Lessons on Love from the Longleaf Woods

Once I absorbed the reality that my heart could break, I became a master of defense. My evasive maneuvers, wariness, and high walls guaranteed isolation and the illusion of safety.

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Longleaf pine twisted by a tornado that struck it during 2004’s Hurricane Ivan. Soon, the remaining shards will be on the ground, cover in vines, no longer visible, recycled into the earth.

The first death in my young life that taught me this lesson was not that of a disintegrating blankie, a gold-fish, or a kitten. It was the sudden death of my father. “Old material. You’ve written about your Daddy before.” I know. Will again, too.

IMG_4531Sometimes life is as curious as an indented space in sandy ground filled up with animal hair. How did it get there? It seems so neatly arranged. Just another one of those things that make me go “Hmmm.” For most of my life, living in community with other people has felt like an unnatural act. I’m not any good at it, either. Except for living with Buck, that is. He is the only person I ever gave the password to for the secret way to me. Actually, I never told him. He guessed it and when he did, there he was, right beside me, where he has remained for the last nearly thirty years.

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Odd-looking dirt clods clumped all over one section of the woods at the edge of a clearing. Now abandoned, they look like a winter encampment for a commune of architecturally creative moles. When a nascent relationship or environment becomes important and then is threatened from without or within, default mode for me is to walk away quickly and first.

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Sundew colonies are spectacular clustered like this. I see beauty in the repeating patterns. They become living art, a Christo-like display on the ground. “I don’t care,” the little girl says as she walks quickly away. “Don’t look back, don’t look back, don’t look back.” Squares thin shoulders. Breaks into a run. Toward some new world.

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Most creatures find a way to hollow out a soft enough place to take shelter from all the hardness for a while. When I first saw surveyors on the ground at Longleaf several years ago and learned of the county’s plan to bisect our land with a major road, a seed sprouted in my heart and began to work its strangling way into my analytic, cold head. I began to lose interest in taking quite so many photographs of Longleaf in its various incarnations. I began to think, “This is just a bunch of pine trees, sand and weeds.”

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I began to inoculate myself from intimacy with the forest.

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This is a patch of ground we call the Iron Rock Forest. Seven years ago there was nothing on this ground but the dull sheen of iron rock chunks covered over with wire grass. One large Longleaf pine stood at the edge of the iron rock. It persisted in hurling seeds into that inhospitable ground every year. Buck and his son, Richard, busted through the iron rock in several places to plant a few seedlings more out of curiosity than a belief that the seedlings would be able to thrive in that hard ground. And yet, behold. This morning was the first time in quite a while that I gave in to the ineluctable pull of the forest. We walk from house to gate several times every day, but I am talking about the way I used to explore, to strap on a fanny pack equipped with camera, cell phone and peppermints and go out alone. Buck reminded me to tuck my small 350 magnum pistol into the pack, too. Times past, I might have scrooched up my face at the suggestion, but today I simply said, “I will.”

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The first turn out of sight of the house I was tentative. Gun and cell phone felt right. It had been so long. I felt as though I was going into unknown territory, a strange and possibly hostile neighborhood. Probably my conscience working overtime, guilty at having abandoned the lovely forest while its future is played out in public meetings, legal notices, and our own choices for how and where we choose to live.

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Luminous underbelly of a saracenia purpura pitcher plant. Nothing is certain. Nothing is permanent except perhaps love and without engagement there can be no love. I have been wrong to withhold myself in the childish wish to avoid hurt. I’ll be back in the woods tomorrow at first light.

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