Sybil Rosen was in love with the forest that surrounded her cabin. Then the power company came with the world's largest dozers. They tortured the timber, and they stripped all the land.

A rough-hewn shack is built in pinewoods on the Chattahoochee River in rural Georgia.

The year is 1910, forty-five years after the Civil War. Trees are cleared from the two-acre plot with handsaws and axes. They are milled for lumber: pine for the walls and roof, oak for the wide-planked floors. River stones are mortared together to make a fireplace; the windows have bubbles of the glassblower's breath in their panes.

The cabin is destined for many lives. Fish camp. Speakeasy. Gambling den. Whorehouse. One summer it’s a camp for Christian kids, possible redemption for all its previous sins. In 1969, a man from Atlanta buys the ramshackle house on two-and-a-half acres riverside. He brings his wife and her three children there. Upstream, an electric plant requires a five-hundred acre greenbelt of oak, hickory, and pine forest. The trees will absorb the toxic emissions from the burning of coal. The cabin is grandfathered into the greenbelt.

The man expands the shack. He adds a kitchen, bedrooms, and porches. He builds sheds. The stepchildren grow up. The man and wife divorce. Eighteen sheds run in a cluster up the hill. The man is getting old. He builds another house. He guts the sheds, cures the lumber gathered from abandoned houses, boxcars, putt-putt courses. He tells his friends the house is for his nurse. Secretly, he hopes she will be an artist, a painter or potter. They will be companions and occasionally lovers.

Soon a woman appears, a writer. She is writing about a ghost from her youth, a musician. She falls in love with the man, the river, the trees. He and the place are inseparable now; she cannot tell them apart. They marry. This goes on for eleven years. The man dies. His illness is merciful only because it is brief. The woman grieves. She gets a dog. They walk the woods. She folds into the trees, exchanges breath with them. The trees absorb her sorrow the way their leaves absorb emissions.

COVID arrives. The woman watches the river. Wrens nest on her porch. The dog makes her laugh. She is held by the trees as she was held by the man. She is certain she can survive anything.

And then the loggers come.

It wasn’t entirely unexpected. Two years ago, mysterious blue blazes appeared on trees along the gravel driveway up to the mailbox. The new marks differed from the bright yellow rings that circle our property-line trees like gold wedding bands. These rich blue blazes were large and rectangular, spreading from tree to tree into the forest beside the county road. They shone like cobalt shields in the thick woods across from what Glyn had dubbed the boneyard—the grassy open space where neighbors leave deer carcasses during hunting season and smashed armadillos at all times of the year. 


From the beginning, the blue blazes spooked me. They were big and blue enough to mistake for strangers in washed denim lurking in the woods. I imagined the ghosts of Union soldiers trapped in the trees, the spirits of the men who had torched these forested foothills on General William Tecumseh Sherman's scorched-earth march across Georgia. 

One day I ran into the fellow who applied these blazes. A trim, spectacled, middle-aged man with a brushy mustache and a tank of blue paint on his back. Hidden behind a tree, I might have missed him completely if it wasn't for Shine. The dog, always a reliable compass, spotted him, the needle of his nose pointing in the painter's direction, tail circling propeller-like in a 360-degree wag. Shine is a black-and-white combo of snap-on parts—head too large, legs too short—yet somehow it all comes together in an absurdly handsome way. He loves people more than other dogs, if that is possible. At the moment he alerted me to the man's presence, I'm fairly certain I was talking to myself, like any 71-year-old widow who lives alone will do. We rarely encounter strangers in the woods. I covered my embarrassment by asking the fellow what he thought he was doing. 

Spraying a narrow blue oblong onto a slender beech, he patiently explained that he was a contracted surveyor for the power company whose greenbelt this was, and that he was laying out a parcel to be clear-cut in the near future. My heart flip-flopped. Behind me, a line of blue blazes already sliced through a shimmering glade of thick looping grapevine and overhanging heart-leaved mulberries, the perfect setting for Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, with færies and rude magic, a forest goddess in love with an ass. 

It has been all too easy to believe the forest would always be here—and that it was all mine.

The Painter's spray gave him a misty blue aura, as if his energy field had been splattered one too many times. I wondered if he was the same person who'd banded our trees with yellow blazes. Whenever Glyn caught a man with a spray tank coming through the woods, he'd run out and try to stop him.

“Don't paint me in!” he'd shout.

The man would smile and wave the paint nozzle in greeting, as if he were deaf. Only once, the Painter asked Glyn what he meant.

“If you don't paint me in...,” Glyn spread his arms to gather in the expanse of greenbelt on both sides of the river. “...all this belongs to me.”

“Yes, sir,” the man answered pleasantly. “That's why I'm painting you in.” 

There lies my predicament, too. For eighteen years, I've walked a wooded paradise that extends far beyond the handful of acres stitched to the hem of the house. Every February, I hike up the drive in the fog-laden dawn to listen for the first spring peepers—tiny tree frogs serenading from the short-lived vernal pools in the boneyard. When the puddles dry up, there is always some mystery to explore: the fragile skull of a fox; the scimitar tushes of a potbelly pig left during the swine flu scare; and, strangest of all, an electric piano parked upright among the sedges, perhaps to accompany the frogs.

Closer to home, across from the mailbox, dense woods absorb the crumbling remains of a 19th-century homestead with a shallow root-cellar and a mossy, half-dug well. Daffodils and redbuds bloom in the spring, planted I suppose by the long-ago woman of the house. I can see her in a starched white apron, bending to pick flowers.

