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Natural History II.

White Pine

HE HAS BEEN in the forest for hours. They sent him in after breakfast and he has wandered through the thick tangle of trees, out into long grass clearings, and back again, feet stumbling over the uneven ground, head tilted up to the sky.

He has marked his path with a knife, cutting into the trees he has passed so that he will be able to find his way out again, but even so he feels lost. His clothes stick to his body with sweat. Insects have raised the flesh on his neck into a bleeding, itchy welt. He regrets volunteering for this task.

And then he doesn't.

It feels good to be alone, to be away from the men and the yelling and the sounds of steel against wood, the constant thud of the axe and the maul. Here there is no one watching him. He wears the cloak of the forest and he is invisible inside it.

All his life he has been on the water. As a boy he climbed the rigging, slid out along the spars to unroll the stiff canvas sails or haul them in to be reefed in a storm. This is dangerous work, but boys are expendable. He has seen as many as four of them blown from the topmast in a gale. But it was never him, and the older he has become, the closer to the deck he has been allowed to go. Now he doesn't venture up the mast at all, works as a carpenter, and when necessary, as the ship's doctor. The logic being that if a man can repair a join in wood, he can repair a join in bone. But he prefers wood, always has. The truth is that, as he gets older, he likes the company of his fellow men less and less. He finds their laughter hollow, their jokes coarse, their manner offensive. They are loud and greedy, and when he can, he takes his evening meal out to the foredeck and sits watching the silver tips of the waves break against the hull, or the slant of the seabirds across the horizon.

He would like to leave the sea, but what would he do on land? He has no family, no one to return to. What would be the point of a change if there was no one to welcome it?

But the life becomes increasingly intolerable, and especially now, when they have sustained damage from a storm and have been holed up for a fortnight, repairing the ship. When they are in motion, hurtling across the ocean, the men's energies are harnessed to this motion, to their destination, where they will offload one cargo and pick up another. But when the men are engaged in patching the hull, when there is not the sea wind in their veins, they are surly, bad-tempered. They fight with one another over nothing, like dogs scrapping over the memory of a bone.


Which brings him to this moment, to this place, to this perfect tree on the edge of a clearing. A white pine, tall and straight, its upper branches brushing the underside of the sky. The perfect tree for a new mast.

He scores an X into the trunk, so that when the axemen come back, they will cut down the right tree.

His job is done. He must go back to the others, but for a moment he just stands beneath the pine, looking up. White pines make the best masts because they are straight and strong, bending just enough to accommodate the wind, but never enough to snap. And they already have the sea in them. The sound of their boughs in the breeze is the same shush shush of water on the shingle.

HE PUTS HIS HAND OUT and touches the bark. He wishes he could be like this tree, that he could remake himself, in the middle of his life, into something completely different. That he could have a new life that, when standing on the shore of the old life, was entirely impossible to imagine.

Purple Loosestrife

I WALK THROUGH THE CITY, not by the streets, but by the alleyways and empty lots, by the railbeds and shoreline. I look down at the ground, never up at the sky to see the changing weather or the position of the sun. I am not interested in the condition of the day, or the sights of New York. What compels my journey through the city is the base materials of the city itself-the sludge and soil that become the very ground I walk on. More specifically, it is what grows in that earth that fascinates me, because the plants that struggle up through the tracks of the rails, or out of the dockyard mud, are plants that have never been seen in North America before.

They are what we amateur botanists call "ballast waifs."

Let me explain.

There is a great deal of travel now between Europe and the shores of North America. Not only immigrants make the voyage across the Atlantic, but also livestock and commercial cargo make the crossing. To keep the ships sailing stiffly to windward, it is necessary to have a significant amount of ballast in the hold. This ballast is in the form of moist sand from tidal flats, shovelled aboard before the ships were loaded up, and shovelled out in the North American ports when the ships are unloaded here. Inevitably the sand contains plant seeds from European plants, and the seeds germinate in the hold on the outbound voyage, and then start to grow when they are exposed to sunlight. There are now so many of these ballast plants that our botanical club has decided to undertake a survey of them.

I joined the botanical club because I was interested in meeting other amateur botanists, and in going on the field trips that the club organized around New York City. These weekend field trips, usually to view a rare plant in its natural habitat, are exhilarating to me, as I work through the week as a clerk in a bank and none of my fellow clerks know of my hobby. It is such a relief to be in the company of other like minds.

But this survey is much more exciting than a field trip. Here we are, doing something that has never been done before. We are explorers, and I feel, walking through the city, that I am discovering it for the first time.

I have already found a patch of greenpea growing at the edge of the rail yard, and the tenacious member of the mustard family, diplotaxis tenuifolia, sprouting from between two cracks in the pavement outside the customs house. I have a guide to European plants in one coat pocket, and a notebook and pencil in the other. In my notes I record the location of the plant, its name and condition, and the date that I discovered it. On this, my third weekend participating in the survey, my notebook is already half full.

I find a clump of petty spurge growing in a back alley, and the rather beautiful zebrina mallow, swaying in the afternoon breeze at the base of a garbage heap. I recognize the mallow without the guide because I have been studying the guide on my lunch break from the bank. Although I recognize the plant by sight, I'm less confident in the Latin name, so I pull the guide from my pocket and flip through the pages.

