by Carol Raitt
Ohanapecosh: Thought to mean “standing at the edge,” the Ohanapecosh River is named for a Taidnapam (Upper Cowlitz) Indian habitation site formerly located along its banks.
It is 2012, late July. I am in the Grove of the Patriarchs, Mount Rainier National Park. Big trees surround me—1000-year-old Douglas firs, western hemlocks, and western red cedars. Rays of sunshine push through gaps in the upper branches like light sticks, illuminating the duff and a patch of flowering vanilla leaf, aka ”sweet after death” named for the sweet scent released from its crushed, dried leaves.
My heart feels too large inside me. It is burning. Constricted. I want to rip it out, exorcise the pain. Slam it down on the ground. Kick it away from me. Run from it. Leave it behind to disappear into the detritus beneath my feet and be covered by threads of mycorrhizal fungi and tree roots below the soil of these wise and ancient monarchs. Children play hide and seek behind a forest giant. Two lovers lean into each other against an old-growth cedar trunk and kiss. A chickadee sits on a branch above them and sends a scolding message to us all. The air is muggy and still. I stand alone, enfolded in the silence of The Grove.
I did not always come to this place alone.
My first visit to Mount Rainier and the Grove of the Patriarchs was in 1993, when I was in my mid-40s. Although the park was a two-hour drive from my home in Seattle, I’d never visited the mountain or her surrounding lush forests. On clear days Rainier rose from the distant horizon like a painted mural—its countenance reminiscent of photos of Japan’s Mt. Fuji. Rainier’s grandeur was impossible to ignore driving south on the interstate. I kept promising myself I would visit. One day at work, you suggested we go for a day hike in the foothills of Mount Rainier. You looked like some guy in an LL Bean catalogue—all khaki and Gore-Tex, full beard, and flannel—not really my type. You were a former park naturalist and a gifted teacher. I was a budding naturalist eager to learn about northwest plants and animals.
I hesitated at first when you suggested we spend a day at Mount Rainier. I wondered if it was wrong for me to spend a day with you while my husband of twenty-two years was sick from a second bout of cancer. And would your own spouse object to the two of us spending time together? I decided our outing was innocent enough. I agreed to join you.
It was late June 1993, and an early snowmelt made for ideal conditions to hike through the forests surrounding Mount Rainier. Sunshine and lingering moisture heightened the humidity, perfuming the air with the scent of conifer needles and Nootka rose. Within minutes on the trail, I felt more relaxed—my senses on high alert. I was in Nature. My safe haven. You identified plants, shouted out tree names, and even coaxed a Clark’s nutcracker—a relative of a crow—to eat treats from your hand. Our day together was exactly what I needed. I could not remember when I’d felt so free and so completely at peace.
Nature is not a place to visit, it is home.
~~ Gary Snyder
My parents deserve full credit for my first nature explorations, though not for reasons you might assume. My parents were not outdoorsy types. When I was eight our family moved to a house across the street from an undeveloped woodlot. My bedroom window faced a gravel path leading into those woods where wild grasses, stinging nettles, and sword ferns grew in a tangle of wildness below alder and firs. My mother forbade me to play there. I ignored her.
I loved those woods—a place heady with musty mushrooms and decomposing leaf litter. A favorite pastime of mine was perching on a mossy fallen log, and watching insects zoom about in a small, seasonal pond: water striders, diving beetles, water boatmen. I didn’t know their names at the time, but the bugs’ antics distracted me—all they knew was to swim, dive, and disappear under water. Theirs was a world much simpler than my own.
My childhood was chaotic, an environment where volatility crackled beneath a guise of normalcy. My father went to work each day and my mother was a stay-at-home mom—a regular 1950s family. Or so it seemed. Home was a place where the letters AA meant arguing and alcohol. Nature became my refuge at a young age, an escape from the beer and belligerence that fueled my parents’ fights. Nature comforted me. Reassured me. It calmed me from the alcoholic storm raging inside my parents’ home.
And on that day in June, nature had once again offered me much needed grounding. Sam’s esophageal cancer diagnosis came as a shock. It was his second cancer in two years. The prognosis was grim. Sam’s chance of living beyond five years was five percent. He vowed to beat those odds, and did, but my husband never fully recovered from the trauma of his surgery. This latest cancer was a reminder of the fragility of Sam’s health and the mutability of our lives together. His cancers changed him, and me, and our relationship. Rather than bringing us closer together, Sam’s illnesses pushed us father apart. Sam withdrew into himself. I longed for something beyond being a wife and caregiver. I longed for a safe haven. And, as I had as a child, I sought refuge in Nature.
Our first visit to The Grove was one of many you and I made to Mount Rainier National Park. That initial visit was, perhaps, the sweetest. Walking beneath tall trees made me realize how I’d neglected caring for my soul—being in the park was not only a refuge from life’s current chaos, but I also felt my spirit ignite. I never wanted to leave. A small voice inside me said, “Do you remember this?” That first visit to The Grove roused feelings I’d buried for much of my adult life because I was too busy with marriage, raising a family, work, and caring for a home. I’d forgotten how much nature enriched me.
Thoreau once said, “Friends cherish each other’s hopes. They are kind to each other’s dreams.” You became my nature mentor. You encouraged me to pursue my dreams of becoming a naturalist. The more time we spent together outdoors, the more I felt that you and I and nature were one. In short time, we became each other’s favorite hiking partners. Our friendship deepened, and that friendship turned to love.
What does what it should do needs nothing more,
The body moves, though slowly, toward desire,
We come to something without knowing why.
~~The Manifestation, by Theodore Roethke
No one was surprised when we became a couple.
Everyone was stunned when you betrayed me.