At the edge of the homestead is the path Shine and I have worn smooth over seven years, rambling down through the woods to the floodplain. This is the walk where my eyes learned to spot mushrooms, where I absorbed the habits of buds and box turtles. In the floodplain, when the river overflows in early spring, the bottomland becomes swamp, and the reflections of bare trees waver like watery roots below an ephemeral moveable mirror. Then the yellow blazes that paint us in melt away unheeded. It has been all too easy to believe the forest would always be here—and that it was all mine.


Two years go by. Nothing happens. Except the coronavirus and the endless shutdowns. I convince myself the logging has been permanently put on hold. Then, last August, small orange dots suddenly erupt like radioactive mold on the loblolly pines along the drive. Something is about to happen. 

When the loggers arrive at the beginning of September, they work along a gated access road north of the boneyard. The single-lane dirt road runs deep into the greenbelt, ending directly across the river from the concrete fortress of Plant Yates, the electric plant on the opposite bank. Before the gate was put in, Glyn and I would hike that road down to the water every spring, admiring the wild dogwoods and redbuds in bloom. Now I can hardly bring myself to think about those ruined trees. The hillsides are laid bare, save for the scattered, battered remains of smaller trees, logging's collateral damage. The carnage is heartbreaking but distant enough to keep from engaging the full weight of the destruction. The timber permit tacked to a maple allows logging in 110 acres. I can't take in that number. I tell myself if the logging stays over there, behind the gate, maybe it won't be so hard to bear. 

The next afternoon the Painter himself comes down to the cabin to let me know the logging is moving closer. He wants to show me how it will affect the driveway. He is tentative with me, almost tender, as if he knows what he has to say is going to hurt.

We walk up the graveled road, keeping our social distances, even though we are outdoors. I ask if he is the one who banded our trees. He nods. 

“Then you met my husband.”

I'm always eager to connect to anyone through Glyn's memory. The Painter smiles politely, inscrutably, just as he did at Glyn. I can’t tell if he remembers their encounters, anymore than he recalls our impromptu meeting two years ago.

“I've painted the whole perimeter of the greenbelt,” he says, with professional pride. 

The birds are confused, bereft of the trees and landmarks they knew. Yesterday, a shrieking of red-tailed hawks sounded like a lament. On and on it went as they circled above the desolation. 

We stop at the exact place of our first meeting, the site of an elongated blue blaze. Abruptly he swings an arm at the deep woods east of the bend in the drive. “All of this is going to be taken.” 

I feel the blood leave my face. “All of this?” I echo. “To the edge of the road?”

He nods, yes. The closest trees are ones Shine and I pass by every day on our walks, familiar as any good neighbor, and just as alive. My knees buckle. I have to sit down.

The Painter looks into my eyes. His gaze softens. His empathy only makes things worse. It tells me I'm not overreacting. 

I feel gut-punched. “What about this?” I point to the mulberry glade, the bower worthy of Shakespeare, on the other side of the drive.

“They won't touch that.” His answer suggests nothing there is valuable. A relief, and also a reminder: the green that comes first here is money. 

I cover my face with my hands, unable to hide my dismay. As if to console me, he says, too offhandedly I think, “The wildlife will love it.”  

I know the deer will benefit, eventually; there'll be plenty of tender saplings to browse. But the logging will make them refugees for a time, pushing them out of their feeding grounds and the places they bed. It will disrupt the dens and burrows of foxes, rabbits, and armadillos, not to mention the raccoons, porcupines, possums, bobcats, coyotes, and skunks who feast at our food-scrap pile. And what about the box turtles, too slow to escape the crush? And the snakes, chipmunks, and salamanders? Across my mind careens the pileated woodpecker I saw this morning, the white underlining of its wings flapping an erratic SOS. The birds are confused, bereft of the trees and landmarks they knew. Yesterday, a shrieking of red-tailed hawks sounded like a lament. On and on it went as they circled above the desolation. 


The Painter is telling me he's given my number to a forester from the timber company. The loggers will need to put in a staging area on this side of the ridge for the heavy equipment and the trees as they are cut down. He uses the discreet word “harvest.”

Doesn't he realize words can die, too? They die of pretense when used to masquerade tragedy. But who knows? Maybe the word rings true to him. Maybe he sees the forest as a wood-bearing system, brainless and without sensation, alive only in the sense of a crop to be grown and harvested. I don't really believe that. Considering all the hours he’s spent among these trees with their undeniable vitality, it's hard to picture him having no feelings about what is coming. 

The next day the Forester texts me; I take that to mean he's young. I agree to meet inside our gate—the gate that is always open because Glyn believed an open gate is less inviting than a closed one. The Forester is young, personable, with a chiseled face. We exchange pleasantries from a distance.

He gets down to business. The staging area will go in a hundred yards from the gate, forking off the driveway. It's a natural choice with an opening there through the trees. If you know what to look for, you can just make out the sunken bed of the wagon road that once rolled down to the ferry at the river's edge. The unused grassy path has been disintegrating into humus for at least seventy-five years. In its day, horse- and -mule-drawn wagons brought up the drinkers, gamblers, and philanderers from the affluent county across the water—fancy men and women coming over on the ferry for a good time at the fish camp. 

