It’s that time of year. The Look Back; The Top Ten; The Best Of. The talking heads blather on about wrapping up the year, like it’s rotten fish that has to be carried to the curb. I’m not sure we can plant a flag on January 1 and call it the start of something new. Even more, I’m unsure that a year is a useful measure of time at all.
I once measured years by the breathing of sugar maples. I was five and six and seven and eight and years were much longer then. My fifth summer lasted as long as an entire trip around the sun does now. Now I turn on the valve to the swamp cooler, cuss a few times about the heat and the lack of rain, and the next thing I know I’m back on the roof closing off the duct. And here summer lasts six months.
In a sugar maple summer, the forest was dim and cool. You could lay in the shade on the moss and listen to the forest breathe. Forests don’t breathe in and out. As with a sparrow or a didgeridoo player its breath is a long continuous entity, ephemeral and ancient. But you can hear it and follow its rhythm all through the long days of summer. If you lose the rhythm–sometimes it is submerged by cicadas and bees and the sound of berries plopping to the ground–you can sit very still by a pond, or very quietly beneath a giant oak and it will come back to you.
The sugar maples breathed also. Their breathing was shorter, diurnal, a sound so sensate humans cannot miss it if they move beyond the space of their own breathing. I liked it best in the evening when they began breathing out. The sun would release its hold on their osmosis and photosynthesis. Their day’s work done, they would sigh and relax. When they began breathing out, you could watch their breath collect at the edges of fields after sunset, warm and moist, and ever so slightly blue like the dust from a robin’s egg. As they breathed out, fireflies took up the exhalation and made constellations in the tall grass.
When autumn came, a nearly indiscernible rasp would pass through the forest’s breathing like the first germ of tuberculosis in the lungs of the young. The sugar maples knew. Maybe it was the rasp, the suddenly dry air, the sun arcing closer to the hilltops. Regardless, the sugar maples, one by one, gave up their own breath. The last exhales of summer released their sap back to the roots in their underground labyrinth. Each leaf held one last trace of sugar which the sun turned to red ochre, garnet, crimson, and vermillion, sending a blaze slowly down the hillsides.
By Halloween the branches were empty. Wind raked through the skeletal trees but it sounded no more like breathing than a bellows. By Christmas we learned again what we had to learn every year: that there is no silence like a snowy woods. The sugar maples stood in the snow, gray and sullen, holding their breath. But they were not truly silent. They couldn’t be. Below the snow, below that layer of ground that would frost-heave come spring, they had stored glucose from the summer sun. As they fed on it, it rose slowly upward. I knew that’s what happened. But the sugar rose in secret. Not even a child, in the silence of a snowy woods, could hear it trickling through the heartwood.
But the sugar men could. Later in the winter when the snow turned soft and wet in the daytime and we unbuttoned our coats, the sugar men would come. They drilled into the sugar maples and pushed plugs into the holes. From some of the plugs they hung galvanized buckets. From others they ran plastic tubes down the hills to square translucent tanks. Sometimes we would trace these from the tree to the tank through the thinning snow. The sugar men trucked the tanks down our muddy lane to a shed where they boiled the collected sap into syrup. And then suddenly, as if it came from the heat of the boiler itself, spring was there.
Breathing was not the first sound of spring. Melting snow dripped from everything. The creek changed from a gurgle, to a babble, to an insistent rush. Birds woke earlier to chirp more loudly. But those sounds were easy to hear. It was time to listen again. Everywhere under the humus, and very quiet, came the slightest rustling. Sometimes it was mice moving again in the warmth. But below even that was a matrix of noise that came from everywhere at once, the movement of plants pushing to the surface. With the very softest of sighing their leaves would unfurl–trillium, mayapples, fiddlehead ferns–and a tiny thud sometimes as a twig rolled off a leaf and back onto the ground. They had to hurry. The sun was tugging again at the sugar maples. The sap was rising with greater urgency. Soon their leaves would shade the woodland floor, and the smaller plant’s time in the light would end. So that matrix of noise would rise and swell, then pause like a conductor had lifted a baton. I would sit on my haunches and listen. For it was then, if you were quiet enough, that you’d hear the forest and the sugar maples start breathing again.
So I’m not sure a calendar even makes any sense. Annual countdowns sound like cacophony. The talking heads reading off their lists of human accomplishments sound like the ramblings of mad men. And quite frankly if I were to demarcate this year strictly by its Gregorian start and stop, it was a bit of a mixed bag. I’d just as soon opt for something a little more seasonal, a little more sidereal, a little more planetary. Marking off squares on a calendar seems a little silly once you’ve heard the forest breathe.
Oh. And I almost forgot what I started out to write. Happy New Year, everyone!