Greenman Finds the Time

Greenman was in a hurry. He was striding through the late Autumn woods on his long spindly legs, headed for a meeting with Woodpecker. And he was late.

The leaves were nearly all gone from the hardwood trees. Only the stubborn beeches and an occasional oak still wore their fluttering fall garments. In sheltered spots the odd shrub flared in isolate illumination, still celebrating the grand finale of the growing year. The hackmatacks had thrown down their yellow needles in the last autumn gale, and their brightness was scattered among the brown leaves on the forest floor. A pungent smell of decay filled the air. Greenman tip-toed swiftly through the trees.

Now Greenman is very difficult to see in the woods. His clothes take on the hues of the trees around him, and all you might notice of his passing is a flicker of color, like a ruffling breeze. When he’s standing still he becomes one of the trees. If you look closely, you might just catch a glimpse of his eyes in his leafy mask.

Today Greenman’s eyes were troubled, and his garments mostly gray, to suit the naked woods. He was hurrying to the hemlock grove in Peter’s Gully, and mumbling to himself. With the leaves cast down, Greenman could see the lay of the land through the bare branches. Below him gullies ran together draining into the swamp. Clumps of evergreens clustered here and there, dense and dark behind the gray filigree of the hardwoods. Greenman looked deep into the forest on either side with anxious concern.

It was still quite mild for so late in the season, and Greenman noticed many of the frivolous young trees still had their sap up – unconcerned about the hard frost to come. Greenmen rhythmically thumped his oaken staff on the ground as he strode along, occasionally rapping it against a heedless juvenile.

“Winter is coming,” he muttered. “Be prepared.”

You see, Greenman is the Master of the Woods, and the health of the forest is in his keeping. Lately he’d heard whispering in the branches that something was amiss among the hemlocks down to Peter’s Gully, and he’d arranged to meet Woodpecker there to investigate. If he could inflict a bit of woodsy lore on these lazy youngsters along the way, so much the better.

It had been an unsettling year in the woods. Everything seemed to be changing faster and faster. Certainly the trees were growing faster. Greenman had never seen such luxuriant foliage on the hardwoods, such immense candles on the spruce. The recovery from the big ice storm of a few years back had been miraculous, but the rank lushness made Greenman anxious. He worried there was too little sound timber, too much rampant exuberance in the new growth. More and more warm carbonated air was flowing in from upalong. That made his juices rise eagerly. But there were other scents in the wind that were less enticing. And the abundance of pests, old and new, made Greenman’s skin itch.

Greenman didn’t used to worry about change. He’d seen ages come and go in these woods. He knew yesterday’s primal groves might become today’s sheep pasture and tomorrow’s hardwood thicket. He’d watched the King’s Pines twitches out for masts, and seen the Abnaki hunting grounds felled for homesteads. Now all the stone fences those men had piled up to clear the land were buried in third growth. So Greenman oughtn’t be one to fret over passing fancies, but the pace of change unsettled him.

Blight had killed the magnificent chestnuts 100 years ago, then the elms in the last 50 years. The spruce budworm galloped through 25 years back. Now the butternuts and the maples were under threat, and the big beeches full of cancer. Gypsy moths had only been the first strangers from away to find these woods easy pickings, thanks to man’s manipulations. Now every southerly wind brought some new blight on its breath.

In the past Greenman might have let a rumor of illness in a remote corner of his domain go unexamined until he was next that way. Now he wasn’t so sure it was wise to be patient. Greenman moved swiftly through the trees. These indolent youngsters needed a rap or two, in any case, he thought.

“Winter’s coming,” he announced, prodding the juveniles with his staff.

Greenman noticed new arrivals everywhere. Strange plants, better suited to a warmer climate, were sprouting up among the old timers. New insects and new fungi bloomed. Greenman’s old charges had scant defenses against these strangers. That’s what had him hustling toward the hemlocks. If a new blight was down in Peter’s Gully, the steward of the woods wanted to do what he could immediately. Greenman tip-toed swiftly through the trees.

His long strides brought him across the powerline right of way. He shook his head at the electric humming in the wires overhead, and the herbicide-stunted saplings underfoot. These corridors made him all jangly. Now he was on the brink of the gully. Greenman stepped into a cluster of blistered beech. The sight of their wounded boles saddened him. Once the beeches had matured into noble giants, whose smooth silver skin was a sensuous delight. Their massive spreading crowns sheltered whole worlds of lesser creatures, and red squirrels sang their praises throughout the forest. Now there were only trampled third growth thickets of beech, and a hideous rinderpest lodged in their bark. A partnership of insect and fungus attacked the mature trees, causing them to break out in an unsightly rash. The beeches were holding their own against the pest, but many were stunted versions of what might have been. Almost all the bigger trees were wounded and scarred with skin cancers. Greenman had tried to salve their skins with traditional remedies, but his knowledge of these southern interlopers was spotty, and even the most isolated trees were showing symptoms. Greenman spoke soothingly as he hastened among them. Greenman tip-toed swiftly through the trees.