I relate all this to the Forester, if only to acknowledge the road one more time before it disappears. “There's history here.”

He throws his hands in the air. “It's all history!”

No doubt he's heard these kinds of stories before. Does his answer mean that since everything is history, none of it matters? His youth makes him arrogant; beneath the bravado, I sense he's defensive.

“Listen,” I say. “I have no right to complain. I'm a writer. Paper is still my bread-and-butter. I live in a wooden house, pay my bills by mail. I am complicit in all this death.”

Nobody wants to talk about dead trees. The conversation veers to country music, which I inwardly applaud, hoping to find common ground. Maybe we can talk through the language of music. 

“What kinds of things do you write?”

A graceful question that also changes the subject. Nobody wants to talk about dead trees. The conversation veers to country music, which I inwardly applaud, hoping to find common ground. Maybe we can talk through the language of music. 

We converge easily on legendary singer Merle Haggard and the song “If I Could Only Fly,” which was written by my first husband, the late singer/songwriter Blaze Foley. We jumped a broom down at the cabin in 1976. Haggard first recorded Blaze's song on his 1987 duet album with Willie Nelson, Seashores of Old Mexico. That was two years before Blaze was shot and killed in Austin, Texas, an obscure musician, mostly homeless. 

But in the mid-1970s, when we were in our twenties, Blaze and I lived in a treehouse in woods not ten miles from where I'm standing now. About that treehouse he sang, in an early tune, “The Moonlight Song”:

Moonlight bathes the woods around
Paradise that we have found
Here among the trees and things we love


I was writing about Blaze's ghost when I moved into Glyn's shed-house 18 years ago. 

The Forester has never heard of Blaze Foley but promises to look him up. He's gracious for a man in a hurry. I peer through the trees. They will never look again as they do in this moment. I try to memorize the scene. The stout uplifted boles of the oaks, the tall straight tulip poplars, the wind-driven dapples across the sunlit floor. Beside me are wild blueberry bushes, leaves already turning scarlet, and a massive three-trunked water oak at least a hundred years old. 

I put a hand on the oak. “Will they cut this too?”  

“They won't if I tell them not to.” The Forester’s fingers tap his leg. I suspect he's been asked to stay the execution of many a tree. 

That afternoon I go back up the drive with Shine. A deep red gash has already been cut into the woods, like an initial incision on a healthy body. Mounds of clay, rocks, and discarded small trees are pushed to the perimeter as carelessly as if they were drifts of snow. The blueberry bushes are gone.

Shine sniffs the ragged stumps of small pines, bewildered by the sudden loss of beloved spots to lift a hind leg. Up ahead, the gate and mailbox have been thoroughly beribboned with neon-pink “Do Not Touch” tape, as if they were essential evidence at the site of a Barbie crime scene, which, given the predominately male nature of the circumstances, seems bizarre. The triple-pronged oak I mentioned to the Forester has a ring of pink around it, too. 


I carry home this small solace: I have saved one tree. 

Section break curlicue

The forest waits. The day is still. A crow caws three times into the silence.

A young man enters the woods on light feet. He wears the coats of animals that live in the forest, their feathers and furs. He carries a stone hatchet. He is making a teepee for his new wife. He looks for slender saplings to shave into poles. Small stones are struck to make a spark. The ember burns a tobacco leaf. He offers the smoldering leaf to each tree to thank them for the gift of their life. He cuts three young birches and carries them away.

New trees grow.

A man enters the woods. He wears cobbled boots and the coats of animals that do not live in the forest. He is not alone. He and the other men carry axes and saws. They are building new houses in a new world. They are godly men, inclined to gratitude. They cut down many trees.

New trees grow.

Shipbuilders enter the woods with measures and plumb bobs. They look for white pine to smooth into ship masts, white spruce for decks and planks. They cut down many trees. New trees grow. They grow in the east and they grow in the west. The trees in the west are astonishingly old. Their trunks are wider than a man is tall. Men enter the western forest. Their clothes are dirty, wet, and torn. They carry springboards to stand on and crosscut saws. They look for trees that grow beside water. The felled trunks are tied together like rafts. Log flumes guide the logs downstream to lumber and paper mills. At night the lumberjacks retreat to dank, lonely camps, lice-ridden, diseased. When there are no more trees to cut, the men move inland. Horses, oxen, wagons, and trains do the work of water. In time, the timberjacks band together. They live in clean camps now, with their wives and children. They harvest trees for the schools and churches their families will attend.

Machines enter the woods with men inside them, as if they had eaten the men. The machines are cumbersome, thunderous, unstoppable. They take down everything in their path.

New trees grow.

Men enter the woods with chainsaws. The trees fall faster. Trucks haul the logs away on paved roads. They cut down many trees. Machines enter the woods with men inside them, as if they had eaten the men. The machines are cumbersome, thunderous, unstoppable. They take down everything in their path. Some have metal pincers that snap a grown tree like scissors cutting through a straw. Others, with claws on long cranes, limb a felled tree of its branches in seconds. The machines cut down many trees. They leave behind a ravaged land. 

And still the trees keep growing.


I jolt awake to the sound of saws whining and tree trunks crashing to the ground. The loggers have started early, before the first light. I throw a shirt over my pajamas and hurry up the hill with Shine. I do not know what to expect, but I cannot stay away.

