Copyright 2008, PMZ. All Rights Reserved.
The Hemlock Kingdom“In Phillip Lopate’s well-known anthology titled “The Art of the Personal Essay,” we read about the value of quotations and allusions in creative nonfiction. As he explains, "…the personal essay has always striven for the ideal of 'light learning," which graciously informs without humiliating or playing the pedantic schoolmaster. It has always distanced itself from the pedantic schoolmaster.” As I read my narrative piece “The Hemlock Kingdom,” I invite you to listen for the “light learning” it contains, which I will comment on briefly at the conclusion of my story.”
BEGIN READING:As I crouch, feeling dry and resinous needles, leaves and twigs crunch beneath my booted feet, I wait for the sound of cloven hooves disturbing the debris. The air is cold, very cold. For an hour I shiver miserably. It is still dark out here, but slowly, ever so slowly I see the sunlight creep over the horizon. I hear it: a shot, and then the sound of a panicked deer shouldering his way through the heavy underbrush and hemlock boughs, splashing through the small stream that feeds into the greenbrier thickets, the swamp that is his hiding place. I see him; he is huge, at least an 8-pointer (perhaps 10), broad-shouldered and muscular, puffing huge clouds of steam from his warm wet nostrils. He steps slowly into the shooting lane my friends and I trimmed a week before this day, opening day. He must have caught my scent or he would not have come to a standstill like this. He is on guard, scouting his terrain as surely as did I three months ago. I curse myself, for in the excitement of the moment I have forgotten to raise my rifle to my cheek. Slowly, ever so slowly I bring the cold hardwood stock up against my shoulder, seat it, and begin to sight in on his vitals, but as I do so he stiffens. He looks straight at me, in my eyes. We lock gazes, daring one another to be the first to blink. I lose, and in an instant he is gone, crashing through the other side of the stand of hemlocks, on his way to the acre and a half of heavy green thornbushes, impenetrable, a safe haven for his harem.
Now ten years and many seasons later, I pass the massive three-trunked oak tree where my Dad sat, eagerly awaiting the sound of my .243, excited to see whether I would manage to bring down the enormous monstrosity, no, the masterpiece that was the buck which escaped me—the Emperor of the Hemlock Kingdom.
Measuring only about three hundred fifty feet lengthwise and a hundred fifty in breadth, the Kingdom is not large. But what it lacks in physical size it makes up for in small, poignant details; mainly the smell of the sap that leaks in small teardrops from the rough bark, and exudes its beautiful fragrance from each needle. As soon as I cross the stream and pass the three-trunked oak, my olfactory senses perk up, bringing memories of long woods-walks with my Dad, Grandpa, or by myself. The aroma grows stronger as I approach the dark green wall of tight-knit hemlock boughs, which simultaneously forbid my entrance and dare me to touch their prickly, flat-needled stems. I can almost hear them speaking to me tauntingly. “Bet you won’t enter here, Paul. That’s right; I said I bet you won’t. Hey, what do you think you’re doing?”
But as did Max from Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, I simply growl my terrible growl, and roar my terrible roar, and gnash my terrible teeth…
…And the cowed branches give way to the Emperor-in-League, Lord Ziegenfuss. I am reminded of the scene from Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe in which Lucy discovers the pine-woods in the back of the wardrobe in the Spare Room. Pushing through the branches, they are reluctant to let me pass despite my Lordship. “Royalty is spared no pain here,” say they, as they grab at my clothes, prickle my skin, and lash my eyelids with their rending claws.
Soon, however, I am through their first and only line of defense. For you see, the Hemlock Kingdom, for all its aromatic majesty, is really a very vulnerable commodity. At any time it could be besieged by Pennsylvania Power and Light, who has owned that part of my Grandpa’s land for nigh on twenty years, but I do not tell its residents that—no, never. The beauty of this place is contingent upon its ignorance of the housing developments sprouting up all around it. Let it live in peace while it can, I think to myself, and move on.
I enter and find my happy place; in here it is quiet and still, dry and protected from the wind. There is no need to pretend for anyone—no, not at all. I am here; I am here in The Kingdom.