March 2012. We returned to my home after an evening of jazz. You made yourself a cup of tea, walked into the living room and sat on the sofa. I sat in an overstuffed chair sipping white wine. You had said little that evening and barely responded to anything I said. Normally we’d talk about the evening’s music or discuss our plans for the next day. That night was different. You looked agitated. I knew you were going through a rough stretch at work. You told me you were being pulled in too many directions. For weeks you’d seemed off. Distant. Work aside, I sensed there was more to your reticence, but I ignored my fears and suspicions. When we first became a couple you told me, “Carol, I promise I will never deceive or betray you.” I believed you.
Everything changed between us that March evening when you told me about your girlfriend.
My body froze in the chair. Fifteen summers had passed since you and I first embraced within the shelter of the park’s sentinel trees. Two lives in transition. My husband fought his final battle with cancer and lost. You finalized your divorce.
With chilling dispassion, you looked straight ahead and said, “We’ve been together for eleven months. I’m sorry, Carol. I don’t love you anymore.”
I took tiny sips of air, in and out, in and out. Then my body began shaking, from shock I suppose, starting from the inside until I felt everything under my skin roiling—muscles spasmed. I looked down, half expecting visible ripples to appear on the surface of my arms.
Eyes stuck open, staring ahead—I saw nothing. You and I did not look at each other. My face burned with rage and humiliation. You and I. Fifteen years together. My partner. My lover. My friend.
And then, cruel mind, a flashback of another end. Standing outside Sam’s hospital room. The cold gray of sterile walls closing in on me. The ominous hum of florescent bulbs casting my skin in a blue pallor. The doctor standing close to me, almost whispering, “I’m so sorry, Carol. Sam won’t live to see another Christmas.”
My eyes gaze at downed nurse logs resting on either side of a wide, wooden boardwalk, elevated above the fragile root systems of still standing Elder trees. Grandfather trees—the oldest living trees in Mount Rainier National Park. I’m comforted to realize that toppled trees have value. But what of toppled people; do they have value, too? Extending the length of one section of boardwalk a fallen Douglas fir – 100 feet, perhaps, from top to trunk – rests on its side. Although it no longer stands, the decaying log is alive with a blanket of tree seedlings. Tiny hemlocks, reaching toward light gaps in the forest canopy. Some seedlings will survive. Others will die. Tiny ferns, pink-hued twinflower, and a bed of chartreuse feather moss all thrive on this reservoir of life.
Death is not an end; it is a change.
I want to cry. But the tears don’t come. Not now. My tears will soon flow as freely as the sixteen-mile long Ohanapecosh River whose glacial meltwaters, cold and pure, split into two channels and surround The Grove of the Patriarchs. I came here to honor our past, and to move forward into my new future. My new life. Without you.
Without you beside me Nature feels like a friend from my past that no longer fits comfortably into my life. I find myself resisting her. I can’t let her into my heart again. Nature conspired to merge our souls as we stood among giants in this ancient forest. And, at least for a time, She succeeded in her task. But now the forest is sullied, its beauty tarnished. Nature betrayed us, just as surely as you betrayed me.
The rock in the cool water doesn’t know the pain of the rock in the sun.
~~ Haitian saying
I look up. Overlapping Douglas fir and cedar branches obscure most of the sky but allow enough light to keep The Grove from feeling closed in. The Chilula people of northern California used the boughs of Douglas fir to bring good luck and the branches were burned to purify human thoughts and emotions. I’m here to initiate another kind of ritual.
Although providence may have brought us here together, I have returned today, alone. I will invoke the tree spirits and the river to guide me and help me heal, to help me reclaim—as my own—the sanctity of this forest.
My right hand cradles a stone, river rock – brick red, smooth, heart-shaped, about the size of a quarter—it rolls idly between my thumb and forefinger. Over the years you and I found dozens of these lopsided, rusty-colored, hunks of geology—small talismans we exchanged as tokens of our love. I once kept a pint-jar-full in my study. One day, years ago, cleaning house, I scattered most of my heart rocks outside, liberating them to my native, forested garden. A garden that you helped me create. A sanctuary surrounding my home, reminiscent of the forest trails we loved to hike.
But one stone stayed with me. Tucked down into a dark corner of my backpack—a part of you I always carried with me, even if we were apart. After years of carrying the stone, I rarely gave it conscious thought. Then, months after we parted, I re-discovered the stone again. Ferrous-red, like the others, and cool from lodging in the recesses of my pack, the rock now burned like fire in my hand. I knew then what I must do.
Midway through The Grove a barely visible path provides an egress from the boardwalk loop trail. I feel guilty, stepping off the boardwalk, knowing that I shouldn’t go off-trail—especially not here. But I do it anyway. I walk until I see a small, slow-running offshoot of the Ohanapecosh. The water is flat, slowly meandering out of sight. Its surface has an iridescent sheen caused by unseen micro-organisms, not pollution. Below the water’s surface a sandy streambed appears painted in place—dark ochre and tan with swirls of black. I imagine how fast this side branch of the main river might run during the spring snowmelt. How the pattern in front of me would shift, rearrange itself in the shallows. How whatever resting in the stream would be carried to the larger river, tumbled, and tossed along the way—cast about.
I look at the stone in my hand. We do not belong together. The stone belongs to the stream. Tears fill my eyes and blur my vision. I ask the trees for strength. I toss the stone into still water. It vanishes into the streambed.
It is 2023. The trees you and I planted rise tall and strong—a canopy of disorderly branches shade my yard’s woodland path. I stand tall and strong. You wouldn’t recognize the garden today—how the trees have matured and grown since they were saplings. A dozen heart stones lay beneath detritus, leavings from another life. I stand beneath a bower of leaves, inextricably connected to the trees that I love.
Copyright Raitt 2024