A Forest Curator
A winner in Oregon Quarterly’s 2016 Northwest Perspectives Essay Contest.
The spring after my father died, my mother, two brothers and I gathered the courage to go through his stuff. The stuff none of us knew existed. We would make a day of it, like a puzzle marathon on a holiday, reminiscing together. And working through our questions concerning the man we barely knew.
My mother had found accumulations of clustered treasures tucked away around the house, hidden like a squirrel stores nuts, while she deep cleaned, the way one does when new beginnings are sought.
She gathered the stashes from hidey-holes everywhere; from inside boots, from stacked flowerpots, from inside the old Zenith stereo console and the cookie jar collection. A person would have never known the museum of things hidden from roving eyes. “This is truly curious,” my mother had said to me on the phone when discussing if we should go through the findings together.
She pulled his entire nightstand drawer and put the other discoveries in boxes. She made a pile of them in the garage along with my father’s unhidden columns of newspapers, a manageable pile of deer antlers and some Smokey Bear memorabilia taped to the pegboard behind the workbench.
My father was a recluse. We also knew him to be deeply stirred by nature, but none of us expected his secret past time.
After retirement, he was diagnosed with cancer. The covered deck became his outdoor domain where he sat for hours in his wool fleece lined buffalo plaid jacket, the wind spitting rain at his cork boots. Deep contemplation shrouded his face; eyes lifted to the mountains. He ignored us; we let him be. He fed the birds and the squirrels and tinkered.
He asked me once why this had happened to him. I couldn’t say what I wanted to say, so I said, “Because you wanted it...” The rest of the words stuck in my throat like hardened cement.
My father worked as a timber contract administrator for the government; basically, he spent his days strolling about the acres under an evergreen sky documenting trees and taking notes. While he worked, he found forgotten objects like old wheat pennies, obsidian arrowheads, antique trash and bullet casings. He brought them home, shared them briefly with the family and then we never saw them again.
The treasures intrigued me, and I wanted to know more about my father’s work, so on a special day, when I was nine my mother brought us to his work at the Bureau of Land Management in downtown Eugene on a Friday afternoon.
Inside, the receptionist greeted us, her cigarette burning in a sandbag ashtray. We thrashed our arms about, to cut a path through the striated smoke as we walked. The rolling air currents sent the layers of smoke into a lingering haze, much like winter mornings in Eugene.
My father stepped out of his office, one that rimmed a big room full of large maps. The maps smelled like my father’s breath, stale and smoke laden. He pointed to a quadrant somewhere in the middle of Oregon and said, “This is where we are going tomorrow.” My stomach trembled. The thought of a family outing with my unknowable father churned foreboding excitement inside me.
The next day, he drove us east of Eugene to a remote forest. The logging road barely clung to the mountainside. My side dangled over the cliff edge, flying above the treetops. I crowded my brother in the middle and closed my eyes tight until we arrived. We stopped at a cavernous black hole in the trees. A short hike delivered us into the hollows of old growth timber; my stomach trembled again.
Tiny and free, I wandered about in slow loping steps as I swung my arms from side to side, hooting like an owl. My brothers followed an animal path cut like the ruts of the Oregon Trail, pretending to be deer. We gathered Woolly Bear caterpillars, and like tiny sleeping kittens, they curled in our palms as we carried them around.
In a rare show of engagement, my father explained what to do with found forest treasure. "When you pick it up and hold it in your hand," he showed us with a crows’ feather, "look at it, turn it over, study it, if it makes you happy, keep it.” Then he let the feather fall to the ground, "But if you decide not to keep it, it doesn’t mean it hasn’t made you happy, it means the forest will be pleased to keep it for you.”
I was so delighted to be there; I wanted to become a wandering forest dweller like a child of Sasquatch.
In the garage, we set up a card table; my mother brought in cups of coffee, and we began to unwrap my father’s eclectic cache. First, we opened a zippered fabric bag full of sandwich bags, full of arrowheads. Each bag marked, with the date and the area where it had been found, in perfect block script. Amazed, we held them, rubbed our thumbs over the sharp contours and theorized on the peoples that had made them.
Next, we opened an old cigar box filled with tiny bundles each wrapped in a tissue and secured with transparent tape noted with similar location information. We began to unwrap each tissue cocoon; inside were little skulls of unspecified forest creatures. My brother slowly lookedup, eyes rolled, and just said, “unbelievable.” My other brother said, “weird.” My mother then countered with “eccentric.” Then I said, “Closet curator.” We guiltily laughed. And I mused over the loving care he had given to these things.
As we continued, we opened several neatly tied hankies; some contained owl pellets, hundred’s of copper BB’s and a handful of wheat pennies, none remarkable in themselves, but together a wealth to marvel. We opened a small soap sized box containing bird beaks. The questions flew.
We passed around several glass vials half filled with fools gold and a jar full of dried rattlesnake rattles. Jokingly, we questioned whether our father might have been an evil sorcerer.
I craved discovery after the Saturday outing in the old growth. My nine-year-old curiosity could not be turned off. Our two-toned house backed up to forested land in South Eugene, so I began to escape into the woods hoping to recreate that day. I would push a toe over the edge of the concrete porch and let adventure swallow me whole.
Inside the woods, the sun trickled through knitted Fir branches like silvery-sugared light through keyholes in old doors, doors that undoubtedly led to mystery. Like liquid Chartreuse, masses of Methuselah’s beard lichen dripped from burdened branches. Tiny fairy cups reached from their mossy beds; each held mirrored droplets that magnified what the sun could see. I collected nature, acorns, rocks, dragonfly wings, empty snail shells and happiness. My nightstand drawer was like a little curiosity shop, opened daily.
Days later, I found death in my backyard forest. I spied a shape-shifting black cloud that hovered above a heap of distorted hair and bones. Ghosts! I thought. A thick, sticky fragrance oozed from it. Flies adored it. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. My imagination reeled; maybe a wolf with blood-moon eyes cornered it and waited until it was terrorized by fear, to attack. My skin crawled a little and the urge to run overwhelmed my curiosity.
Safe on my porch, the unknown electrified me.
My father’s nightstand drawer was next on the pile. My mother brought it up, and we just stared. In neatly secured stacks were rows of spent matchbooks, my brother picked one up and opened it. Inside the covers, my father had perfectly written in tiny block letters detailed notes of observed wildlife, fire camp happenings, private thoughts about death and life, poetry, and cryptic number lists. We took turns reading some of them, his prose morose yet striking.
Then more adjectives surfaced. My brother, “troubled.” My other brother, “obsessive.” My mother, “emotional.” And as I read, I thought, “genius.” My father had been a brilliant observer of life, profoundly sensitive, and haunted by secret ambitions. He lived as a true steward of the land, possibly an ancient healer reborn. I hadn’t seen it. But through the natural history and matchbook writings in my mother’s garage, I understood.
The next morning, we drove east. We turned up a familiar logging road. We passed a graveyard of old-growth slash, possibly the hollows we had once explored and then further on to a deeper wood. From within the blue-grey shadows, a seam of sunlight drew us into a private, quiet place. A familiar tremble overwhelmed me.
There, in the gossamer dust of the forest, we returned some of my father’s precious treasures and humbly sprinkled his ashes among them. The forest and my father were together again. And I had a new admiration for the man and his secret world.