As I walk I am accosted by a posse of angry squirrels, who remember me from that early morning of deer season several years ago when I threatened them with death, interrupting their chitchat which was disturbing my sense of hearing. Their leader steps up to the plate, crosses his arms, and puffs out his chest. “Why are you back here? One day you’re friendly, and another not. If we come one by one you feed us small bits of granola bar or talk to us friendly-like in the sacred squirrel tongue, but if we visit your blind in a group you become angry, waving that smokepole of yours around. We demand restitution.”
“I’m sorry,” I say. “You were disturbing my morning of silence with your chattering. If you’d been quieter I wouldn’t have minded. I won’t do that again, don’t you worry.” Their leader gives a curt nod, tips an imaginary hat brim, turns on his heel, and scrambles up a tree, giving orders for his troops to disperse. The squirrelly soldiery disappears in a flash of their bushy tails.
I continue my progress toward the middle of the Kingdom. What will I find? I know what was once there, but will it be there still? There’s only one way to find out, I think, and trudge on for twenty or so feet, during which one or two small cottontail rabbits spring from their warm, dry, resin-scented burrows and flee for more substantial cover. Luckily for them I am not toting my Mossy today, or I’d be tempted to try my hand at bringing home a brace for supper.
The moment has arrived. Have my fears been justified? Since my cousin has been given control of this land I was afraid he would have done some horrible misdeed like putting up dirt bike ramps and cutting trails through the woods, but so far I haven’t seen anything of that sort. I round a small clump of stranded ash saplings (strangers in a land far from home) and see it: the giant pine. White pine, to be precise. How a white pine got to be in such a place, surrounded by hemlocks is beyond me. But here it is. It has not been cut on, hacked at, burned, or otherwise mutilated. There it stands, a giant in defiance of all travelers, five to eight feet thick in the bole and three times that in height. In the intersection of its massive branches lies the wreckage of a rotting tree stand. Homemade stands are no longer legal in Penn’s Woods, due to their typically harmful effects on the trees they’re installed upon and their permanent, intrusive nature. Rusty nails penetrate and poison the inner bark, kill their hosts like lamprey eels on sharks. Not so with this tree; for it is still very much alive, dormant in the dim light but alive nevertheless.
It begs to be climbed, but I decide not to risk it as I haven’t climbed a serious tree for a long time and nobody else is with me. I am all alone here in the Kingdom, here in my happy place. Instead, I walk straight up to it and put my nose in a crack in its bark and inhale deeply. This is what my Scoutmaster told us to do when we were backpacking at Philmont, although those trees (Ponderosas) had a different smell, like minty bubble gum. This one just smells, well, piney. Like Pine-Sol, but better. More real, less pungent.
I still struggle to understand and put into words what draws me to this place. Suffice it to say that a pervading sense of realness speaks to me of peace and happiness, protectedness and warmth while I rest within its boundaries, quite unlike that cold, blustery morning only a few feet beyond when I had my early-morning encounter with the Emperor. I sit for a few minutes at the tree’s base, in recognition of its superiority. There is no way I’ll live anywhere near as long as this tree has. White pines are some of the shortest-living conifers but even so this tree has to be at least a hundred and fifty years old. I’m pretty sure it’ll outlive me as long as the Kingdom stands, the Hemlock Kingdom which I now take my leave of graciously, saying farewell to rabbits, squirrels, boughs and all, until my next visit, whether it be to vie with the new Emperor or simply to nap beneath its sheltering eaves.
I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in. (John Muir)
CONCLUSION:“My references to Sendak’s and Lewis’s books are intended to help readers visualize this scene more fully, more dynamically than they otherwise might and to heighten the sense of adventure and escape. Additionally, the use of the Muir quote at the end is intended to attest to my sense of going home when I enter this arboreal fortress. If I had more time, I would delve further into the symbolism of the hemlock tree—especially its longevity given the right circumstances including ample sunshine, rain, and fertile soil. In any case, the writing of this paper was an experiment in self awareness which I found helpful in connecting my thoughts and emotions into a seamless whole.
Lewis, Clyde Staples. The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. Harper Trophy, 1994.
Sendak, Maurice. Where the Wild Things Are. Red Fox, 2000.
Wolfe, Linnie Marsh. John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir.
University of Wisconsin Press, 1979.