A Cape Cod Notebook 1/8/08

listenAn 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 patch 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 and, as yet, neither disturbed nor preserved by anybody, except for some evidence of bottle-digging here and there.

The land slopes and rises gently but massively. There are no glacial boulders or rocks here, but on a deep winter's day like this, the trees themselves seemed made of stone. The biggest trees are only 3 0- 40 feet high and less than a foot in diameter. They are all second growth, of course, and probably n o 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 tree with my naked hand. It was hard and unyielding, a column of vegetable reserve. I thought of its li fe- flow, dormant now, of the continuous stream of bud, flower, seed, leaf, leaf scar. Whatever affectio n we may have for trees, we can never touch their hearts or feel their warmth. More cold-blooded than th e 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 eaf 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 fire.

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 d 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 r 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 n any way that might qualify them for special preservation, except perhaps in being so large and so close to a 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.