About Place Journal, Volume II Issue I
Open Country: an allegory
“If I had my way, they’d all be cleared out!”
Their day of work in the forest was being balanced by an evening of rest at a campfire. They drank water all day; now they drank beer, which made him expansive.
“It’s not the traditional forest of my youth,” he said, taking a thoughtful pull on his beer, shaking his head slowly. “I remember it differently.”
The beer and the glow of the coals, and the satisfying feeling of exhaustion after a day of work, helped him navigate his memories and find the ones he wanted.
“They used to run cattle on this land.”
“In the forest?”
“No. They tell me this was mostly open country in those days. Long before I was here. Prairie, they say. Buffalo roamed here before cattle.”
“This was once open country?”
They were surrounded by trees on this supposedly former prairie. Opportunistic trees that had found footing where they could, once the buffalo and cattle were gone, and quickly exploited the soil and water and sunlight. Some successfully; others not so much. Groves of like trees where circumstances favored their kind. The white oaks took the best soil for themselves, growing large and magnificent, with high, spreading branches that shaded the ground and stifled competition. He thought the white oaks were exceptional and had raised his cabin among the oldest of them. The black and red oaks, and the occasional hickories, had to settle for the poorer soil left to them by the whites. And they all seemed to be doing well enough, he thought. Sycamores favored the creek, their ghostly pale branches looking out of place but their numbers few. Redbuds and the dogwoods made sufficient lives for themselves in the understory. And the walnuts, with roots that poisoned the ground for those not like them, mostly kept to their own, aloof enclaves elsewhere in the forest.
“But these damned cedars are overrunning everything,” he said, crushing his empty and tossing it into the darkness behind him. It clattered and clanked as it joined the others there. “Now, I don’t mind an occasional cedar. Here or there. They’re green in the winter. And birds nest in them I guess. But they just don’t keep to their place.”
No condition was too unfavorable, no soil too poor for these invaders. Seemingly overnight they would raise their green presence in the leaf litter. Solitary or huddled in masses. Growing quickly, thriving where they were not invited and not welcome. Grabbing resources better left for others. Their oily needles just asking to burst into flames, and this, he told himself, was what he truly hated about them. Cedars became, of course, a convenient way for him to focus his general anxieties.
The world, as he saw it, had gone to hell. There was no disputing that; any right-thinking person could see it. So he’d worked hard and saved carefully and bought himself a hundred forested acres at the end of a bad road to create his sanctuary, his little bit of heaven on earth. He felt entitled, as a sort of self-styled rugged individualist. He’d cleared a patch and raised a cabin and put up a gate then put up his feet but found he could not relax.
“I worry about fire,” he said, gazing glassy-eyed at the glowing embers before him. “A fire sweeping through my forest and taking what I built.” The tremor in his voice betrayed not only his fear but a hatred.
Springtime ground fires were not uncommon in his part of the Ozarks, and they could mostly be dealt with. Whenever he visited his cabin, he devoted some of his time to clearing the scrub around it, to building a perimeter free of any growth, but especially of any cedars, that might feed a ground fire. He’d even begun raising a rock wall around his cabin to halt what flames might come his way (though it did little to stop the cedars from entering). He was creating an open space that he believed he could defend against the fires of Hell itself.
But the wretched, teeming cedars, which didn’t know their place, were a problem.
“With their low branches full of greasy needles –”
“– oily needles that burn hot, they can easily push a ground fire into the treetops.”
And what was the loss of a few large cedars if it meant the oak canopy was burned away and the young cedars that followed could march right in and take over? He knew he couldn’t fight a fire like that, so every damned cedar became his enemy. He strode into his forest, armed with loppers and saws, to “liberate them from their earthly toil. They’ll take over this forest if they’re not pushed back I tell you!”
They’d spent the day grubbing through field and forest, cutting to the ground every young cedar they came upon as noisy flocks of starlings wheeled above them.
“Is it as bad as all that?” said his friend. “Take over?”
“Look how they reproduce! They can easily outnumber the white oaks if they’re left unchecked. And remember, the county agent said they’re toxic. That’s all the authority I need.”
“Noxious, not toxic. He said they were a noxious weed.”
“Noxious. Toxic. What’s the difference? Don’t get caught up in rhetoric. They’re swarming into my oak forest.”
“Swarming seems like a wrong word too.”
“What would you say, then? Everywhere I look, I see them. I clear an area, and by the next spring, more cedars have sprouted. They’re smuggled in by birds, you know. In their droppings. That’s appropriate. Gimme another beer.”
His friend reached into the cooler then tossed him a can.
“And throw some wood on the fire. Let’s get that whipped up again.”
“But really, aren’t cedars native to North America?” his friend said, pushing himself out of his comfy chair. “For that matter, if this used to be open country, aren’t all of these white oaks invaders too?” He laid two small logs across the coals. Better, he thought, to create warmth and light than roaring flames, which could, without much difficulty, get out of control just as easily and burn the precious forest.
“White oaks are magnificent though. Look at them! They deserve to be here. They wouldn’t be thriving if they didn’t belong here. Imagine how beautiful a forest of just them would be. I’d make this whole forest only white oaks if I could.”
“And you’d be forever fighting against nature that would keep trying to make a balance.”
“Some things are worth fighting for.”
The pair of logs on the coals had caught flame and were sending a flickering light into the dark. The conversation lulled for a while and thoughts drifted. An owl hooted. The fire crackled.
“Isn’t your cabin made out of cedar?”
“Your cabin. Didn’t you say the Amish men who built it for you claimed cedar planks would hold up better than oak?”
“I may remember them saying something like that.” This was not a memory he wanted to navigate toward however.
“Wouldn’t rot as fast? And resist bugs too? Isn’t that why they make chests and closets out of cedar? And wood chips for gardens?”
“I don’t know about that,” he mumbled. “If you say so.”
“And these trees are not really cedars, are they? Aren’t they actually junipers?”
“Does it matter? It’s all the same to me. I gotta pee.”
Rising from the comfort of his chair and throwing off the blanket he had wrapped himself in, he turned and staggered through the empty cans into the darkness to relieve himself temporarily of the beer that gave him courage and insight. But he would be back for more.
Paul Lamb lives near Kansas City, but he sneaks off to the Missouri Ozarks whenever he can steal the chance. His work has appeared in Bartleby Snopes, The Little Patuxent Review, Platte Valley Review, Danse Macabre, Midwest Literary Magazine, and others. He rarely strays far from his laptop.