Correcting the LandscapeA Novel
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Marjorie Cole
All right reserved.ISBN: 006078606X
Evolution did not intend trees to grow singly. Far more than ourselves they are social creatures, and no more natural as isolated specimens than man is as a marooned sailor or hermit.
— John Fowles, The Tree
Sandra Leasure, M.D., a widowed physician and subscriber to my weekly newspaper, the Fairbanks Mercury, came home one September afternoon to her house on the Chena River where she had lived for twenty years, a few miles outside Fairbanks. She sat down at her kitchen table, turned her head as usual to take in the river, and shrieked. She jumped up and shouted in her empty house, "What happened to the trees?"
Across the river the mixed spruce-birch forest had disappeared, chewed up by heavy machinery. Chopped and splintered wood covered the ground. She looked over a sheared wasteland to the George Parks Highway. The highway had been there for years, behind the trees; suddenly it was almost in her living room.
Sandra stared at the revision of her landscape for a while before she reached for the telephone and called us. It may seem an odd choice, to call a small weekly newspaper rather than, say, the mayor's office or the department of planning and zoning, but, she told me later, "I had to make an instant decision and I didn't want to hear a spokesperson." Instead, she happened to get me, the editor and publisher, just putting down my pen from crossing out half an editorial that wasn't going well.
"Up and down the bank," she told me. "The shock of my life. The trees are gone."
I like Dr. Leasure. When I took over this newspaper a year and a half ago, she responded immediately to our call for subscribers and donors. She was also a nice doctor. My sister Noreen and I had seen her a couple of times, before she retired. Kind of woman you felt chivalrous toward, although she'd managed fine on her own in Alaska for several decades. I didn't know what to say about the trees being cut, except that for starters I'd drive on over and take a look.
I stuck my head into the newsroom to see if anyone would like to come along.
My sister Noreen, chief reporter, supply officer, and adviser, was fixed in front of a computer screen. She hammered on the keys as though it made a difference how hard you hit them. Her blue eyes had gone ice cold; she chewed her lips. Must have been working up that interview with a marine biologist on the long-term effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. I looked around for someone else.
A journalism student from the university, hired by Noreen to sell display ads for us, stood nearby noting something on the dummy that lay on the light table. Gayle Kenneally was a quiet Alaska Native, and one of those older students who have lived awhile before they decide to finish a degree. A single mother, I think Noreen told me. I didn't know Gayle well at all. She stopped in with a couple of ads twice a week and rarely spoke, but she seemed like pleasant company. I'd seen her with a camera. Maybe she needed a subject for her photography class.
"Ms. Kenneally," I said, a bit on the hearty side as I stepped into the room. "A story's come up. Maybe. Bring your camera today?"
She had three blue lines tattooed on her chin, above them a shy and pleasant smile. Freckles. Mixed heritage, like the rest of us.
"Yeah, I can come along," she agreed.
"Grab an extra can of film." I waved toward the supply cupboard. We operated hand to mouth at the Mercury but so rarely did our own photography that I knew there'd be film left from Noreen's last shopping trip.
My Honda wouldn't start right away. It wasn't going to make it through the winter. Gayle didn't say a word.
On Dr. Leasure's two acres, every birch tree was wrapped in chicken wire to discourage the beavers. But across the river, wood was scattered as though it had been through a grinder. The emptiness that faced us made no sense. Robbed of context, you couldn't even get angry. I stood there trying to see the land as it might have looked a day before: impossible. The look on Dr. Leasure's face, however, was unmistakable. She was moving from shock to grief. Those trees weren't coming back.
Gayle and I drove over the highway bridge and parked to walk over the cut ground. Splinters covered the earth like a suffocating blanket. Not a thing was standing. It smelled pungent, but nothing moved.
This time of year in the woods, yellow leaves fill the air. They float right off the trees at every shiver of wind as the whole place strips down for winter. But here nothing moved, and the aspen leaves on the splintered branches around us were already fading to brown. Gayle began to take photographs. She was so quiet, I almost forgot she was with me, except that I started to hand out orders as if she couldn't think for herself. "Get one with this carnage in the foreground and the doc's house in the background," I said. She knelt down and tried to do just that. I stared at her and realized I'd been obnoxiously barking commands.
"Gayle, thanks," I said, when she stood up. She nodded. "The doc is a friend," I added. "An interesting lady. She doesn't deserve this."
"I wonder what they are going to put in here," said Gayle.
"Well, we need to find out." There was a moment's silence as we walked back to my car. I thought about it.
"Would you be interested?" I said.
"Pursuing this. Start with a few calls to the borough, find out who owns this property, call the owners, and go from there. Gather a little information. What do you think, do you have that kind of time?"