But what was that he smelled? Greenman stopped and sniffed the air. What little breeze there was, stirring the tiny branches, was flowing up out of the gully, redolent with rotten bracken and autumn moulder – and an acrid taint of woodsmoke. Greenman shivered. Only fire truly frightened the Master of the Wood. Not in fear for himself. He could outrun the swiftest blaze. But the painful devastation fire brough to his rooted fellows was a horror to Greenman.

Back when the Abnaki would torch the understory in the Spring, Greenman had been all aflutter, rushing about trying to protect the mature trees from immolation. He supposed the Indians’ deerfires had been good for the new growth, and protected the forest from greater conflagrations, but he’d been a nervous wreck every Spring.

This whiff of smoke was rising out of the gully below him. Cautiously Greenman crept from tree to tree, following the scent. He could hear a pop popping coming from the same direction. There it was. Three boys were sitting around a fire of dead limbs, close to the burbling creek that snaked down Peter’s Gully. Greenman could hear them laughing. They were jacking shells into 22 rifles, and plinking at soda cans they’d thrown across the brook.

Greenman was somewhat relieved. It wasn’t a runaway brushfire. Not yet, at least. He decided to settle in and watch that these boys didn’t start a conflagration by accident. The woods were very dry. Greenman stepped behind an ancient oak overlooking the campsite. Touched it with his staff, and softly recited the magic formula.

“Woodland spirit. Root and Limb. Open up and let me in.”

The big tree trembled. A widening rent opened in its side. Greenman stepped into the crack. The fissure snapped closed. He had merged with the spirit of the tree.

Greenman sighed. Inside the tree time slowed. All the haste and anxiety of the mobile life drained away. What had been a faint breeze outside was a gentle oceanic swaying inside the tree. The pale afternoon Sun tingled where it touched the tree’s skin, warming the settling sap. Greenman still knew his outer purposes, but inside the tree he was rooted in another order. Another time. Greenman stretched himself out into the tiniest ultimate branches and the most buried root hairs. Part of the Woodland Master looked out through knotty eyes, watching the boys play with fire and guns. But most of Greenman communed with the wordless wisdom of the wood. For now he was content to simply be a tree.

Greenman drifted into a waking dream. The years were slowly turning. He felt his sap descend, and winter torpor came over him. Then his sap was rising again in the springtime, and his buds were opening. He delighted in the rush of new leaves spreading hungrily to catch the sunlight. His branches grew out reaching for more Sky. Birds nested, squirrels ran up and down him, bugs hatched and dug and crawled all over him. Epiphytes blossomed and spread. Then the declining Sun brought longer nights. Acorns matured and fell at his feet. His leaves died and turned brown and were cast to the wind. Frost bit at his bark, and his energies withdrew. Again and again the season went round.

Greenman was now a King Oak, towering above the other trees. Limbs grew old and died. Windstorms wracked his great body, tearing off branches. All around him young oaks were rising up to grab some Sky. Then, on a stifling summer’s day, the Sky turned an ominous black. A tremendous thunderstorm shook the woods, uprooting trees, ripping off leaves. With a mighty crash a bolt of lightening struck the dreaming tree spirit. The World exploded in a blinding light.

Greenman was shocked into another realm. Suddenly he was surrounded by dancing tree spirits. All uprooted and mobile. Beeches, ash and oaks. Popples, maples and hornbeams. Pine, spruce and fir. Hacks and cedars. Hemlocks and willows. Slapping their branches together to a compelling cadence. The trees creaked and groaned, making an otherworldly music. Greenman was swept into the dance. The whole weird woodland poured over the landscape, trampling the ground with their twisted feet, terrifying the forest animals, who ran in all directions. The woods had gone nuts. Sensible old denizens shimmied like St. Vitus. Middle-aged trees dug at the ground, tore out clumps of earth, and hurled them at one another. The saplings whipped themselves into a self-lacerating frenzy, tearing off their bark in strips. A look of wild intoxication filled their eyes.

Greenman was ecstatic and horrified. He thrilled to the footloose freedom of the dance, but he was frightened by a world uprooted. The cavorting trees hurried faster and faster. Now the dance was spinning round in a tightening spiral. Like a vast school of fish encircled by a great whale. Greenman was caught in the maelstrom. Drawn irresistibly toward the center of the frenzy.

Now Greenman could see into the heart of the gyre, through the dizzy whirling trees. At the center of the spiral dance was a great seething pit. Of fire. The crazed cavorting trees were hurling themselves into the maw of an inferno.

