The Forest is My Brother

I always wanted a brother. Ellyn was continually a speck, running into the distance with great speed — her long legs outsprinting mine even when I managed to get a head start. And yet, tomorrow would bring a soft knock at the door, light padding footsteps, and a warm body curled next to mine. Sisters are fickle creatures. My imaginative (and slightly idealized) mind possessed a brother who would run with me: no head starts, no fickleness.

I can’t recall when James became my brother. Yes, we shared the diluted blood of cousins, but that seemed to encompass only part of our tie. We were barefooted members of our own havoc-wreaking club, stealing golf balls from unsuspecting retirees in the summer and plotting elaborate plans to capture the last piece of pie after Christmas dinner.

These were the days of annual summer trips to the forests of Central Oregon. Our band of pathetically pale-skinned cousins would whine and contort as our mothers slathered on too much sunscreen before setting us loose on the trails and rivers. There are dozens of cousins of varying ages in the Erving family, but there were eight of us who seemed especially attached at the hip. Katelin, Sophie, and Teddy were a flurry of siblings with strawberry hair and effervescent giggling personalities. The time spent at their house was filled with Swedish pancakes and dragonfly chases in the tall grass out back. Joey and Kristen were the tow-headed and more reserved siblings. Their noses were often pressed up too close to the pages of their books, and they would fall asleep on the car rides home from seeing the new Harry Potter film each summer. James was the adventurous rule-breaker who would lead us to the dirt jumps bordering the asphalt bike paths. Detours were marked by the sounds of crashing metal and childhood wails. During these days, there were lots of scratched knees and band-aids. Ellyn, the eldest, was our fearless leader, and I would trail in her wake with the big doe-eyes of little sisters. A conglomerate of chaos, we would race our bikes to Paulina Springs and set our popsicle-stick rafts loose on the frigid waters.

I fell in love with my family of cousins and uncles and aunts, and I fell in love with the forest for binding us together. In the forest our disparate lives slipped into the background and the spell of the Ponderosa pine enchanted our childhood. The weeks in the woods were made sweeter because of their fleeting nature. We had time to make up for, and we were going to fill it to the brim with chaos and adventure.

James became my brother in the forest. But the forest took away James’ older brother. Robbie’s skis ebbed in the wrong direction and led him to an airless pocket of snow beneath an evergreen. They don’t talk about it much. They say it was quick, but that’s what they always say.

Together at five-years-old, James and I discovered the pain of grief. The woods ended Robbie’s life, but we restored our faith in evergreens the next summer. With aunts, uncles, and cousins, we gathered in a circle behind the family house as the late summer glow began to wane through the pines. Uncle Bob stepped to the center of the circle and began to hollow a space in the forest floor, digging out the splinters and debris left by the loss of his son. With the rift in the forest exposed towards the sky, the brothers — Uncle Bob, Uncle John, and Daddy — placed a small Douglas fir in the hollowed space, making sure to pat down the dirt at the base of the tree. Our circle of family stood ghostly still as we watched Uncle Bob step towards the newly planted tree with the urn of his son’s ashes. I thought it strange that such an important person could fit into such an unimportant jar. The ensuing silence was filled with the whisperings of anticipation and the fear of finality as the gradient of ashes sifted out of Uncle Bob’s hands and onto the tree below: an hourglass of mourning. Each handful of ash entwined with the thick and golden forest air, visibly reducing Robbie’s time on this earth to a shower of glittering debris. I saw James cry that day. Not the tears of lost trinkets and dropped ice cream. These were adult tears.

I still think of Robbie. Although now I see his death through adult eyes that allow me to visualize the roots of that Douglass fir extending over the rift his absence left in our family, binding us together deep beneath the forest floor.

Stevie Nicks’ voice and Lindsay Buckingham’s guitar solos guided our blue ’89 Volvo station wagon home. Ellyn and I would make up the words to Fleetwood Mac’s “Rhiannon” and “The Chain” and we would fall into laughter when Daddy began to play air keys on the dash. With the window’s breeze cooling off the sun-baked seats, I watched the high-desert pine of Central Oregon transition to the wet Pacific evergreen. While the former enchanted us, the latter was home. But home was more complicated than it was in Oregon. The Seattle rain changed things. It brought temperaments to the surface and shook the demons.