The noise at the top of the drive is deafening. I now live in a humming worksite. The wet road is churned up from the tracks of lumber trucks and bulldozers. On the hillsides, heavy yellow machines, like big-jawed herbivorous dinosaurs, are devouring trees. The remnants of the old homestead have been leveled down to bare red clay perforated with the studded footprints of machinery tread. The generous oaks and pines that once shaded the well have vanished. The air smells like varnish. The entrance to the path to the floodplain is obliterated. Saplings bent and pushed across the opening make an impenetrable barricade closing the way in. On three sides of the mailbox, uprooted trees are tossed about like abandoned, giant pick-up sticks, while the flayed, broken, slighter trees and mashed vegetation resemble nothing more or less than a war zone, or the wake of an F5 tornado.

The shock is making me nauseous. My feet have trouble moving. To make matters worse, in my haste, I forgot to bring a leash for Shine. All at once, a black pickup truck comes barreling around a curve. The dog runs toward it in greeting, as he does when loose. 

I shout at the truck.

“Slow down!”  

It does. When it gets to me, it stops. Inside the cab I glimpse reddish beard and tousled hair, a kid with hunched shoulders. We don't look at each other. 

“I saw your dog,” he declares, torn between apology and defiance. 

My voice quavers. “There's people living here.”   

He hunches lower. “I wasn't going that fast.” 

I look at him. He can't be twenty yet. He's probably late for work. 

I alternate between loud frantic chanting...and profanity aimed at the loggers. I say horrible things to them, and about them, and their mothers.

“I'm upset,” I sputter, exercising a flair for stating the obvious. “It's an upsetting morning.” 

He drives on. His back windshield is stenciled in white letters: Get off my ass before I inflate your airbags. I can relate to the sentiment, if not the act. Underneath is a black-and-white American flag, the white stripes shaped like rifles and assault weapons. I grab the dog by his harness and flee. 

At home, I am furious. I alternate between loud frantic chanting—Emmei Jukku Kannon Gyo, a Buddhist chant invoking Avalokiteshvara, the Goddess of Compassion, is one I turn to often in deep distress—and profanity aimed at the loggers. I say horrible things to them, and about them, and their mothers. I pace the house. I can't work. I try to meditate through the felling and the falling. I realize I have to go back up. I have to walk the land. If I don't stare down the destruction as it's happening, I'll never be able to absorb it. I go alone. Shine shows no interest, and I don't insist. 

When I get to the top of the drive, a machine trundles around the corner toward me, maybe 200 feet away. A low-lying circular saw is cutting a row of slender trees along the edge of the road. I freeze in horror. A beech sways ominously and falls. 

“You fucking bastard!” I yell into the mayhem. It's easy to be brazen when you know you won't be heard. “What is the point?” These trees are too slim to be milled; their roots held that hillside in place. The saw hisses and spits smoke as if it had a mouthful of wood chips. Boom, boom, boom, down go the trees like doomed dominos. 

The machine keeps coming. Terror overtakes me. Suppose the driver doesn't see me and I am cut in half? I run back down the drive past the bend, turning up into the mulberry glade. Still, I'm startled when a man's voice calls out, “You all right?”

I do an awkward about-face, like a teenager caught out after curfew. On the drive, about 30 feet away, is a tanned, broad shouldered, white-haired man of possibly 70. I'm guessing he's younger than he looks, that his pale lemony hair was once bright orange. He has a kind, cragged face. Are all loggers attractive? Is that a prerequisite for the job? 

At the same time I realize I am wearing torn, loose pajama bottoms with the cuffs tucked into my socks so that the pants poof at the calf — always a good look. And though I've been up for at least two hours, I have yet to look at my hair. Which tends towards tangled in the best of conditions. This is what comes of living alone and basically unnoticed. Eighteen months of shutdown have ossified every reclusive impulse I own. 

“It's rough!” I shout above the machines. I could be talking about myself. “I don't own this land but I love it.”  

“Most of these trees are dead anyway,” the old man shouts back. 

We both know that's not true, else why would he be here? Is he trying to placate me – or himself? It must be distracting for the loggers when a local wanders the carnage with a long face, an unsolicited reminder that trees are being killed at a numbing rate.

As if reading my mind, he says, “The trees will be replanted.” 

That does help. There's comfort in remembering nature can renew.

“Thank you for telling me,” I say. 

There is curiosity in his voice, and awe tinged with fear. Now I'm doubly confused. This is the man I just called a fucking bastard. And though I’d prefer not to like him, he has given me an unexpected gift—a glimpse of his vulnerability.

A distant tree falls with a sickening thud. “I just wish it could change that,” I cry, pivoting instinctively toward the sound. “The mess. The waste.” I'm surprised by my bluntness with this stranger. “It just feels like you don't care.”

“We do.” He sighs, glances away. “You live in that cabin?” He waves down the hill. When I answer yes, he looks at me directly. “You the writer?”

There is curiosity in his voice, and awe tinged with fear. Now I'm doubly confused. This is the man I just called a fucking bastard. And though I'd prefer not to like him, he has given me an unexpected gift. A glimpse of his vulnerability. Is he afraid I might write about the logging and what I might say? No doubt he has reasons to worry.

He puts up his palms as if I'm holding him hostage. His hands are stained the color of rich topsoil. They could be clothed in wrist-length brown gloves.

“You just let me know if there's anything I can do,” he states, and I believe him.

