Alchemy of Pine
Beyond the line of faux log-cabins, longleaf pines had fallen like arrow-shafts into the hill.
Some struck at perfect perpendiculars, while others lolled one way or the other against the sun, as though heaven’s aim had been slightly off. Whether they fell in verticals or slants, each pine seemed to have found its peace in the needle-matted soil, each one sighing in clouds of evergreen asterisks. Among their deciduous neighbors, whose trunks bore parallel grooves instead of scales, the breath left them in oval drops of lime. These trees, numerous and staggered, drew a partial veil over the forest, letting me see just far enough to sense its depth, but not far enough to pierce it.
I hiked up the slope, glancing at the drawn curtains of the nearest cabin as I passed. Its sides
mimicked the stacked beams of a log-cabin, but were so uniform and polished, they better resembled a doll house. It was a façade designed for overnight campers, vacationers, and other drifters, people whose lives and machines had been shaped out of alignment with the pines, separate from them even as they dwelt among them. As cicadas chittered in the foliage overhead, an air conditioning unit thumped to life with a hollow, cyclical moan.
I entered the tree line, the peaked cabins receding behind me like a shingled mountain
range. Underfoot, the dirt gave way to lanky clumps of grass, withered brown leaves, pine branches studded with cones, and saplings that shot up with such energy that they put me in mind of Fourth of July sparklers, scintillating with emerald.
It was a Georgian summer, so most of the forest was green and lush, but everywhere, little
scars, wounds, and infections presented themselves. White-rimmed bites opened in the leaves, perforations stippled the trunks, grey shelf fungus—papery to the touch—licked up a fallen log, and the bare-bone limbs of a dead pine surged up like a reversed lightning bolt.
Near the forest’s edge, a machine-sliced stump was still bleeding. Resin spread in a white
smear to one side, beads of gold crystallized, and a pale yellow crust spread where the nectar had dried. Most of the stump’s rings were the width of a fingernail and tightly compressed, so that when the dry resin covered them, they looked like a field of wheat. As I watched, an ant crossed the field to test some of the beaded nectar. The resin smelled like lemon and sugar.
Far from being limited to resin, the hunger of insects left its mark all over the forest,
puncturing trunk, limb, and leaf, piercing my skin, orbiting my ears with its toothless whine. During the subsequent days, something of that hunger’s persistence would reemerge in the red mounds across my spine and torso—a constant nagging, a yearning for relief. The desire of the mosquito had inundated my flesh.
A ways up that wooded slope, I discovered a trio of fallen trees. At least one of them was a
pine, maybe more, but all of their boughs were leafless and black. They erupted from the ground in twining masses—arcing, coiling, billowing downhill like a deluge of octopus tentacles. Though dead, these trees bore a chaotic energy, as though each were giving birth to the new incarnation of Cthulu.
I approached the closest of the three fallen trunks, the pine. Its skin divided in an earthy
armor, and a white fungus filled the cracks like caulking. At first, the bark’s surface seemed still, but as I focused on it, a line of ants appeared. They crawled in a dotted black squiggle, wielding their pincers like scythes to reap from the dead wood.
Stepping onto the trunk, I experimented with heaving myself into some of the higher
boughs, and as I shook the lateral, hovering limbs, they made a sound like that of a horse-drawn carriage. The invisible hooves mingled with the cry of crickets and cicadas, then faded away. Hopping down again, I followed the fallen pine’s length further uphill, letting it guide me to a mane of upheaved roots.
Whenever the pine had toppled, it had torn up some of the earth’s guts with it, forming a
cloud of airborne soil. The earth clung to those roots like flesh on a bared ribcage, and scatterings of stone lay embedded in it: shards of maroon, grey, white, and mars-orange. Larger stones lay clutched in the pine’s tendrils like gems. One was the width of a jaw-bone, with a mineral smoothness, but just a hint of lustre, with terracotta lining its pale cheeks and grey bruises.
Despite the agony of this upheaved soil, sprightly shrubs sprouted from it, their lance-like
fronds bristling in wheels, and grass frothed at my eye-level, a floating isle of green. The dirt had ascended into the empty air—vacuous yet fertile, like the void of creation myths—and somewhere in the mingling of root, fungus, damp, and grit, a miniature ecosystem had been born.
As I mentioned before, this toppled trunk was one of three, and the first had fallen on the
bared roots of the second, forming a bridge. Together, the bridge, roots, and soil traced a ring—a portal of sorts—so I dropped myself through, into the cavity where the roots had once lain. Shadows clotted the corners, stuffed with black leaves and gnat-dotted webs, but the sun angled in as well, revealing a thin, rippling veil of terracotta dust from where my shoes had scraped by.
I crouched there for a moment. Air opened to my right, bark spread above me, roots
interwove before and behind me, and dust came blowing from the left, drawing a ripple towards the light. I had entered another void, another navel where elements hovered at the edge of mixing, eager to work their alchemy.
It sometimes feels like finding the void is the easy part. A lost cat, a vanishing set of wheels,
a broken arm, a snuffed passion, a monsoon that sweeps away people and lands, or yet another casket, full of emptiness. Such upheavals, however, always seem to leave a mess of raw material: roots, webs, and leaves, a fertile clot of muck dangling in the air. If nature is bent on destroying itself, it seems just as bent on recreating itself. It tosses whatever it can find into the cauldron, and you’re never quite sure what will emerge.
Before I entered that cavity, while I was still exploring the hillside, a resonant, incorporeal
tone emanated from the soil. It was a sound like steel married to air, and it burgeoned like rising mist from the ground, then receded: five times, out and in, serenity spreading in waves. It was five-o’-clock, I realized.
Among the many machines we’ve sculpted from the earth, the bell seems to retain
something of its original soul. It carries the earth’s heartbeat, its tones waxing and waning, but never ceasing—rippling out, stirring water, air, and dust.