The sun is moving slowly downward and to the north on its gradual summer arc toward night. Under its warm and lowering light, the tall trees cast long shadows into the open spaces of the woods.
A familiar winding path unfolds before me between the most senior tenants of these sacred acres. The path has been cleared of the riotous younger growth that is busily asserting itelf among the reddened old trunks. Deep-textured pine bark wraps the big trees, glowing warm and bright where the evening sunshine makes its way in spots, here and there, past the leaves and needles that strain for the light of this day and season.
I find a favorite sitting spot next to one of the trees, where the ground slopes comfortably upward toward the trunk, cushioned by an interwoven mat of pine needles. The cat is on some other business this time, but the dog has joined me. She sniffs and snuffles the forest floor, regularly wandering back to nuzzle and induce me to run my fingers through the tangles in her long fur.
Light voices of a neighbor’s visitors add a rare human note to the dog sounds, sporadic bird songs, and muted rush of an occasional passing car. This spot is near an edge of the acreage, where I can hear some evidence of other people even if none can be seen.
My hands rest on the long Ponderosa needles, feeling their sharpness as my scalp senses the texture of the tree trunk on which it leans. Innocuous little bugs crawl onto me, and I let them, knowing that a shower awaits inside the house. The smell of forest duff and sap wafts through the still-warm evening air.
Above me spreads at a canopy of branches and needles, dark browns and greens contrasting with the blue of a mostly cloudless sky. I note the new segments that top eighty-foot high trees with six new inches of fresh light green. They are at least twice my age, these old pines, and healthy. They still grow, relentlessly and silently, and I hope they will continue to do so long after I am gone.
The younger trees—too many of them despite all my efforts—have new tips on their branches also. Leafy undergrowth fills out the forest floor, along with moss and lichen, ants and bugs, and, beneath it all, coarse soil that still holds the moisture of recently melted snow.
It is all so ordinary, this quiet interlude with the natural world, yet sadly beyond the grasp of the billions who frantically chase the tails of their lives in sterile cities or grind out an existence amidst poverty and oppression. My own family is largely oblivious to the charms of this little piece of forest, rarely venturing into it with me except when the boys grudgingly and noisily help with thinning or the next season’s firewood.
We are products and dependents of nature, but just in the lifetime of these big trees around me, most of humanity has removed itself from much contact with it. Even with all my affection for these woods, I am merely a transitory visitor here. In a few minutes, I will return to my framed and furnished house and bathe in water pumped up from far below this green surface, warmed for the comfort of my cold-intolerant naked skin. I will go eat something—probably some convenient glob of food boxed up in a distant factory, assembled from ingredients trucked in from still other distant places.
But my lunch will not be far from here, at least. Still seeing the trees through windows, I will reflect on this moment in the forest by writing on a computer whose plastic materials and glowing screen, interconnected wonders of semiconductor hardware, and many-layered complexity of software coding represents untold thousands of hours of cumulative human effort, far away from simple places like this. I will review and process the photographs shown here, which were taken with a metallic oxide semiconductor sensor containing some ten million light-sensitive elements, stored in a postage-stamp sized memory card that holds sixteen billion 8-bit words of digitized information. More of my time will be occupied (happily) fussing over the images on my computer screen, using a toolbox of sophisticated image processing algorithms, than the few quiet moments I spend actually seeing them, in real life.
It’s a bit absurd in its way, this brief dropping in on a patch of nature and then turning away to resume a cozy existence ensconsed in the comforts of my nearby house and technological toys. But there are plenty of sacred places maintained by humans who visit them less frequently than my regular walks through these woods. This is my own quiet conifer cathedral, where I am both caretaker and congregant, and only birds are singing.