فصل 10

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فصل 10

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There is a painting by Asher Brown Durand called “Kindred Spirits,” which is often reproduced in books when the subject turns to the American landscape in the nineteenth century. Painted in 1849, it shows two men standing on a rock ledge in the Catskills in one of those sublime lost world settings that look as if they would take an expedition to reach, though the two figures in the painting are dressed, incongruously, as if for the office, in long coats and plump cravats. Below them, in a shadowy chasm, a stream dashes through a jumble of boulders. Beyond, glimpsed through a canopy of leaves, is a long view of gorgeously forbidding blue mountains. To right and left, jostling into frame, are disorderly ranks of trees, which immediately vanish into consuming darkness.

I can’t tell you how much I would like to step into that view. The scene is so manifestly untamed, so full of an impenetrable beyond, as to present a clearly foolhardy temptation.

You would die out there for sure–shredded by a cougar or thudded with a tomahawk or just left to wander to a stumbling, confounded death. You can see that at a glance. But never mind. Already you are studying the foreground for a way down to the stream over the steep rocks and wondering if that notch ahead will get you through to the neighboring valley. Farewell, my friends. Destiny calls. Don’t wait supper.

Nothing like that view exists now, of course. Perhaps it never did. Who knows how much license these romantic johnnies took with their stabbing paintbrushes? Who, after all, is going to struggle with an easel and campstool and box of paints to some difficult overlook, on a hot July afternoon, in a wilderness filled with danger, and not paint something exquisite and grand?

But even if the preindustrialized Appalachians were only half as wild and dramatic as in the paintings of Durand and others like him, they must have been something to behold. It is hard to imagine now how little known, how full of possibility, the world beyond the eastern seaboard once was. When Thomas Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark into the wilderness, he confidently expected them to find woolly mammoths and mastodons. Had dinosaurs been known, he would almost certainly have asked them to bring him home a triceratops.

The first people to venture deep into the woods from the East (the Indians, of course, had got there perhaps as much as 20,000 years before them) weren’t looking for prehistoric creatures or passages to the West or new lands to settle. They were looking for plants.

America’s botanical possibilities excited Europeans inordinately, and there was both glory and money to be made out in the woods. The eastern woods teemed with flora unknown to the Old World, and there was a huge eagerness, from scientists and amateur enthusiasts alike, to get a piece of it. Imagine if tomorrow a spaceship found a jungle growing beneath the gassy clouds of Venus. Think what Bill Gates, say, would pay for some tendriled, purply lobed piece of Venusian exotica to put in a pot in his greenhouse.

That was the rhododendron in the eighteenth century–and the camellia, the hydrangea, the wild cherry, the rudbeckia, the azalea, the aster, the ostrich fern, the catalpa, the spice bush, the Venus flytrap, the Virginia creeper, the euphorbia. These and hundreds more were collected in the American woods, shipped across the ocean to England and France and Russia, and received with greedy keenness and trembling fingers.

It started with John Bartram (actually, it started with tobacco, but in a scientific sense it started with John Bartram), a Pennsylvania Quaker, born in 1699, who grew interestedin botany after reading a book on the subject and began sending seeds and cuttings to a fellow Quaker in London. Encouraged to seek out more, he embarked on increasingly ambitious journeys into the wilderness, sometimes traveling over a thousand miles through the rugged mountains. Though he was entirely self-taught, never learned Latin, and had scant understanding of Linnaean classifications, he was a prize plant collector, with an uncanny knack for finding and recognizing unknown species. Of the 800 plants discovered in America in the colonial period, Bartram was responsible for about a quarter.

His son William found many more.

Before the century was out, the eastern woods were fairly crawling with botanistsPeter Kalm, Lars Yungstroem, Constantine Samuel Rafinesque-Schmaltz, John Fraser, Andre Michaux, Thomas Nuttall, John Lyon, and others pretty much beyond counting.

There were so many people out there, hunting so competitively, that it is often not possible to say with any precision who discovered what. Depending on which source you consult, Fraser found either 44 new plants or 215, or something in between. One of his uncontested discoveries was the fragrant southern balsam, the Fraser fir, so characteristic of the high ranges of North Carolina and Tennessee, but it bears his name only because he scrambled to the top of Clingmans Dome just ahead of his keen rival Michaux.