Most weekends of my adolescence were marked by the breaking waves against the side of the Bainbridge Island ferry. The Puget Sound carried me away from the murmurous taunting of the middle school hallway. Grasping the cold railing of the boat’s exterior staircase, I would make my way to the bow of the second floor, eager to watch my safe haven appear out of the fog. The echoes of my walkman’s selection swept over my eardrums as the ferry passed Blakely Rock and the tree-lined beaches of the island began to approach. It is fitting that James lived on an island.

On some weekends, we would venture to the property on Marrowstone Island. James’ parents, Aunt Elizabeth and Uncle Bob, split their time between the two islands. The sparsely populated island forms one freckle on the uneven skin of the Puget Sound. Driving from Bainbridge to Marrowstone, across the Agate Pass Bridge, was like crossing a cultural boundary. To the Southeast lay the metropolitan Pacific Northwest, marked by corporate coffee, crowds, and fish tourism. Indian reservations, crab pots, and splintered docks marked our destination. The property itself constituted four acres where the natural world blissfully comingled — a peaceful escape from the hustle of our family’s daily life in the city.

Marrowstone time was slow and idyllic. We would play hide-and-go-seek in the orchard and chase each other through the abandoned army bunkers at Fort Flagler State Park. Perched high in the peeling red Pacific madrona, we shot BB guns into the rocky shore. The hot days of summer would beckon us into the murky waters of Mystery Bay, and James would mock me for fearing non-existent sharks.

We didn’t see it coming. Perhaps we were too clouded by our own giddy childhood all those years to recognize the rift that was appearing in our midst. It started with a quiet conversation in our living room. I watched Momma’s lips form the words that told me James wasn’t my cousin by blood. My Uncle Bob, through whom James and I had shared blood, did not actually share blood with his own son. James was the fortunate product of an anonymous sperm donor and my Aunt Elizabeth’s will to conceive. The whole family — even Ellyn — had known all along, and now at eighteen, James and I were let in on the secret. My brother and I had shared the imaginary diluted blood of cousins. But it isn’t only the blood that binds.

I was angry.

How could they have kept this from him for eighteen years? How could they throw this at him? I wanted to steady the ground that shook beneath us. However, my frustration was my own and my brother stood steady in the storm. I retreated to a simmer and returned to the woods for another summer. Our band of cousins again fell under the spell of the Ponderosa pine.

“It’s fine, Carolyn,” James calmly stated as he applied pressure to the pull-tab of a dented can of Budweiser. We stood under a canopy of trees on the untamed side of the golf course. The sizzle and inevitable cracking open of the beer released a slight flutter of butterflies throughout my body.

“I’m not worried! Really, it’s fine…hand me one,” I reassured, but the words were more for myself than for James. The utter darkness of the golf course only rendered the silhouette of my brother visible, but I knew that he was smiling. We both knew that I was scared of getting caught, scared of drinking for the first time, and well…worried because I had found a reason to. I watched his six-foot-three-inch frame tilt back, beer in hand. He took a long sip, paused, and then reached down to toss me a can. The frigid condensation of the beer felt refreshing on my hands and I took a breath as I cracked it open and took my first sip. I hadn’t expected there to be as much fizz and began to cough.

“Take it slow,” James encouraged. I began to take slow sips of the bitter liquid, forcing myself to swallow, as my brother took his last swig and crushed his can under his heel. I felt like an amateur.

As we stood on the soft pine needle ground and watered down our blood with shitty beer, I began to laugh. I hated what I was drinking, but standing there with a beer in my hand and my brother to my left made me feel important — like together, we could take on the vast sheet of stars encompassing the darkness around us.

I loosened my grasp on the mostly-full can before letting it fall to the ground.

“Why didn’t you just let me finish it?” he said in exasperation.

“No one should drink something that tastes that shitty,” I said in between laughs.

