We have an unhappy-seeming wood. At the old place the paths ran like rivers through the wood, and you could follow them without tearing through brush or stepping over more than the occasional tree. Here, riotous brush packs the space between snarled trees that have drowned in the inch of mud that holds pools of water all over the rocky hill. Some of the dead trees still stand, but others have toppled, the thin plate of earth and rock that was not enough to anchor them still clutched in their roots. Snarling thorns patrol the wood, lashing out and latching on.
The paths from years gone by have turned into soupy channels unwelcoming to even careful footsteps. Although animals track through the forest in abundance, they thread their way through narrow gaps and low overhangs, narrower and lower than a clumsy human in boot and coat can go. The deer and rabbit endure the scrub of the close brush and the sop of the inescapable water, and pick footholds through layers of collapsed, defeated trees.
None of the paths, animal or human, can be followed well, for the property lines now laid down were drawn by people divorced from the land who did not know or did not care for its lines. We are parked on a chip of land laced by nature’s many lines – elevation, streams, rays of sunlight, animal paths, the ranks of various shrubs in their kind – but our allotment slices across all those lines, and the only place to go within its boundaries is across. Splash through the swamps, crash through the brush, force your way into the land.
It is a sad piece of land: abused pasture, forgotten farm, parceled up and sold out. The house had roots throughout the land once, still visible in the skeletons of old foundations scattered across the hill and found only by accident. People lived here once who expected and depended on what the land could provide. Now it is a parking spot, a recumbence for an creature that must go Elsewhere to Do anything.
We have already started to change the place, of course. The woodshed ties us a little more to the land even if the wood is trucked in from Elsewhere. The garden laid in on the bank of the stream does not know yet what it will be, but it is more already than it was. More than anything else, the animals we keep relentlessly reclaim the land. For ducks, Here is the best place for mud; for chickens, Everywhere is the best place to explore.
But we are confined and constrained, not by the land but by the lines that men draw on it. The best place to keep ducks is on a pond. The stream would readily support pond but it is designated a protected trout stream. Here, although it is not definitely a stream at all as it spreads wide and shallow through a thick stand of brush, we cannot gather the water up into a pond to keep the ducks safe from the fox and the bear and the weasel, because some unobservant building-bound functionary was told that fish live in water.
The same dam might give us a way up onto the hill; without it, the best path is on the neighbor’s land, land parceled off as needless by some former owner for whom the hill was only a backdrop for the house, an then parceled off again as a road–gated, now–to access the steel tower that dominates the hill and saturates us with radio waves to keep our plastic devices alive. It is the best use for a hill known to modern man. In former days it was pasture.
Just past our current property line the forest relaxes into something more stable and mature. The trees are more upright and there is space between them. This, too, was parceled off, sold to someone who cut a way for his four wheeler and left many of the trees where they fell. This part of the land is now used as a hunting ground, if you can call hunting what amounts to drive, sit, shoot, drive. It is not a real source of food and it is not a sport, if by sport you imply the exercise of some skill. It is a spectacle, a great deal of sitting and waiting until the glorious bang followed by blood and death. The four-wheeler path marks the boundary of the colosseum and defines the purpose of everything within it. He gets a tax break for being such a diligent farmer of trees.
You cannot follow the lines of the land here because, in one way or another, the lines of the law prevent you. I wonder, house-dweller, car-parker, nature-lover: how would you like a list of rules from the government on how you may love your lover?