My eyes brim. “How about stopping?” I'd like to say. Instead I murmur, “Thank you,” and turn away, trudging into what's left of the woods.

That evening I wait till the top of the road is completely silent. The light is fading but I have to be alone when I walk the stricken areas. I'm terrified to see what may have happened to the boneyard.


It's worse than anything I could imagine. Every shrub, every frond of grass, every bone shard – even the electric piano – has been pummeled away into nothing but red-clay tread. The backdrop of woods into which the puddles and weeds once melted has been relegated to wherever pulverized matter and energy go. Flat as a tarmac of hardened clay, the site already holds two long wagons filled with logs, waiting to be hooked to truck-cabs and driven to the mills. Across the road, that entire swatch of woods is now a wasteland, as razed as if it had been bombed, leaving the broad tabletop of the ridge a bruised and bloodied moonscape.

There is one act of mercy. The ancient oak whose fern-covered limbs shaded the boneyard has been spared. On the inner side, the lower branches have been torn off from contact with the trucks and flatbeds but the magnificent tree is still standing, relatively unscathed. Cabin lore has it that Glyn's three stepkids saved this tree from loggers 50 years ago, leaving a note asking them not to take their beloved tree away.

I weep with relief and a curious gratitude. The old oak has survived two loggings. Surely I can survive this one.


Regret stalks me. It waits for me at night when I close my eyes.

Why can't I recall the woods across from the boneyard, the way they used to look? I passed them at least twice every day for years! Pressing down on memory, details emerge reluctantly as if they are dazed to find themselves in the past. Images bob slowly to the surface, coming into focus like Kodachrome photos immersed in pans of chemicals. Greedily I grab at them, fitting them together the way a triumphant child finishes a new puzzle. A decaying piece of charred fencepost along the county road, a length of barbed wire grown into it like a curl of petrified hair. Red honeysuckle vine in bloom, twining high up the rough trunk of a loblolly. The spot between the twin crimson buckthorns where Shine slipped into the woods to find a stick to carry home. He won't lack for sticks now. The land is bereft of everything but sticks, pine needles, and torn vines, drying and dying on a trammeled hilltop exposed to a sun without shade.

Remorse crumples me like a piece of paper, wads me up on the floor. The overnight erasure of beloved landscapes is like the disappearance of a part of my body. Not the same loss as a true amputee, but grief akin to the black despair following Glyn's death, the absolute certainty that something nameless and essential in my core had also died. I regret I didn’t to know every one of those lost trees better, more deeply. That I didn't recognize them as singular individuals with a decided energy, a distinct sensibility. These are the trees that helped me to heal. When did I thank them for that? I could not see the trees for the forest. The forest itself has a numinous presence, an intense, inviting wholeness. And now the forest—and the trees—are irrevocably, utterly gone.

I regret I am only now fully taking in the depth and breadth of tree genius. Rooted in one place all their lives, unable to flee whatever earth and sky throw at them, they compensate for immobility with ingenuity. Growing extra parts. Bending toward the light. Adapting. No one tree is like another. And now the experiments of Canadian forest ecologist Suzanne Simard have revealed other intriguing elements of tree survival. Apparently, trees adhere to the same guiding principle that we humans find so profound and so challenging: love thy neighbor. Simard has discovered that much of tree life is communal and invisible, unfolding in the dark oozy underworld beneath our feet.

Apparently, trees adhere to the same guiding principle that we humans find so profound and so challenging: love thy neighbor.

Eons ago, trees figured out how to keep their families stable and healthy: They had to help each other. They had to learn how to talk to their own kind. So trees came to communicate through their intermingled roots, with the help of microscopic underground fungi so numerous a teaspoon of topsoil contains miles of intricate fungal filament. Those warty color-splashed mushrooms that sprout in your yard, delighting the eye and often the palate, are the reproductive organs, the odd fragile flowers of these synaptic threads. Trees offer fungi the sugar that sunlight and chlorophyll concoct in the leaves, while fungi in return deliver water and elemental nutrients stoked in the soil.

Robust trees can nurture one another across species—oaks to hickories, birches to pines—doling out information, advice, and sympathy in an isotopic vernacular of carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus, to name but a few of the elements trees speak through. Ancestor trees teach seedlings the lessons of endurance, sending extra nutrition until they are tall enough to find their own light. Hub trees—Simard calls them “mother trees,” though they are not all female—extend their embrace to encompass and care for a root-wrangled web of hundreds of trees. My mind goes to the old oak in the boneyard, the one that was spared—and the many that were not.

What happens to a forest after an event of mass destruction like a hurricane, a blight, or a clear cut? Do trees grieve? Can they heal?

“When we cut, we need to save the legacies, the mother trees and networks, the wood, the genes,” Simard said in a TED Talk. “You can take out one or two hub trees, but there comes a tipping point—because hub trees are not unlike rivets in an airplane. You can take out one or two and the plane still flies, but take out one too many, or maybe that one holding on the wings, and the whole system collapses.”

And there lies my deepest regret: my blind participation in the lust for timber. I consider the amount of paper I've handled in my writing life with nary a thought for the source. Or the times I extolled an almost mystical extension of nature into our human sphere by celebrating the trees that give us fiddles, wooden bowls, the sturdy walnut desk I write on—inanimate objects that make human existence richer, more elemental, more alive. How easy it has been to romanticize the journey from a living tree to a helpmate desk.

