Tuesday, May 20, 2014

On a Tree Falling in a Forest

As a matter of fact, the Corporate Woods were full of people. Bicyclists passed me on the trail every three or four minutes: there were fresh, dewy young couples out for an afternoon spin, elderly hermits pedaling battered rigs and towing enigmatic two-wheeled carts loaded with soda pop and beer cans, a city councilwoman unsteadily piloting her bike as if to inspect the municipal park and trail for evidence of defects, a tattooed man wearing a baseball cap backwards with his ugly, brutal-looking dog trotting alongside him on a limp silver chain, his equally tattooed girlfriend, arms and chest bare to show her ink trailing behind on her bicycle, a lone boy with a grim, hunter’s face, standing upright on his pedal and scanning the woods, out for an afternoon of spearing squirrels and frogs, an elderly gent gingerly proceeding down the trail at a speed barely sufficient to keep his bicycle upright – he would doff his hat to me if he could, but his hat was an aerodynamically streamlined arrow-shaped helmet and it was strapped tightly under his chin and so he merely nodded as he passed me and my dog.

Beyond the culvert and lagoon, where the forest floods at the high-tide of spring melt, sheets of blue flickered in the woods. The trees were budding and veiled in a mist of pale green, leaves not yet fully established, but nascent, delicate, pale, a green vapor blurring the outlines of branch and limb. Among the elegant fiddle-head ferns, columbine was blossoming – blue flowers only slightly removed from the circumstantial green of the ferns and the brush and trees overhead, a slight gradation on the color wheel, as it were, tilted toward indigo and violet, as if the green were giving birth to the blue or vice-versa, a subtle relationship between the two hues that seemed not only worthy of thought, but also a vessel for thought, a slogan, a capsule for the idea of Spring that the woods were everywhere expressing. If you looked deep into the forest, beyond the barricades of dead-fall and the knuckle-shaped puddles where water still lurked, the columbines guided your eye along blue pathways, blue carpets leading magically to open meadows where the sun illumined great blue tapestries of flowers spread sumptuously among the trees.

At a bend in the trail, where the asphalt path shadowed the curve of the creek, shallow on that afternoon and showing tawny ribs of sand in its bend, I was briefly alone. Ahead of me, the trail wound along the riprapped edge of the stream toward a windowless hut made of glazed bricks, apparently a power transformer buried in the woods at the end of the stub of a gravel road. Behind me, the creek glinted in the sun and seeds on fine white filaments or tiny spiders riding silken parachutes floated down on sunbeams.

A sound caught my attention on the side of the trail opposite the creek. I looked in that direction and saw a large black bough tilt away from its tree. The branch was outlined in translucent green buds and it collapsed downward with a loud, ripping noise. The air next to the tree’s trunk was sunlit and it registered a momentary disturbance, something in the bright air that wobbled ever so slightly.

The branch had fallen eighty feet away from me, dropping from a tree that stood in a little swale where the woods flooded, the forest floor there still brown and thatched with leaf-litter. I suppose I could have easily walked in that direction, across the soft bed of fallen leaves to the place where the tree had shuddered and dropped its great branch. But there is something about a trail in the woods that signifies to its walkers that they must stay on that path and that there are obscure hazards in leaving the trail and that, perhaps, it would be a trespass of an unwarranted and indefensible sort to leave the beaten path to wander freely among the tall, unstable trees and the fallen branches wedged into other trees and forming structures like rude gateways through which I could see shimmering planes of columbines smeared blue like brush strokes against the distant wild. Perhaps, the soil was soft or riddled with pitfalls or hidden bogs that might swallow you up if you wandered off the trail or, maybe, there were tiny fragile animals and lady-slipper blossoms or jack-in-the-pulpit that my tennis shoes might crush if I went into the forest to inspect the place where the branch had fallen. So I stayed on the trail.

I stood for a moment in that place. My dog sniffed the air. I thought to myself that when a tree falls in the forest and there is nobody there to hear it – or, as in this case, almost nobody to hear it – there is a sound produced nevertheless. So that philosophical riddle, at least, was solved. But, then, I felt a profound and unsettling disquiet, a disturbing posthumous sentiment. The branch that had slipped from its tree-trunk and plunged to the ground was evidence of a world indifferent to me and remote from hopes and fears and desires. This was the cold and heartless world that will exist after I am dead and gone – it is a world that is lonely and sad because I am not there. A chill coursed up my spine and, then, I heard bells and a pretty young couple, merry on matching bikes, whirled past me.


  1. Thank God this riddle has finally been put to rest. The assumption that this magnificent earth requires man to validate its existence is maddeningly arrogant and so easily crumbles within the poetic beauty of your words. Thank you!

  2. Unlike the previous commenter, I know that no sound is produced by the falling tree unless a hearing apparatus, be it man ,
    animal or electronics, is able to convert the vibrations made to produce a sound.
    I have had this arguement for years with my wife but her hearing apparatus is unreceptive.

    1. I will have to think about this hard and long. I think a variant is: "If a man makes a comment that his wife doesn't hear, is he still wrong?"