The Dead Branch

The Dead Branch

I took a walk up into the hills yesterday. It was a leaden sunless day, but the temperature had risen since the latest cold snap and the water was still high in the streams from the torrential Christmas rains. The melting snow and moving water made the air feel soft, embracing you as you moved through it, embracing a landscape in repose, a palette of browns and grays waiting for brighter colors to return.

     I walked thinking of the news of the morning and the evening before. The New York Times had reported more than 3800 deaths from Wednesday with the gloomy qualification that this was likely an undercount due to spotty reporting over the holiday week. On The News Hour Wednesday night, my husband and I had watched a pale, tight-lipped emergency room doctor in Arizona try to explain his feelings as he drove past packed bars and restaurants on his way to work. In his hospital there were no additional beds because of the number of Covid patients and his staff was exhausted and dispirited. He feared the post-Christmas surge and worried about the new Covid mutation. He was battle-weary, too tired to cry.

     I walked alone and slowly, breathing in the earthy smell of rotting leaves and listening to small far away sounds like a dog barking or a car on a road on the other side of the hill.

     My ultimate goal was the Lovdal Farm, or the former Lovdal Farm which now belongs to the Hannah’s. In 2005, the back fields of this farm and the woods surrounding them were purchased by The Southbury Land Trust and there are several miles of trails that loop around the pond and snake up through the woods and fields and over the hills. The former back fields are particularly nice, easy to get to, peaceful and quiet. There are usually people walking the trails on the weekend, but not very many on weekdays. There were no cars parked in the field when I turned in from the road, no people about. Only birds swooped from one tree to another, flying out over the damp grass and the glassy surface of the pond.

     The pond had had a lot of ice on it less than a week ago and there was some still left, but for the most part the water was open and clear, gurgling under the walking bridge that one crossed to access the trails. The woodland paths were either slippery with wet leaves or carved free to the dirt from the underground springs that had coursed down through the woods during the Christmas deluge. I walked carefully, sloshing through run-off as I crossed the old farm access road and started up into the first field.

     I often see a white-tailed deer up here who feeds amongst the low bushes, but he wasn’t around yesterday, only more birds and the rustling of small forest creatures in the bushes. At the top of the rise, I found a cairn of hand-painted stones assembled on a granite boulder. The stones had not been there the last time I walked the field. One stone was painted to look like a porcupine, another was dark blue with a red heart in the middle and the top stone had the words “Stay Strong” painted in turquoise on a hot pink background with a picture of what appeared to be a flowering cactus growing out of a rock. They were piled next to and on top of some regular stones and nestled in the seam of a lichen-encrusted boulder.

     They reminded me, of course, of the stones that my neighbor’s children, the cousins, had painted and placed along the lane nearest to our house all summer, the ones that had given me so much pleasure. I did not think my neighbors had painted these. They were too far away from their house, more than a mile. Someone else must have painted them, some other hopeful soul whose house I may walk past, who I don’t know but whose gesture made me smile and whose creation I recorded with my phone camera.

    The message was timely. Stay strong. We are almost out of the woods. The vaccines are slowly being administered and within a few weeks, aliens will no longer occupy the White House.

     Though they reside there still. Trump, weirdly silent, except via Tweet, has broken off his holiday to return to Washington, settling into position to watch Congressmen and women cast their votes on whether to certify their individual state election results. You can imagine him glued to his television on January 6th, pen and paper at the ready. A list of traitors, a list he’ll be checking more than twice as he plots whose political careers he’s going to try to destroy. You almost feel sorry for the Republicans. Almost. Which of them are going to have the courage to do the right thing? Vote for reality, for democracy or for a bunch of demented twaddle that has been refuted so many times you start to feel like that emergency room doctor, too tired to cry?

     I kept walking through this field and then another to the point where I usually turn around. There is a bench here under some trees, a bench I generally sit down on to look out over the valley for a few minutes, take some deep breaths and enjoy the silence and the peacefulness of the elevation. This bench has a canopy of branches over it, smallish, slender, now in winter like a network of delicate black lace against the sky.  I noticed that a rotten piece of fallen wood, broken off from one of the many trees downed in the tornadoes and wind storms, was balanced precariously across the two larger branches. Or not so precariously. More like tenaciously. Since it had been there the last time I sat on the bench. Incredibly, it had stayed in place through the wild Christmas wind storm.

     I assumed it must be caught in the branches of the living tree and looked to see where it was hung up, but couldn’t find it. I wondered if I could throw something at it to free it, or more specifically to free the branches it was weighing down. I looked around in the damp leaves next to the bench for a likely missile but found nothing.

     “It can’t stay up there forever.” I eventually shrugged. “It’s dead. It’s rotten. It has to come down.”

     Metaphor for a year whose time has come? For an administration?

    Let the January winds blow, I say. Let them blow steady and hard across the land. Let them provide tailwinds for the planes carrying the vaccines and in three weeks the one bound south for Florida. Let them blow the pandemic into the past along with all the lies and the scheming. Let the aliens creep from the White House under cover of darkness back into their tinpot ships. Let these ships rise into the sky and go back to wherever they came from.

     Let them be lost in space.