Recently, I attended a local conservation club meeting at our public library. The topic was old growth forest. I ‘ve been curious about our native forests ever since reading John Muir’s account of his arrival in Indianapolis in 1866. Muir writes of his decision to arrive in Indianapolis in his autobiography,
Looking over the map I saw that Indianapolis was an important railroad center, and probably had manufactories of different sorts in which I could find employment, with the advantage of being in the heart of one of the very richest forests of deciduous hard wood trees on the continent.
He felt some peace of mind to settle in Indianapolis, for the forests…for the flowers. In a letter he wrote to his sister in 1866,
The forest here, is almost in full leaf I have found wild flowers for more than a month now. I gathered a handful about a mile and a half from town this morning before breakfast. When I first entered the woods and stood among the beautiful flowers and trees of God’s own garden, so pure and chaste and lovely, I could not help shedding tears of joy.
I grew up south of Indianapolis. From my bedroom window, I could see the red and white coal tower puffing out smoke. In elementary school, we were taught that our capital was built on a swamp. That all the building in downtown Indianapolis were sinking because of the soft ground. Until these last few years, I had no clue about the dense forests that once stood in the middle of our state.
I live in the southern portion of our state now, in the hills. This is just beyond where the Illinois Glacier stopped and receded. Every time I drive from Indianapolis to where I live, I traverse barren flatland, and wait eagerly to see the first rolling, tree lined hill. This is the entryway into miles and miles of green rolling forests.
From the talk, I also learned that huge rock deposits were left when the glacier receded leaving some patches of uniquely shaped rock deposits and boulder drop-offs. Part of what I love about the southerly part of this state is the feeling of the place, and the land. Yet, there is still a part of me formed by and longing the broad star skies and everyday sunsets from the more north flatlands.
I would not say I grew up in a forest, or even near a forest. By the time I was born all of our forests had been cleared. The drive from where I grew up to the southern part of the state where I live now was frequent. Our family, a quiet nucleus, mostly kept to our own explorations and traveled around the lesser known pockets small towns and back country roads. We spent time visiting old cemetaries, paying respects to dead relatives, collecting grave rubbings, or visiting park areas. I grew up on the country roads between quiet fields and small thatches of young trees.
My mother’s family farm extended largely across several flat acres south of Indianapolis. On the land sat a two story white home, a red barn, porch swing, hogs, cattle, corn, a tractor and one single shade tree a mile out in the middle of the forever rows of corn. I spent time fossil hunting, tractor riding, drinking bitter sun tea, and searching for farm cats in the barn. Finding a way to make sense of the countryside, the heritage of the Midwest farmer born into this place with forever vistas and slow suns, fueled my young impresions.
When I read John Muir’s vision of Indianapolis when he was 30, as a worker in a saw mill, I put a few things together, that the operation of clear cutting and logging in the area has had a long history. And, those endless vistas where I watched the clouds change with the sun, evening upon evenings, inspiring my mystical love of the natural world were made possible by the destruction of acres of forest.
My private roof top stargazing, refuge from the daytime world was possible through this removal. It is no less beautiful for me now than it was then, even knowing that my first great love came from conscious destruction.
So, while I was sitting in our conservation club meeting, a native to this area, hearing about the forest that once were, I was held in poignancy. How sometimes, serendipity happens, beauty and magic pop up in mysterious ways, things are not as they seem when they happen.
I wonder what mystical experience I would have had as a child if the trees were left alone, if I would have climbed to the rooftop at night and looked into the canopy of trees, if I would have tried to make it to the top of the branches just to get a taste of the open sky.
I miss the big sky of my youth. Which is one of the only reservations I harbor about choosing to consciously remain planted in the rolling hills of our southern forest.
Allison for the PGM