the forests remain, but I also saw vast tracts of land that have been clear cut. Mile after mile of ancient forest removed to the dirt. Not a tree, not a shrub left. Now there is dirt where I remember walking with my brother, following tracks of we knew not what. Moose we said, but they may have been elk or deer. We fancied ourselves the first humans to walk those paths. Possibly we were.

But now those paths lead not among forests that were ancient before Abraham was born. Now those paths, if they can be found at all, lead between clumps of dirt and rotting stumps. Now with every rain the furtile soil that had been built up from falling leaves and kept in place by antique root structures is being washed away. Every spring the melting snow drags deeper and deeper ravines into the dirt that had been carefully tended by Providence ever since Adam began tending his garden.

As I told my daughter beautiful tales of life in those woods, inside I wept. I wept for the grandeur that I had known, for the life that is becoming impossible, for what my world and the whole world is losing in the loss of such forests.

felled 1879

By Gerard Manley Hopkins

My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled;
Of a fresh and following folded rank
Not spared, not one
That dandled a sandalled
Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow and river and wind-wandering
Weed-winding bank.

O if we but knew what we do
When we delve or hew--
Hack and rack the growing green!
Since country is so tender
To touch, her being so slender,
That, like this sleek and seeing ball
But a prick will make no eye at all,
Where we, even where we mean

To mend her we end her,
When we hew or delve:
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
Strokes of havoc unselve
The sweet especial scene,
Rural scene, a rural scene,
Sweet especial rural scene.


Mary Rae said...

That's a beautiful poem, and I think it's safe to say that "O if we but knew what we do" is a line the world should live by.

Doug P. Baker said...


The Masked Badger said...

We just finished reading the third of the "Little House" books to our girls - your description seems much like the "Little House in the Woods"...?

Doug P. Baker said...

Yes, very similar surroundings. Her "Big Woods" were (a hundred years earlier) about two hundred miles south east of where we were. There were nothing but forests, lakes and rivers between the two areas.

The area she lived during the "Big Woods" years has now exploded into the veritable metropolis of Pepin Wisconsin, with some 800 residents. Where I lived was still much in the same state as Pepin when she was there.

We would lie in bed listening to the wolves howl outside, just as I think I remember that she did. Bears were all around, and we saw their marks though I don't recall seeing them themselves. And, like Laura, I helped to gather food from the wilderness: mushrooms, blueberries, acorns, raspberries, rice, crab apples, wintergreen, rhubarb, etc. Such gathering filled a large part of our time and it was not recreation; it was gather or starve. There was one winter we had not prepared adequately and for four or five months we ate nothing at all except potatoes.

The setting for On The Banks Of Plum Creek is about 200 miles south of where I lived, the little town of Walnut Grove, Minnesota.

Rosa said...

My grandmother grew up in Ely, MN, and we still visit her cabin outside of town. I can relate to what you were describing; the nature in those woods transports a person to a setting outside of time.

It's so sad to see parts of it go, and it feels wrong to watch something destroy such beauty.

Doug P. Baker said...

Ely! That is similar turf! I lived a little ways west almost on the edge of Lower Red Lake. We were right on the edge of Red Lake Indian Reservation.

Doesn't the whole area give you a sense of being holy ground? Outside of time, that is a good way to put it!