This is the woods in April: It is cold, the kind of morning when the world is coated with a layer of frost and trees clench fistfuls of fresh buds against white-washed stems. Cold perseveres. Our carolina wren sings from the emaciated branches of the flowering dogwood. It is a weekday, and morning besides, so I am the only human in the woods.
Before: Ohio was forest and wetlands and prairie. Bison shaped the land like elephants built the savannah. There were horses here, once. Not the wild horses we know now, but American horses. There were mastodons, cave lions, giant sloths, short-faced bears. All hunted or undone by time.
Now: Ohio is defanged. The wolves and bears that come here are newspaper headlines and campfire stories, only half believed. The swamps, and the cranes that nested there, are reduced to hunting preserves and sewage treatment plants. A pair of sandhill cranes dance in the shadows of an oil refinery built for a pipeline that stretches like an ugly brown snake around the girth of the world.
In the woods, I pretend that a human is just another animal, I pretend we have not built cities, launched spaceships, sparked wars. I pretend Earth recognizes me, accepts me. I am not a stranger here, I tell myself. But these trails are only decades, not centuries, old. This woods is curated, a living diorama. I am just a few miles from my car, from warmth and shelter and safety.
Yet I say I belong here. I say I could live out here forever. I can’t even start a fire without help. I can only identify three edible plants: raspberry, strawberry, jewel-weed. Trees are yet unnamed to me, just clustered of tessellated fall leaves on the trail ahead of me.
I do not live here. I am a visitor only. The woods knows this. Does not surrender its secrets. In an hour or two, I will regress, return to the car, drive thirty miles through darkness to a house built on the bones of conquerors and conquered. This town is the remnant of a fort. A reminder that a war was fought and lost and forgotten here. And before that: a town by a river. And before that there was only the river. And before that?
Christina Stump is a recent graduate of Bowling Green State University’s MFA program. She writes about nature and place-making, especially through the lens of speculative fiction and creative nonfiction. When not writing, Christina can be found in Ohio’s wetlands and forests, looking (and listening) for her nemesis: the Swainson’s Warbler.
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