Every creature is better alive than dead, men and moose and pine trees, and he who understands it…will rather preserve its life than destroy it. -Thoreau
If a man walks in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer. But if he spends his days as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making the earth bald before her time, he is deemed an industrious and enterprising citizen. -Thoreau
With axe in hand, I stand underneath the towering oak and cherry, reveling in my destruction. Mine and my son’s. We two warriors, strong in body and resolve as we seek to slay our self-appointed enemy. We have labored for nearly a decade in our quixotic attempt to rid these woods of not just our enemies but the trees’ enemies as well. For the vines would seek to tear down these buttresses that hold up the sky; they would bring them to the ground to be suffocated and drowned in thorns.
We are trained to identify and recognize our many enemies; we must be, as they come from many lands and recruit more allies in their pernicious attempts to rid this place of all that first called it home. We are soldiers in a small army of volunteers, named and train to identify and eradicate the invasive species that threaten our native woods-the pawpaw, dogwood, witch hazel and even the mighty oaks and tulip poplars. My son and I fight on many battlefields, helping others on their quests, but we return to this place as our own for these woods hold promise of redemption and renewal.
Down the trail, the woods are open and free of and two old oaks tower like guardians over the century-long growth of the surrounding woods. I often walk here, seeing into the past and the future. Somehow these woods have been spared the onslaught. Though we do not need to work here, we feel honor bound to ensure that our enemy does not conquer these lands that know the freedom of space and air.
Our woods also have their giants, but many of their younger, smaller brethren have been swallowed and felled by English ivy, Oriental bittersweet, and Japanese honeysuckle.
My son and I have come to wage war upon these invaders. I because I am a hopeless romantic that yearns to return my world to an impossible Arcadia, a time and place of simplicity and innocence; a time before the invading gardener’s arrival with his specimens, his flowers, and his seeds. The farmer with his axe, the developer with his bulldozer. I wish to bring back a vision of something I have never seen-a wood made whole, a forest from a time when the hand of man rested more gently on the land.
I first brought my son to the woods to explore and to learn what the forest had to teach. With his sister and mother, we traveled up and down the East Coast, into the deeper forests of West Virginia to hike the old trails, to pick the blueberry in July, to witness the return of the spruce and fir, nearly lost in the wanton destruction of the past century.
We traveled north to witness the sunrise on a Maine beach. We hiked the Green and White Mountains to see how the forests have healed and brought grandeur to those who seek it. I brought my children to the woods so that there they would find their first love as I did. And I brought my children to Nature so that they would always know a place where they could find peace. Providing healing silence, the trees ask nothing in return.
From a young age, as a result of their time in the woods, my children volunteered for duty in the fight against the weeds. Now, over a decade later, my son’s back has grown wide and strong, and he has learned that his body has power; here he is a force for good. He has learned the lessons of the woods that I hoped he would. My son has become a warrior and has learned how to fight those that would harm his trees.
Here in the woods he is able to forget his other battles that are not so easily won. And, for a few hours at least, we fight and grow stronger together. Here our enemy has no voice and no power over our resolve and our sharpened tools.
The other day we stopped to revel in our destruction. We stood, tired, our tools propped against trees to see ourselves surrounded by the scattered remains of the vanquished invaders. We were not unscathed by the battle; our faces and hands bore the marks of thorns as we pulled, severed, and slashed.
Our campaign of these past months show a forest floor able to welcome new growth. We behold a forest of trees no longer competing with the bushes that had choked their roots. Vines stripped from their trunks, the trees stand sentinel now, ready for the refugee’s return.
The hillside now stands ready for the holly to resume its march from the creek to the top of the ridge, providing cover for the flowers that will follow.
We silently depart. A nod of the head and a bump of the fist an acknowledgement of a job well done. We will return soon to pick up our axes and our other healing weapons, for these woods hold promise of redemption and renewal.