Greenman could feel the heat of the flaming pit burning his feet. He tried to resist the dense press of foliage behind him. His eyes were full of wood smoke, and the horrible taint of burning trees made him gag. There was a clamorous knocking in his head.
Knocking. Louder. It was Woodpecker trying to wake Greenman.

“Wake up Old Man!” Woodpecker shouted. Then he drummed on the old oak again.

Greenman shook himself, and the ancient oak shuddered. Now the Master of the Wood could indeed feel flames nibbling at his feet. He was instantly awake. Fire was licking at the roots of this venerable tree. The boys had gone off leaving their fire smoldering. It had ignited the tinder-dry duff beside the brook, and the blaze was spreading.

Luckily the great pileated woodpecker had gone hunting for Greenman when he failed to appear among the hemlocks. The chastened saplings had directed Woodpecker to the old oak, and his knocking had alerted Greenman in time.

“Woodland spirit. Fellow tree. Open up and set me free,” Greenman chanted.

The crack in the old oak sprang open and the Master of the Wood jumped out, straight onto the fire.

At first he stamped on the spreading flames. That only made things worse. Then Greenman felt a cold calmness spreading through him. He had faced runaway fires before. He knew if he got ahead of the expanding burn, and raked a clear space around it, he might contain the fire. There was no wind, and the fire was bounded on one side by the brook. Greenman began scraping loose duff away from the tongues of fire with his staff. Greenman can move incredibly quickly if he has to, and in a few minutes he had stripped away any available fuel from ahead of the fire. He encircled the scorched area, tamping out the dying flames. It had been entirely too close.

The trees close to the burn clapped their branches together and swayed back and forth in a dance of gratitude. Normally Greenman would have been pleased the trees were grateful, but the memory of his dream made their dancing eerily discomforting. Without acknowledging their appreciation Greenman hurried down into Peter’s Gully. His feet hurt where he’d jumped on the flames. Greenman tip-toed swiftly through the trees.

The great pileated woodpecker loped silently from tree to tree, following Greenman. The magnificent black and white bird with his flaming red crest had never seen the Woodland Master so harried. Woodpecker bided his time until Greenman chose to acknowledge him. Greenman tip-toed swiftly through the trees.

Greenman had forgotten all about Woodpecker. Yanked out of a nightmare to fight a fire, Greenman was still betwixt the worlds. Caught between ecstatic self-immolation and panicked self-defense. Now he was rushing downhill without really knowing why, or whereto. Greenman tip-toed swiftly through the trees.

The day was declining now and Greenman descended into deeper shade under the hemlocks. Two browsing does saw a flicker of his passage, and pricked up their ears, but Greenman hurried by without spooking them. The sound of the brook was louder here in the deep gully, burbling over bits of exposed ledges. The smell of old bracken was intense. Greenman tip-toed swiftly through the trees.

Greenman paused for a moment to dip his scorched feet in the rushing water. His head was clearing. He remembered where he was. Yes. This had been fenced pasture a few generations of men back. Then it had reverted to primary growth. Just over there he’d used his staff to dig holes and plant acorns in among the young birch, cherry, and popple. Then those oaks had topped out the shorter-lived species, joined by pines seeded down from the ridge above. Now the oaks and pines were showing their age, and the hemlocks were dominating this section of gully. Wasn’t there something about the hemlocks? Greenman looked at the trees around him.

Clouds were slipping over the Sun as it approached the treetops. A rising wind shook the hemlock boughs. Greenman could hear the evergreens humming a windsong to the breeze. The Woodland Master recognized a new variation to a very old tune. It was about the joy of this place and this company of fellow spirits. It wasn’t a crazed and frantic song like the music in his dream. It was slow and stately like the tallest of trees. He heard the music spread out from the hemlocks around him, echoing from grove to grove. Each group of trees sang the melody of this place in this time, in their own way. Greenman was remembering all the local improvisations he’d heard of this autumn song. How each riff had come and gone, but the music always remained. Greenman felt his worried haste blowing away in the wind. He began to sway in tune. He stretched, and put his hands on his hips. Greenman arched his back and looked up into the trees. His eyes met Woodpecker’s.

“Welcome back,” the great pileated woodpecker called. Greenman nodded.

“I found a few of the blight bugs on these hemlocks,” Woodpecker reported. “And I suspect there’ll be more. I did eat those I could find, and they say there’s a Asian beetle headed up from Connecticut that will gobble them, in time. Not to worry.”

Greenman smiled at Woodpecker.

“Thank you for caring,” the Woodland Master said.

“The woods are home to us all,” Woodpecker replied. Then the gaudy bird joined in the breezy chorus, rapping a lick on his perch in time.

“Care to dance?” he asked Greenman.

Greenman just smiled again, and shook his head. He took up his staff and slipped into the trees, humming along to the music.

Which is why Greenman pauses to listen to the wind in the trees. And why rushing after tomorrow can make you forget about right now.