I had never seen up close the cost to the trees—and the land itself—to create what we call civilization. I am ashamed of my ignorance, the willful obtuseness of my human privilege.


The saws are so near the cabin today, it sounds like the trees are falling in the living room. The internet has been down for several days. The phone line that delivers broadband was snagged and ripped down by a lumber truck. Rain brought a blessed silence for a few days, but the county road was left mucky, slick, and uneven. The mail has not been delivered here since Saturday.

On Monday I run into Anita—the freckled, big-boned, jolly lady who brings us our mail—at the post office on Main Street. She frowns down at me, her cheerful face darkening.

“I can't believe what they're doing at your place.”

“It's killing me,” I reply, too raw to say otherwise.

“Ooh, I just got a chill,” she declares, shivering. She holds out her arms. “Can I hug you? I'm vaccinated!”

And she enfolds me in her large embrace.

While I'm at the PO, the loggers cut all the way to the edge of the drive as the Painter foretold. From the top of the road, I can now see the unbroken expanse of the destruction. Beneath the oozing stumps and disarray of discarded trees, the scarred land is scooped, buckled, and dented across the prominent ridges and down into the deep swales. The devastation stops at the edge of the floodplain and stretches east almost to the river.

There on the horizon looms Plant Yates, no longer hidden by the forest. A single tall blinking smokestack atop a windowless concrete box, accompanied by two short, wide stacks like back-up singers bellowing plumes of steam. The plant’s starkness makes a fitting backdrop for the carnage at its feet. The familiar play of sunlight through the leaves, the emerald wall of summer trees, the sense of order, continuity—gone. The dependable beauty replaced by an ugly chaos made with a blind eye, a disregard for living things.

I trudge up to the staging area. At the far end, a grapple-skidder has a long elbowed crane that ends in monstrous metal pincers. When empty, the pincers bob like the jaws of a bloated PacMan, a predator with a bottomless appetite for wood. I try to decipher which logger is in the cab, operating the crane. It's too far away to make out whether it's the old man or a young kid.

If trees can learn to talk to each other, why can't I learn how to talk to loggers? Where is our common ground?

The arm of the crane finds a freshly cut tree, grabs the trunk with the pincers, lifts and positions the tree into a saw that strips it of any remaining branches. The naked logs are placed in the long metal flatbed wagons and numbered. The shearing and numbering of living things brings up unwanted associations of prisons and death camps. It begs the unbearable question: what do trees feel?

Nothing, some biologists say. Most will agree that trees do display sensitivity and response to stimuli, but many maintain that since individual trees have no brain or radiating nervous system, they cannot feel pain, not as we humans experience it, and in fact they don't need it. I pray that's true. After all, pain purportedly evolved in us animals to jumpstart the “fight or flight” response, to get us moving away from sources of danger. Trees don't have that option. Instead, they invented inner defense mechanisms that serve in place: electrical and chemical signals of distress and warning; pheromones to ward off disease and harmful insects. Some liken these to the response we humans make when our flesh is wounded.

I don't know what to think. In matters of pain, I'd prefer not to anthropomorphize trees, but it's hard to resist. Truth is, I don’t even try anymore. I've surrendered to the idea that just because you anthropomorphize something doesn't mean it isn't true.

As children, we sense this: we know trees are alive without being told. We know they can give us what we need most. Shelter, food, company. Especially company. Friendship. Complete, utter acceptance. Something—someone—who listens.

Anthropomorphism comes from the Greek: ánthrōpos, human being; morphos, form). Besides being a very long word, it is defined as the self-centered, man-made impulse to remake other beings—trees, birds, and rivers—in man's image. To give them human characteristics and emotions so we can better understand the things they do—much the way we have done with God. In fact, the term was coined by the Greek theologian Xenophanes, a critic of polytheism 500 years before Jesus of Nazareth was born. He noted the similarities between religious believers and their gods, down to the color of their eyes and hair, and the cliches of their infidelities and revenges.

But the impulse to anthropomorphize existed long before Xenophanes gave it a name. Sculptures from 40,000 years ago, the Upper Paleolithic, reveal a merger of human and animal anatomy—a man's body bearing a lion's head. Similarly, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare has his heroine Titania fall for the anthropomorphized Nick Bottom, an oafish weaver whose head is magically transformed into that of a jackass.

But how else do we express what we know of other creatures, except through the perceptions and language of our own experience? What do we have besides imagination, as a way of entering the inner lives of rocks, rivers, animals, and trees? From our human perspective, giving human qualities to non-humans makes them more lovable and humanity more ethical. It seems we’re more likely to give the anthropomorphized our care and consideration since they behave like us.

And trees are so obliging. Like us, they have trunks and limbs; they stand upright. As the biggest, oldest living beings on Earth, they lend themselves naturally to myth. From The Wizard of Oz to Lord of the Rings, our stories are full of trees with opinions, wry humor, and a good right hook. J. R. R. Tolkien, author of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, perceived anthropomorphism as intimately linked to language and myth.

“The first men to talk of 'trees and stars' saw things very differently,” he wrote. “To them, the world was alive with mythological beings. To them, the whole of creation was myth-woven and elf-patterned.”