These people covered astonishing sweeps, for considerable periods. One of the younger Bartram’s expeditions lasted over five years and plunged him so deeply into the woods that he was long given up for lost; when he emerged, he discovered that America had been at war with Britain for a year and he had lost his patrons. Michaux’s voyages took him from Florida to Hudson’s Bay; the heroic Nuttall ventured as far as the shores of Lake Superior, going much of the way on foot for want of funds. They often collected in prodigious, not to say rapacious, quantities. Lyon pulled 3,600 Magnolia macrophylla saplings from a single hillside, and thousands of plants more, including a pretty red thing that left him in a fevered delirium and covered “almost in one continued blister all over”

his body; he had found, it turned out, poison sumac. In 1765, John Bartram discovered a particularly lovely camellia, Franklinia altamaha; already rare, it was hunted to extinction in just twenty-five years. Today it survives only in cultivation–thanks entirely to Bartram.

Rafinesque-Schmaltz, meanwhile, spent seven years wandering through the Appalachians, didn’t discover much, but brought in 50,000 seeds and cuttings.

How they managed it is a wonder. Every plant had to be recorded and identified, its seeds collected or a cutting taken; if the latter, it had to be potted up in stiff paper or sailcloth, kept watered and tended, and somehow transported through a trackless wilderness to civilization. The privations and perils were constant and exhausting. Bears, snakes, and panthers abounded. Michaux’s son was severely mauled on one expedition when a bear charged him from the trees. (Black bears seem to have been notably more ferocious in former times; nearly every journal has accounts of sudden, unprovoked attacks. It seems altogether likely that eastern bears have become more retiring because they have learned to associate humans with guns.) Indians, too, were commonly hostilethough just as often bemused at finding European gentlemen carefully collecting and taking away plants that grew in natural abundance–and then there were all the diseases of the woods, like malaria and yellow fever. “I can’t find one [friend] that will bear the fatigue to accompany me in my peregrinations,” John Bartram complained wearily in a letter to his English patron. Hardly surprising.But evidently it was worth it. A single, particularly valued seed could fetch up to five guineas. On one trip, John Lyon cleared £900 after expenses, a considerable fortune, then returned the next year and made nearly as much again. Fraser made one long trip under the sponsorship of Catherine the Great of Russia and emerged from the wilderness only to find that there was a new czar who had no interest in plants, thought he was mad, and refused to honor his contract. So Fraser took everything to Chelsea, where he had a little nursery, and made a good living selling azaleas, rhododendrons, and magnolias to the English gentry.

Others did it for the simple joy of finding something new– none more admirably than Thomas Nuttall, a bright but unschooled journeyman printer from Liverpool who came to America in 1808 and discovered an unexpected passion for plants. He undertook two long expeditions, which he paid for out of his own pocket, made many important discoveries, and generously gave to the Liverpool Botanic Gardens plants that might have made him rich. In just nine years, from a base of zero, he became the leading authority on American plants. In 1817, he produced (literally, for he not only wrote the text but set most of the type himself) the seminal Genera of North American Plants, which stood for the better part of a century as the principal encyclopedia of American botany. Four years later he was named curator of the Botanic Garden at Harvard University, a position he held with distinction for a dozen years, and somehow also found time to become a leading authority on birds, producing a celebrated text on American ornithology in 1832. He was, by all accounts, a kindly man who gained the esteem of everyone who met him. Stories don’t get a great deal better than that.

Already in Nuttall’s day the woods were being transformed. The panthers, elk, and timberwolves were being driven to extinction, the beaver and bear nearly so. The great first-growth white pines of the north woods, some of them 220 feet high (that’s the height of a twenty-story building), had mostly been felled to make ships’ masts or simply cleared away for farmland, and nearly all the rest would go before the century was out.

Everywhere, there was a kind of recklessness borne of a sense that the American woods was effectively inexhaustible. Two-hundred-year-old pecan trees were commonly chopped down just to make it easier to harvest the nuts on their topmost branches. With each passing year the character of the woods changed perceptibly. But until quite recent times- painfully recent times–one thing remained in abundance that preserved the primeval super-Eden feel of the original forest: the massively graceful American chestnut.

There has never been a tree like it. Rising a hundred feet from the forest floor, its soaring boughs spread out in a canopy of incomparable lushness, an acre of leaves per tree, a million or so in all. Though only half the height of the tallest eastern pines, the chestnut had a weight and mass and symmetry that put it in another league. At ground level, a full-sized tree would be ten feet through its bole, more than twenty feet around. I have seen a photograph, taken at the start of this century, of people picnicking in a grove of chestnuts not far from where Katz and I now hiked, in an area known as the Jefferson National Forest. It is a happy Sunday party, all the picnickers in heavy clothes, the ladies with clasped parasols, the men with bowler hats and walrus moustaches, all handsomely arrayed on a blanket in a clearing, against a backdrop of steeply slanting shafts of light and trees of unbelievable grandeur. The people are so tiny, so preposterously out of scale to the trees around them, as to make you wonder for a moment if the picture has beenmanipulated as a kind of joke, like those old postcards that show watermelons as big as barns or an ear of corn that entirely fills a wagon under the droll legend “A TYPICAL IOWA FARM SCENE.” But this is simply the way it was–the way it was over tens of thousands of square miles of hill and cove, from the Carolinas to New England. And it is all gone now.

