An Ordinary Woodland
By Robert Finch
Last week I took my car in to be serviced at the local garage. While waiting, I decided to explore a
of nearby woods I hadn't remembered walking through before. It's a piece of typical Cape woodland,
mixed pitch pine and oak, with a few scraggly wild cherry trees. The land is still privately owned
as yet, neither disturbed nor preserved by anybody, except for some evidence of bottle-digging here
The land slopes and rises gently but massively. There are no glacial boulders or rocks here, but on
deep winter's day like this, the trees themselves seemed made of stone. The biggest trees are only 3
40 feet high and less than a foot in diameter. They are all second growth, of course, and probably n
more than 50-60 years old. Yet somehow, in their winter barrenness, strewn with the bare wires of
Virginia creeper, poison ivy, and cat briar, these woods seemed much older, and infinitely remote.
In the bright cold sunshine I reached out and grasped the tight, gray, cracked trunk of a young oak
with my naked hand. It was hard and unyielding, a column of vegetable reserve. I thought of its li
flow, dormant now, of the continuous stream of bud, flower, seed, leaf, leaf scar. Whatever affectio
may have for trees, we can never touch their hearts or feel their warmth. More cold-blooded than th
coldest fish, the tree stood aloof, apart from the hot impatient demands of animal life. It
communicates subtly with the sun, earth, air, and water through the tiny orifices of root hair and l
stomata. It moves with the invisible pace of efflorescence, photosynthesis, denudement and dormancy.
Even the skunk cabbage, which burns itself up through the March snow, burns with a cold and refined
This patch of woods may have been a pasture or a field at one time, though my guess is that it was
used primarily as a wood lot. Here and there there's evidence of old cart paths along which firewoo
would have been hauled out. Through repeated cuttings, the wood quality likely grew so poor that it
was abandoned even for this use. Beside these paths are occasional small dump piles - fragments of
old pots and clay jugs, broken plates and bottles, a rusty coal scuttle - all mute indications of ou
predecessors' casual disposal methods.
I do not know how large these woods are or who owns them. There are no signs of deer in them and
no owl nests that I could see. There is much wintergreen. In other words, they're hardly "unique" i
way that might qualify them for special preservation, except perhaps in being so large and so close
town center. Most likely, depending on zoning and the vagaries of the economy, their fate will be
development of some ilk - residential, commercial, or industrial.
But it is still vintage Cape woodland, impossible to improve, beyond improvement, unique, I suppose,
only in its dwindling representativeness of a native landscape almost unrecognized because it is so
characteristic. It speaks mutely, asking only, like us, to fulfill itself.