The aliveness of these “sensible, sensitive beings,” as the nature writer Edward Abbey describes trees, cannot be denied. As children, we sense this: we know trees are alive without being told. We know they can give us what we need most. Shelter, food, company. Especially company. Friendship. Complete, utter acceptance. Something—someone—who listens. Most every child has at least one tree they come to know and love. The first you climb at four or five years of age leaves a deep impression of accomplishment and a tactile sensation of adventure, wildness, and courage—even if that tree is the mimosa sapling your father planted in the front yard.

From the drive I watch a feller-buncher, a machine also outfitted with scorpion-like pincers, use its scissor grip to drag five or six felled trees in a bunch over to the grapple-skidder. The men working these machines: what was the first tree they climbed? Was it on a grandparent's farm, the way it happened for Glyn? It's safe to assume they all grew up in the country. They are fishermen, hunters. At least one hates tailgaters and can be late for work. Another worries how loggers are perceived. As boys, I don't doubt every one of them loved the woods, spent time in trees. When and why did misunderstanding occur?

Then it clicks: the misunderstanding is in me. I'm more willing to give familiar emotions to trees than I am to my neighbors. Loggers often belong to logging families. The work is passed down from father to son, from axes to mechanized fellers, across generations since this nation and before, their ancestors cutting down trees an ocean away. These men grow up knowing in their blood and bones what these trees mean to them. They are their life. They are the sugar and nutrients of their survival and that of their families.

The pincers select a new tree to shear. Tree generosity exceeds anything I know. The trees give their all to the loggers.

But for that reason alone, doesn't every tree deserve a dignified death?


One morning I discover the gate lying on the ground, mangled and crushed under a lumber truck's tires, the posts that held it upright, now uprooted. As I stare at the damage, the lemon-haired Logger comes hobbling up the road after me.

His brown hands go up in apology. “We're gonna replace your gate.”

“Are you limping?” I ask, before I can stop myself.

“Getting too old for this,” he answers, scrunching his shoulders and neck, lifting a knee.

I sigh. “I know what you mean.”

Nobody has to remind me that logging is brutal, dangerous work. Felling on these steep hillsides, the loggers can look more like rodeo riders, clinging to bucking machinery instead of horses or bulls. The pounding, punishing work, even for a young man, has to be hard on a human body. The men work in small crews of four or five, so everyone, young or old, pulls his weight. Apparently this poor fellow has been given the job of managing the locals.

“We'll get you a new gate,” he repeats.

I shrug. “I'm not worried about that.”

“It's the trees,” he replies, once again reading my mind. “They will grow back. Pine beetles would of gotten them anyway.”

“I can't blame the beetles.” For some reason this makes him laugh. Does it sound like I'm talking about the band?

“We're losing money on these trees,” he offers in explanation. “With so many dead.”

“I'm sorry to hear that. I guess it's painful for everyone.”

He shakes his head, waves at what was once the homestead. “I don't know why they took that there. Weren't that many big trees. I wouldn't of bothered.” 

He cuts his eyes at me. “I know. I had a mama.”

I'm not sure whether to laugh or cry at this. So I do neither.

He goes on. “She wouldn't of liked this.” He frowns. “Used to not be this way.”

“Harder?” I venture.

“Slower. Now it's just…” He shakes his head, waves at what was once the homestead. “I don't know why they took that there. Weren't that many big trees. I wouldn't of bothered.”

I try to keep an edge out of my voice. “What do you mean, bothered? Not worth it?”

“Not worth to us what it is to you.”

I look at him. His mother tree is alive and well in him, feeding him still. He is teaching me how to talk to him. He is a country song.

He smiles. “You wait. Two, three years, them baby pines be as tall as you.” He turns to go.

I call after him. “What is your name?”

He stops. “Tommy.”

“And I'm Sybil.” He nods. I say, “Your mama did a good job, Tommy.”

He emits a sound, something between a chuckle and a grunt, and limps away, brown palms down at his side, flapping goodbye. I walk on toward what used to be the boneyard. A black pickup comes up the road toward me. I gesture for the driver to stop. He is young and red-haired,with a round plump bearded face strung with white earbuds.

“Are you the person I yelled at the other morning?” I ask.

He pulls off the earbuds, a slight smile on his lips. “No, ma’am,” he drawls. “That was my brother.”

“Ah!” I exclaim. “Well. I don't know if I'll see him again, so could you please give him a message for me?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Tell him I apologize. That was my bad. I shouldn't of had the dog running loose. I didn't know what we were walking into, I guess I was in shock.”

His face lights up, a gentle sun with a fiery corona. “Yes, ma’am,” he says. “I'll tell him.”

And on he drives. Everywhere I turn, my eyes fall on logging's dismal handiwork. I'm almost to the point of giving up paper, but what's the alternative to lumber? More concrete? Maybe. More plastic? No, thank you. The loggers are like the vet who comes to put down your dog. Nobody wants that job. Instead of cursing them, maybe I ought to be thanking them for doing a task I couldn't—and wouldn't want—to do.

Am I becoming the Patty Hearst of clear-cutting, moving toward the men who have hauled heaven away?

Section break curlicue

A few days later, the Forester calls to say the gate will be replaced once the logging is completed, which should be in about a week.

“Tommy told me,” I tell him. “He's always trying to ease my pain.”

“Guess I'm jaded by now,” the Forester admits. He adds, “It's change.” The implication being that nobody likes change.

“I don't have a problem with change,” I say quietly. “The woods change all the time. It's the devastation.”

“Well, if you can figure out another way to do this, let me know.”

