Thoughts in a Maryland Woodland

     Standing on a mossy rise,
I looked off through the November woods. 
Away, to the north, beyond the old chestnut oaks,
Across the stream valley, trees on the far hill
Faded to gray against the evening sky. 
Nearby, a chill breeze
Touched the pale beech leaves,
And they quivered, unfallen,
As their species has done for centuries untold.

      This is the woods of home,
And I thought of things remembered,
And things before my time, some but yesterday
To the ancient trees around me.
The measure of time is everywhere. 
These sands and clays knew the age of dinosaurs,
And the sublime contour of these hills, valleys
And terraces is the slow work of a million years,
Punctuated by inroads of the sea.

      All this was the home of the bear,
Wolf and mountain lion. 
The Indian was here too, but that was long ago,
And there is no wildness here today. 
This is a gentle place, where one walks
With lowered voice and measured step
Among the ferns.


     These woods were part of “Timberneck,”
A colonial grant three hundred and fifty years ago. 
The uplands were cleared for tobacco,
But these slopes and deep ravines were left intact. 
For farm timbers, the trees were too large, too inaccessible. 
And so, they stood, untouched, the chestnuts,
Oaks and poplars, sour gum and beech.

      The wind blew again, and I heard the long whistle
Of a steam locomotive, far off, and the voices of young men. 
I saw yokes of oxen, brown sinewy beasts,
Their ribs all showing, straining ahead of a great log. 
The year is 1902 – or perhaps later; it doesn’t matter. 
They are now all gone, the last of a heroic age. 
Only deep grooves in the hillsides, and circles of woody mould,
Where no moss grows, tell that they were here. 
And the mournful whistle sounded again, somewhere in time.

      The light was fast fading,
And I thought of a young boy,
Walking the length of a fallen chestnut,
Counting the rings on a mossy log
Taller than he,
And finding vulture feathers
Under a bare silvery giant at the top of the hill. 

      There were poplars and oaks where outstretched hands
Could not span the hollow. 
Other old trees stood among the tall stumps,
Crooked, heavy-limbed, thick-barked,
Bypassed by the long crosscuts. 
These ancients remained, speaking in dark forms
Of the greater forests that had been. 
And the boy knew
That he had been born too late.

      It was near dark, and I turned,
And walked the old path, a bit slowly.
I passed a stand of poplars, straight columns
Now grown to much height,
Thinned only by lightning and the wind. 
A hundred years ago this was an orchard.  
Someday, another fifty years, or a hundred,
These will be great trees. 
Still, it will not be the original forest.

      These trees grew too easily. 
This stand must pass away, and other species,
More varied, hard-butted and strong,
Must rise and grow old. 
But that will not happen; the soils have been changed,
The chestnut is no more,
And plants from foreign lands have made their claim. 
And, were it possible, five hundred years from now,
Who would understand?

      Lost in thought, I walked on,
Through the honeysuckle and sassafras
To the field, where the first stars
Hung above the broomsedge.


                                                Colby B. Rucker, May 2002