That summer James and I also discovered the jumbled web of fire roads in the Willamette National Forest and our uncle’s 1954 blistered-yellow Jeep. We had only biked back there in previous years, quietly stumbling upon herds of elk and dodging boulders and potholes. Now, we were invincible in our rumbling beast of an automobile that could surmount every obstacle. I’m sure the elk hid in fear. It was approaching dusk one July evening when we hopped into the Jeep and headed into the backcountry. The light was golden and the rays that permeated the tree-cover seemed almost tangible, made even more apparent by the upturned dust filtering through the air. Even with the sputter of the antiquated engine and the dirt forcing itself into every crevice of our bodies, it was peaceful. We stopped at the rusted ladder that poked out of a dark recess in the land. I was fearful of the cave when I was younger — scared that bears would be sleeping in the corners of the abyss. Remembering this with a slight smile, I descended into the darkness one rung at a time.

Beneath the forest, time becomes even more mysterious than it does above ground. The ceiling of the cave, partially illuminated by a distant skylight, is wrinkled by a network of roots — the only reminder of the real world persisting above. In my youth, I frequently dreamt of the cave. I’ve dreamt it as the border between our lives and the underworld, just on the periphery of the River Styx (all probably influenced by Daddy’s bedtime readings of mythology). Something happens when I reach the final rung and tiptoe onto the floor of the abyss. The bed of the cave resembles a riverbed in the desert; only the stones are iridescent and radiate a blue hue in the glow of the invasive light. There’s no denying this place is special, only for what, I am not sure.

James and I stood under the forest, observing the waning summer light rescinding its touch on the deserted riverbed. Standing in the very fracture of our forest, I felt so soundly that I did indeed have a brother.

At Christmas, we did not venture to Marrowstone. The for-sale sign pierced the mound of grass at the end of the gravel driveway and the dust settled as the last car turned right onto the highway. Uncle Bob had met another woman. They had been emailing for a while. Her name was Suzanne. Apparently they had known each other growing up.

“Elizabeth, calm down,” I heard Momma forcefully assert as I rolled over in my sheets and looked at my alarm clock: 6:00AM. With a sigh, I turned onto my back and shut my eyes. I knew that I wouldn’t fall back asleep anytime soon.

“I don’t know Elizabeth…they are brothers and they are going to talk. No one is taking sides here,” Momma said exasperatedly. I calculated that it was Aunt Elizabeth, James’ mom, on the other end of the phone. “Divorce” was the word on everyone’s tongues these days.

“I know there are two sides to every story! I’m not denying that. You’ve been one of our close friends…family members…for the past twenty years. This doesn’t have to change that, ok?” Soon after, I heard the phone being placed back in its charger.

I tried to think about what I would do if I were in Aunt Elizabeth’s shoes. I’d be heartbroken too but this whole “sides” thing seemed irrational to me. But then again, I’ve never been married for twenty years.

We were old enough now to be exposed to the hostilities of family when no one knows how to piece back what has been shattered. Even though no one would admit it, allegiances were made and sides were taken, but I didn’t really care about how Aunt Elizabeth and Uncle Bob felt. I cared about James and resigned to follow his lead. Sometimes we talked about it, but there was enough talk at each of our homes. When it did come up, I watched the evolution of emotions that comes with painful change wash over his face — hurt, anger, and finally, acceptance. His unwavering ability to reconcile with shadows was difficult for me to accept even though I wanted to align my emotions with his. James’ roots stretch deep. My uncle and I haven’t spoken for two years.

These days, fewer of us return to the woods. The numbers have dwindled from eight, to five, to one. And after this past summer, the Ponderosa pine has become a figment of my imagination.

I see James from time-to-time at home. He attends the local university and on my trips home I try to see him. Only now, our reunions lack the spirit and chaos of earlier years. Now, we resign ourselves to seated conversations in foggy-windowed coffee shops. The only trees in sight are planted in the sidewalk and are surrounded by metal grates. Perhaps Peter Pan had it right and growing older does place us outside of our own imaginative enchantments. Or perhaps those enchantments transform to other “adult” arenas of our life. Whatever the case, something feels lost.

I worry that without the woods, I am without a brother.

In the woods, I feel my childhood carelessness returning. The forest is idyllic in this way, but it is not without hurt. While the evergreens breed life and push spaces to become whole and beautiful, this does not happen painlessly or without consequence. The branches of the forest trap us in their midst and simultaneously drive deep splinters into the earth around us while enwrapping us with comfort. The Ponderosa pine is drifting father into the recesses of my imagination, but I continue to drive my roots deep into the fractures left behind.

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