Late December, 2014.
Thoughts while rolling eastward through the vast boreal forest of Russia and Siberia, an epilogue.
Something there is with trees when they grow old. They want to lie down. If they’ve escaped disease, fire, the woodsman’s saw or the bad luck to take root in a future construction site, they age in place and finally die. And lie down.
Here at home in Nevada’s Spring Mountain Range drought and bark beetles take down the stately Ponderosa pines of 80 foot height and 200 years or more of growth. They stand, nude, after their needles have fallen, the lower branches lopping themselves off, weighted with snow, unable to bear the wind. Then, some windy night as the air from up on the high cliffs tumbles down the steep slopes with increasing speed, the old tree leans, topples and falls to the earth.
It lies there in its vulnerability, the surprisingly small root knot as incongruous as ancient Chinese bound feet, bound by boulders too stubborn to be broken by a tree. The heavy bark sheds like mange. The lightning gash of eighty or a hundred years ago becomes an inviting wound, filled with water, inhabited by insects, the first opening of rot. We hike past, remark at its size, and have some slight amazement to see a thing which was once so high now so low, headed, it seems, in the wrong direction. But the tree knows its way. It knows to lie down and return itself so slowly to the soil.
I thought about those trees as our Russian train rolled almost ceaselessly forward for three days with the boreal forest of Moscow, the Urals and Siberia flashing by our train window seeming, at times, to be a flickering black and white video loop of white snow, dark fir, white-barked birch, and dense shadows. These slender birch grow closely together in some sort of herd sense, packing themselves dense. They seem crowd-loving, these gregarious trees. Or, like cattle, do they gather together instead for shelter against the storm?
Then something happens. Did a cold snap on the vast, unforgiving Siberian plain catch the sap unaware, still pulsing up instead of retreating downward? Some force struck this tree or its frozen sap exploded. A full quarter or third of this birch and birch after birch beyond it is missing, the top snapped off, standing still like a sentry soldier, head carried away by a cannon ball, and standing still without the ability to realize what has happened. It’s not uncommon.
Others simply start to fall. But the forest density is too much. Its fellow trees catch it, prop it up, stay the collapse. A drunk, just wanting to lie down, held up by friends. It simply leans there held ten or fifteen degrees off ninety, kneeless, incapable of crumpling. Does it long for the ground, the deep scent of rot and mold? Is it called to earth but unable to respond? Does the headless tree remain, body standing in amazement, and, headless, does it not hear the call to lie with the earth?
Something there is with trees when they meet death. They want to lie down.