THE KNIFE in my right hand carves through a limb of bitter cherry and slices into the tip of my left thumb, denser than air but more porous than wood. I pull the blade out of me and it is clean. A bead of crimson from my thumb meets the November air. It swells and bulges, threatening to spill onto earth. Just as surface tension succumbs to gravity, I press my thumb to wood, and blood enters the bitter cherry, which, dead and sapless, drinks it in all the quicker. I hold it there and resume carving a spoon.
Rain plinks and plunks all around as if we are in an air bubble at the bottom of a river, our bubble a tarp shelter and our river a rainforest. Cedars bob and shimmy and cottonwoods sway like prehistoric grasses and waterfalls form where we’ve secured the plastic to branches.
The back of my wool sweater is moist and glistening, but the front is warm and dry because, at the center of our circle of fir benches, a fire devours cedar logs and exhales heat. A human animal squats nearby, hands open to the glow, while another spears a piece of deer flesh onto a green alder stick and holds it above the flames.
The rest of us sit around the circle, carving, sanding, weaving. I don’t know them, not in the way we normally speak of knowing. I don’t know their histories, families, jobs, or aspirations. I barely know their names. But I do see the firelight in their eyes as they must see in mine, and I recognize different shades of experience in them. The pained squint of a young man intent on perfection. The surprised satisfaction of an elderly man fingering his callouses. The relieved smile of a woman gripping a sharpened blade. All just as palpable as the soft throbbing in my left thumb.
I put down knife and wood, and I stand. Shavings cascade onto the packed earth below. I stretch my aching back, spread my cramped fingers, and wonder how many hours I’ve been hunched over. I start to think about the class schedule, what’s next, what’s tomorrow, and then firelight catches my eye again. I watch the colors follow the wind, trying to see beyond the yellows and oranges to find the blues and violets. Exhale. A cloud of breath swirls away from me and disappears.
Breathe in rain mist and cedar exhalation.
Breathe in wood smoke and sawdust.
Breathe in sizzling venison.
Breathe in wet wool and human musk.
Our bodies, they remember this. Bodies rendered from the bodies of those who came before, who sprang from those before them, traveling up tributaries to that mysterious river who dispatched us all. These ancient bodies pierced and porous, precarious bubbles flowing through all that is now.
And if we must return to this? What we’d lose is obvious, but what we’d gain is harder to put into words, maybe because it flows from a time before words, a time before mind and body split, when body was mind.
I pick up the green fire-tending sticks and stir the coals at the edge, drawing them closer to the blaze. I push a smoldering log apart from the others to give it air so it snaps into flame. Wood ignites, becomes heat, becomes the sweat on my brow, the flush in my cheeks, the fire in my body.
My body, a tool to taste this earth.
Someone hands me a piece of roasted venison and I take it into my mouth, grind it down with my molars as its warm juices slide down my throat. I swallow, lick my fingers, and pick up my steel knife and wooden spoon. I raise the spoon, admire the wavy patterns of the grain, like flame, like shadow. I run my thumb over it, feel the smooth curves where it’s almost done and the rough edges that need more work. I squat by the fire and carve as blood-soaked shavings fall to the flames. O
Heather Durham is a naturalist and writer currently living in the foothills of the Washington Cascades, where she works at Wilderness Awareness School. This essay is to appear in her second collection, Wolf Tree: A Personal Ecopsychology, due out in 2022 from Homebound Publications.