On Friday, I went for a walk down an all-but-deserted road that runs near the cottage I’m visiting in Michigan. This was about a week after straight-line winds passed through, and left much of the region without power for three days. The storm lasted ten minutes. It knocked down so many trees that at first we thought that their crashing was thunder.
Along this road, seven days later, the clearing crews had certainly visited; some of the surrounding branches had saw cuts. That said, there were still a lot–I mean, a lot–of limbs in the road. You could probably drive over them if you had a good truck, but even then, you’d likely drag a few of them with you. So as part of my daily exercise, I hauled some brush. I felt pretty mighty, tossing my branches. And then I came to this.
I decided I could take a hint about when to quit. I turned around–and as I did, I peered into the surrounding woods. There, beyond all the No Trespassing signs, the trees had been tossed in clumps. They’d been sheared, left a-dangle, torn up by the root ball. This upending probably went on for miles. If, from above, you’d been able to watch the storm that did this, it would have looked as if it were parting these woods.
Last week, about an hour after those winds came through, the coyotes started to howl. I hadn’t heard Michigan coyotes for years. The next morning, my mother drove past a clearing, and saw a congregation of turkeys with their chicks. She said it all resembled some kind of moot.
I remember that it had been awesome enough to watch that storm from my back, bedroom window. The treetops looked as if they were just hopping off their trunks. But houses have a way of mitigating the Terrible. There goes a roof, and that is humbling–but it’s all still framed in the human context. Elmo’s pontoon boat washes down to the bridge–but there still is a bridge, and a waterlogged Evinrude, and also the guys at the Hart Haul and Tow. If you were in the woods when that storm came upon you–if you had witnessed all those trees laying themselves down, well, you would too. Wouldn’t you? I mean, wouldn’t you try to make yourself utterly low? I read somewhere that there exist in this life both the ethical sublime and the aesthetic sublime. The ethical sublime–the German schoolmaster, say, who chooses to accompany his students to the concentration camps–is holy, no doubt. But the aesthetic sublime is also such. And many times, at its height, it has nothing to do with us.
Some people ask that idiotic question about whether a tree falling alone in the forest makes a sound. And the answer, every which way, is that it does. Of course it does. It makes an address. It makes a testament. And if we aren’t there to hear it, then it simply discloses itself to its own country, which is wilderness.