In 1904, a keeper at the Bronx Zoo in New York noticed that the zoo’s handsome chestnuts had become covered in small orange cankers of an unfamiliar type. Within days they began to sicken and die. By the time scientists identified the source as an Asian fungus called Endothia parasitica, probably introduced with a shipment of trees or infected lumber from the Orient, the chestnuts were dead and the fungus had escaped into the great sprawl of the Appalachians, where one tree in every four was a chestnut.

For all its mass, a tree is a remarkably delicate thing. All of its internal life exists within three paper-thin layers of tissue–the phloem, xylem, and cambium–just beneath the bark, which together form a moist sleeve around the dead heartwood. However tall it grows, a tree is just a few pounds of living cells thinly spread between roots and leaves.

These three diligent layers of cells perform all the intricate science and engineering needed to keep a tree alive, and the efficiency with which they do it is one of the wonders of life. Without noise or fuss, every tree in a forest lifts massive volumes of water–several hundred gallons in the case of a large tree on a hot day–from its roots to its leaves, where it is returned to the atmosphere. Imagine the din and commotion, the clutter of machinery, that would be needed for a fire department to raise a similar volume of water.

And lifting water is just one of the many jobs that the phloem, xylem, and cambium perform. They also manufacture lignin and cellulose; regulate the storage and production of tannin, sap, gum, oils, and resins; dole out minerals and nutrients; convert starches into sugars for future growth (which is where maple syrup comes into the picture); and goodness knows what else. But because all this is happening in such a thin layer, it also leaves the tree terribly vulnerable to invasive organisms. To combat this, trees have formed elaborate defense mechanisms. The reason a rubber tree seeps latex when cut is that this is its way of saying to insects and other organisms, “Not tasty. Nothing here for you. Go away.” Trees can also deter destructive creatures like caterpillars by flooding their leaves with tannin, which makes the leaves less tasty and so inclines the caterpillars to look elsewhere. When infestations are particularly severe, some trees can even communicate the fact. Some species of oak release a chemical that tells other oaks in the vicinity that an attack is under way. In response, the neighboring oaks step up their tannin production the better to withstand the coming onslaught.

By such means, of course, does nature tick along. The problem arises when a tree encounters an attacker for which evolution has left it unprepared, and seldom has a tree been more helpless against an invader than the American chestnut against Endothia parasitica. It enters a chestnut effortlessly, devours the cambium cells, and positions itself for attack on the next tree before the tree has the faintest idea, chemically speaking, what hit it. It spreads by means of spores, which are produced in the hundreds of millions in each canker. A single woodpecker can transfer a billion spores on one flight between trees. At the height of the American chestnut blight, every woodland breeze would lose spores in uncountable trillions to drift in a pretty, lethal haze on to neighboring hillsides.

The mortality rate was 100 percent. In just over thirty-five years the American chestnutbecame a memory. The Appalachians alone lost four billion trees, a quarter of its cover, in a generation.

A great tragedy, of course. But how lucky, when you think about it, that these diseases are at least species specific. Instead of a chestnut blight or Dutch elm disease or dogwood anthracnose, what if there was just a tree blight–something indiscriminate and unstoppable that swept through whole forests? In fact, there is. It’s called acid rain.

But let’s stop there. I think we’ve both had enough science for one chapter. But hold that thought, please, and bear it in mind when I tell you that there wasn’t a day in the Appalachian woods when I didn’t give passing thanks for what there was.

So the forest through which Katz and I passed now was nothing like the forest that was known even to people of my father’s generation, but at least it was a forest. It was splendid in any case to be enveloped once more in our familiar surroundings. It was in every detectable respect the same forest that we had left in North Carolina–same violently slanted trees, same narrow brown path, same expansive silence, broken only by our tiny grunts and labored breaths as we struggled up hills that proved to be as steep, if not quite as lofty, as those we had left behind. But, curiously, though we had come a couple of hundred miles north, spring seemed further advanced here. The trees, predominantly oak, were more fully in bud, and there were occasional clumps of wildflowers– bloodroot and trillium and Dutchmen’s breeches–rising through the carpet of last year’s leaves. Sunlight filtered through the branches overhead, throwing spotlights on the path, and there was a certain distinctive, heady spring lightness in the air. We took off first our jackets and then our sweaters. The world seemed altogether a genial place. say hello and maybe find out if anyone has heard a weather forecast. But the man ahead never paused, never varied his pace, never looked back. In the late afternoon he vanished and I never saw him again.

