I’M TANKED UP on jasmine green tea and honey, ready to hike into a dense, rural Rhode Island forest as an ecological survey observer, my bright red rain boots patterned with paisley umbrellas marking me immediately as a bit of a straggler given to distraction. It’s five a.m. on a Saturday, slightly misty with the dank promise of a humid June day. I try in vain to keep up with a team of enthusiastic ecologists and breathless birders with impressive gear but promptly find myself alone in the woods. The properly attired naturalists have dispersed around a bend in the forest path, melted into the thick green with nets, binoculars, and buckets, and abandoned me—my thermos, pen, and notebook in hand.
The forest air is so oxygen-rich it tickles the back of my throat. I kneel to let my fingers fondle the delicate petals of pale purple wildflowers growing at the edge of the meadow. I imagine the sensation of running my rough tongue along the sepal of a petite flower, tasting the thick, salty-sweet liquid that would make me drunk with desire to taste more—sip, lick, swallow, again and again. I wander a bit farther, and the trail opens up into a small meadow, where I stoop to run my hands up a blade of velvet grass, impossibly soft. I’m struck with the vision of collecting it to stuff into a shallow nest with a pile of bedstraw, a sensation of wriggling, bearlike, into the hollow to take a long nap. I want my final slumber to be deep in a shaded bed of damp mosses, their minuscule ferny fingers leaching minerals from the bones of my hands, hands that once curled around the tiny, closed fists of newborns. Then I feel slightly embarrassed—I have lost the naturalists. I am alone in the forest. Bemused, I shrug my shoulders, my hands now flopping to my sides.
Catching up to the scientists as I round a green wall of leaves, I enter a clearing in time to observe the muscular protests of a black racer snake swiftly snatched from its early morning nap among a large heap of fallen tree limbs by the impossibly quick hands of a herpetologist. I approach the now deserted snake den, and in what remains of the twisted gray stumps of lifeless trees, I hear my grandmother’s bear, fox, and coyote stories, cleverly cloaked in dead branches and childhood memories. The grandmother who was always ready to rub my small back with her strong hands made solid with the work of kneading bread and pulling weeds. Always ready to lull me into a child’s heavy sleepiness, both of us climbing high on top of the wooden bed with the elevated headboard, mountainous cushiony mattress and pillows, smelling of starched linens, mothballs, furniture polish, and afternoon sunshine. I recall her soothing chit-chattering chit-chattering, a deep mahogany voice explaining to me yet again how Brer Rabbit fooled Mr. Fox with the help of the mute but dangerous Tar Baby. I reach out to touch the gnarled bark where the snake had been sleeping; I hum a requiem for the tree stump while I grasp for my grandmother’s tales of spirit animals.
Everything I have ever touched is imprinted in my hands. My midwife hands dance remembrance of the orchid vulvas of every woman I have helped to give birth. I grip as each babe makes its craving first breath; my fingers stroke colors, the impossibly quick changes of red blood, blue veins, and downy, sticky newborn skin. A newborn’s tiny, closed fists are my gift at every birth I attend. In the gnarled and raised veins of my hands, I see death. Mine, lurking. My mother’s, the final caress as a nurse disconnects machines that root her to life. My hands want to linger over my mother’s feet: a childhood memory’s intimacy, a loving, silly pedicure with fire engine–red nail polish crashes over me without warning. It’s impossible to wash off my experiences of birth and death, of anticipated or unbidden journeys; that is what remains in the stumps of trees, what is imprinted forever in the branching crevices that line my hands.
I try to catch up to the naturalists again, stopping at the edge of another meadow under an old sycamore tree where the bark has worn away on its large branches, revealing the subtle gray, green, brown, and blue shades of natural camouflage. In the sister sycamore across the grass-carpeted path is a wild honeybee nest. An ornithologist with a clipboard and a bulging hip pack trains her binoculars on the bees and points them out to me. A catbird meows at us and hops back and forth excitedly from one branch to another. But instead of following the boots, binoculars, and zoom lenses of the intense, single-minded flock of birders, I am distracted by the trunk of the towering sycamore. I stroll back to where the two sentinel trees stand in the center place. The old one’s skin has become soft, sensual to a loving touch. My fingers gently caress the smooth, hard places on her body, and I ask permission to set up my writing chair under her canopy. Being still, listening, resting in the humble feeling of not knowing, and becoming, truly, a grandchild—curious, longing for stories. The naturalists move on. Nets, traps, boxes, hooks, rods, charts, buckets, cameras, binoculars. I have a pen.
Dr. Claudia J. Ford is a professor of environmental studies at State University of New York, Potsdam, as well as a midwife, ethnobotanist, writer, poet, visual artist, and a single mother who has shared the delights of global travel with her four children.