Here is my opening. I've done my research. I'm ready to tell him things he's probably aware of. Selective logging. Logging with horses. How saving mother trees can save him money.

Once again he deftly changes the subject. “I looked up Blaze Foley,” he says.

“Oh.” He has stopped me in my tracks. It must be a skill he developed after so much time spent deflecting disapproval.

“I didn't know he wrote ‘Clay Pigeons’,” he keeps on. “That's one of my favorite songs. I thought John Prine wrote that song.”

We talk to each other through our roots, just as trees do. Through music and myth and the ancestors.

My heart swells. Redemption for the Forester who knows of John Prine.

“John Prine was Blaze's absolute songwriting hero. May he rest in peace.”

The country music genius who gave us “Angel from Montgomery” and “Hello in There”—classic songs of loss and regret—died at age seventy-two of COVID in April 2020. The Forester and I commiserate. We talk about our favorite Prine songs, agree it's too hard to pick one. We are officially kindred spirits.

“Would've meant so much to Blaze to know John Prine recorded his song,” I remark.

“When did he write ‘Clay Pigeons’?”

“1977, I think. As we were parting ways.”

“I can't believe I'm talking to you.”

Now I change the subject. “Did you know John Prine's ashes were scattered in the Green River, just as he requested in 'Paradise'?”

The title of that song refers to a wilderness hamlet in western Kentucky close to where Prine’s parents were born, aptly christened Paradise. Coal mining caused the little haven to disappear completely. “I know you know that song.”

The Forester is silent. He does not deflect. Is he hearing Prine's gravelly voice sing the refrain?

And, Daddy, won't you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay?
Well, I'm sorry, my son, but you're too late in asking.
Mister Peabody's coal train has hauled it away.

We talk to each other through our roots, just as trees do. Through music and myth and the ancestors. And we talk through the land from which these roots grow. The exchange is necessary, wrenching, and fertile. It is our common ground.


October. The logging is finished. Her gate has been replaced. The new gate is a fine gate. It appeared as mysteriously as the blue blazes did two years ago.

Before the gate went up, someone with a bulldozer pushed two neat stacks of brush and small trees against the rim of the old homestead site so that she is spared the sight of its ruins from the drive. Otherwise, the top of the road has been silent for weeks. She did not expect to miss the crew.

She banks online. She edges toward acceptance. One sunset she stands on the drive facing east, looking out over the bleak graveyard of the hillsides. At the far edge, a long downhill flow of barkless broken trunks, a beige river of dead trees all point in the same direction as though they were in a log flume floating downstream. 

They must be the pines Tommy was talking about, the ones that died before they could be logged. At least they are here, replenishing the forest in death.

She wonders what mushrooms will bloom from the dead wood in the spring. It still hurts to look at the land. When she's able to see beneath its ravaged skin, she's newly aware of its bones. The undulating foothills that slide down into the river, once obscured beneath the forest, now roll and sweep before her. For the first time, the expansive new vista holds the faintest promise of wide open spaces and a bigger sky. There is a horizon where none had been before. Great white cumulus clouds, sun-washed and billowy as clean sheets on a clothesline, float above a low line of pine. No doubt the clouds have always been there, sailing unseen behind the screen of trees.

There is a horizon where none had been before. Great white cumulus clouds, sun-washed and billowy as clean sheets on a clothesline, float above a low line of pine. No doubt the clouds have always been there, sailing unseen behind the screen of trees.

She thinks about the trees she saw in New Orleans nine months after Hurricane Katrina uprooted them. She and Glyn are driving toward the French Quarter. He is ruddy with health. This is not a dream. The long, wide residential street has a grassy median between opposing lanes of traffic. They are gazing at the greenway where hundreds of dead live-oaks are stacked, ruined trunks that once graced the boulevard with long-armed splendor.

She can't forget the orderly way the trees have been placed, end to end neatly, limbs fitted precisely among torn branches and roots, as if the trees were reclining in the arms of old friends. The care that has been taken with these oaks is a deliberate gesture, a visual expression of gratitude and respect.

The memory of those trees strengthens her belief that tenderness can happen anywhere. A full moon pushes up like a white crocus in the snow. The ground is wet from more rain. She and Shine wade into the tumble of stumps and flayed trunks crisscrossed over each other in treacherous heaps.

She did not bring tobacco leaf. Instead, she has incense. Sandalwood. She breaks the sweet-smelling sticks into small pieces. She lights a short stick, chants "Emmei Jukku Kannon Gyo," invoking compassion. Her voice grows fuller as she goes along. She places the smoldering incense next to a stump. Many sticks are lit and offered. In the moonlight, the tiny orange embers glow like the campfires of færies in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Bowing, she leaves the incense, one by one, beside the shattered ghosts of the trees.

Thank you, she says. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

The author in front of her cabin fireplace.
Author Profile

Sybil Rosen is an award-winning young-adult novelist, playwright, and short-story writer. Her 2021 picture book, Carpenter's Helper, was recently selected for Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. In 2008, she published a memoir of her life with Texas music legend Blaze Foley called Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley. That book became the basis of director Ethan Hawke's 2018 biopic, Blaze, which Rosen co-wrote with Hawke. She lives along the Chattahoochee River with her dog, Shine.

Author Profile

Kaylinn Gilstrap grew up on a ranch in Colorado, but has lived in Atlanta for many years. Her editorial work explores contrasts, family dynamics, and the needs of rural areas.

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