In the evening, I told Katz about it.

“Jesus,” he muttered privately, “now he’s hallucinating on me.” But the next day Katz saw him all day–behind him, following, always near but never overtaking. It was very weird. After that, neither of us saw him again. We didn’t see anyone.

In consequence, we had shelters to ourselves each night, which was a big treat. You know your life has grown pathetic when you’re thrilled to have a covered wooden platform to call your own, but there you are–we were thrilled. The shelters along this section of trail were mostly new and spanking clean. Several were even provisioned with a broom–a cozy, domestic touch. Moreover, the brooms were used (we used them, and whistled while we did it), proving that if you give an AT hiker an appliance of comfort he will use it responsibly. Each shelter had a nearby privy, a good water source, and a picnic table, so we could prepare and eat our meals in a more or less normal posture instead of squatting on damp logs. All of these are great luxuries on the trail. On the fourth night, just as I was facing the dismal prospect of finishing my only book and thereafter having nothing to do in the evenings but lie in the half light and listen to Katz snore, I was delighted, thrilled, sublimely gratified to find that some earlier user had left a Graham Greene paperback. If there is one thing the AT teaches, it is low-level ecstasy–something we could all do with more of in our lives.

So I was happy. We were doing fifteen or sixteen miles a day, nothing like the twentyfive miles we had been promised we would do, but still a perfectly respectable distance byour lights. I felt springy and fit and for the first time in years had a stomach that didn’t look like a ball bag. I was still weary and stiff at the end of the day–that never stoppedbut I had reached the point where aches and blisters were so central a feature of my existence that I ceased to notice them. Each time you leave the cossetted and hygienic world of towns and take yourself into the hills, you go through a series of staged transformations–a kind of gentle descent into squalor–and each time it is as if you have never done it before. At the end of the first day, you feel mildly, self-consciously, grubby; by the second day, disgustingly so; by the third, you are beyond caring; by the fourth, you have forgotten what it is like not to be like this. Hunger, too, follows a defined pattern. On the first night you’re starving for your noodles; on the second night you’re starving but wish it wasn’t noodles; on the third you don’t want the noodles but know you had better eat something; by the fourth you have no appetite at all but just eat because that is what you do at this time of day. I can’t explain it, but it’s strangely agreeable.

And then something happens to make you realize how much– how immeasurably

much–you want to revisit the real world. On our sixth night, after a long day in uncharacteristically dense woods, we emerged towards evening at a small grassy clearing on a high bluff with a long, sensational, unobstructed view to the north and west. The sun was just falling behind the distant blue-gray Allegheny ridge, and the country between–a plain of broad, orderly farms, each with a clump of trees and a farmhouse–was just at that point where it was beginning to drain of color. But the feature that made us gawk was a town–a real town, the first we had seen in a week–that stood perhaps six or seven miles to the north. From where we stood we could just make out what were clearly the large, brightly lit and colored signs of roadside restaurants and big motels. I don’t think I have ever seen anything that looked half so beautiful, a quarter so tantalizing. I would almost swear to you I could smell the aroma of grilling steaks wafting up to us on the evening air. We stared at it for ages, as if it were something we had read about in books but had never expected to see.

“Waynesboro,” I said to Katz at last.

He nodded solemnly. “How far?”

I pulled out my map and had a look. “About eight miles by trail.”

He nodded solemnly again. “Good,” he said. It was, I realized, the longest conversation we had had in two or three days, but there was no need to say anything more. We had been a week on the trail and were going to town the next day. That was self-evident. We would hike eight miles, get a room, have a shower, phone home, do laundry, eat dinner, buy groceries, watch TV, sleep in a bed, eat breakfast, return to the trail. All this was known and obvious. Everything we did was known and obvious. It was wonderful really.

So we pitched our tents and fixed noodles with the last of our water, then sat side by side on a log, eating in silence, facing Waynesboro. A full moon rose in the pale evening sky and glowed with a rich white inner light that brought to mind, but perfectly, the creamy inside of an Oreo cookie. (Eventually on the trail everything reminds you of food.) After a long period of silence, I turned to Katz and asked him abruptly, in a tone that was hopeful rather than accusatory, “Do you know how to make anything besides noodles?” I had been thinking, I guess, about resupplying the next day.

He thought about this for a good while. “French toast,” he said at last, and grew silent for a long period before inclining his head towards me very slightly and saying: “You?”“No,” I said at length. “Nothing.”

Katz considered the implications of this, looked for a moment as if he might say something, then shook his head stoically, and returned to his dinner.

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