I am the son of a brakeman. My job at the bank was thought by my parents to be a betterment to their life, and yet I despise my job. What I had wanted was to become a genuine botanist, to go to school and study, and then to travel to distant lands to unearth new species of plants.

It is strange how sometimes the journey of life is not in what you seek, but what comes to you.

This survey that I am helping to undertake will be published in the bulletin of our botanical club, and it will be used by genuine botanists as a resource. My name will be there, at the top of survey, the first time my name has ever been attached to anything.

Malva sylvestris. I put the plant guide back into my pocket and pull out my notebook.

I admire the ballast waifs. It is no small task to be uprooted and to grow again in new soil, far from home. The desire to thrive is strong, and there is no better evidence of this than in these plants. I would do well to learn from their example.

I make my notes. I continue my walk. At the end of the day I am to meet my fellow amateur botanists and we are to compare our lists. I am as excited about this as I am in taking part in the survey. You see, I am an only child and my parents are dead. I do not have any friends at the bank.

And it is on my way to meet the other club members that I find the most lovely of all the ballast waifs. Lythrum salicaria, although I prefer the common name, Purple Loosestrife. Tall, feathery purple stalks, lining the banks of a small creek that empties into the Hudson.

I HAVE NEVER HAD a better day than this day. And I know already that this, standing before the stutter of flame that is the purple loosestrife with the sun behind it, is what I will remember of my time here on earth.


THE ROAD TO THE LAKE is little more than a rutted track and it jostles and bucks the truck, knocking the boy against the door, then against the steering wheel, and then back against the door. Branches clip the windscreen and scrape against the paint. The boy, with difficulty, slows down, remembering the delicate cargo in the back of the truck. He forgot to adjust the bench seat when he first got in and practically slides under the dash when he presses on the clutch and wrestles the shifter into second gear.

It's not his truck. It's not his job. But his father is ill again, coughing and shaking, unable to rise from his bed, and so the man's tasks fall to the boy and instead of sitting in the hushed calm of the schoolroom, the boy is battling through the wild backcountry on his way to the first of six lakes he will visit before the day is out.

He misses the classroom; the smell of chalk and the scratch of lead on paper, the feeling of his mind reaching to find an answer or remember an equation. There is a confidence the boy feels in school that he doesn't feel at the wheel of his father's old Ford, but his task is not a difficult one, and he just has to think of this, and to keep the truck bumping along the rutted track.

The first lake appears without warning, a flicker of blue through the thin trees, and then the great wash of it spread out before him as he shudders the truck to a stop in a small clearing by the shore.

There are thirty-six pails in the back of the Ford, six pails per lake. The boy lowers the tailgate and struggles the first two pails down to the edge of the water. The metal containers are heavy, each one choked full with its cargo of viscous balls, the eyed eggs of the walleye, fresh from the hatchery. He puts the first two pails down on the lick of beach and looks out across the lake. His father said to place the eggs on a shoal, but what is he to do if there is no shoal? The boy feels panic move its cold wave through his body and he closes his eyes for a moment and thinks of his desk at school, and the reassuring sight of his pencils and ruler laid out in straight lines at the top of his exercise book.

There's no shoal, but there is a wider section of beach about a hundred yards to the left, so the boy removes his shoes and wades into the lake with the pails of eggs. The water is warm and the sand feels good against the soles of his feet. He walks slowly through the water, moving towards the large apron of sand by a clump of birch trees.


The eggs are round and pink and have two black dots in each one to show the eyes of the embryonic walleye. The eggs look like eyeballs themselves, and when the boy tips the pails into the water at the edge of the beach, he has to remind himself that these fleshy pink orbs are actually fish and will, with luck, swim out of these shallows in a few weeks and head for the deeper, cooler water, where, in several years, they will be caught by the sport fishermen who visit this lake every summer.

The boy does not fish himself. He used to have a friend with whom he went fishing, a native boy whose father was a guide for the hunters who came up from the city in the fall. The guide's son was called Connie, which the boy's father said was a girl's name when he found out about the friendship and put a stop to it. Never mind, Connie had said, it's not my real name anyway.

But before that, when they were still friends and went fishing, they had caught a trout one afternoon and Connie had made them put it back, even though it was plenty big enough to eat. But he had explained to the boy that the Great Spirit had once been hungry and caught a trout like this one, but when he saw how beautiful and powerful the fish was, he decided that it should live and that he would go hungry. Connie had flipped the fish over to show the boy the coloured spots on the fish's belly where the fingers of the Great Spirit had once held on to it. They looked like stars in the night sky.

And now the boy doesn't fish anymore, and Connie has gone, and the boy's father takes to the bottle most nights and now most mornings can't rise from his bed. The boy's mother left long ago because of this, but the boy can't leave yet, and all he wants is to get the answer right and have the teacher praise him and sometimes lay a hand gently on his head as she passes by his desk.

THE FISH EGGS aren't fish. One thing is not yet the other. The eggs lie together in the shallow water at the edge of the lake. The boy nudges the pile with his bare foot. Swim, he thinks. Hurry up and grow big. Hurry up and get away.

HELEN HUMPHREYS is an award-winning author who lives and writes in Kingston, Ontario. These stories are from her new book, The River, just released by ECW Press. An earlier "Natural History" group of stories appeared in Queen's Quarterly 119/1 (Spring 2012).
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Author:Humphreys, Helen
Publication:Queen's Quarterly
Article Type:Essay
Date:Dec 22, 2015
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