When I was young, maybe eight or so, my father took the family to see one of the old-growth redwood trees felled. It was a big deal—we didn’t go many places together—and I remember riding in the back of the pickup with my sisters and brother into Southern Humboldt County, not too far from the land where we lived. In By Way of Water, I’ve fictionalized the scene and thought I’d share a bit. It was an outing full of sadness and awe, and I hope I’ve captured some essence of those feelings.
(Justy is the main character, her young brother is Micah, her older sister is Lacee. Dale is her mother, and Jake is her father)
They watched Mark cut for thirty more minutes, then he yelled “Timber” above the sound of the running chain saw. He and his sons ran from the tree and stopped about forty yards away. Dale made sure each of the children was in the bed of the truck. The top of the tree swayed a little. Mark killed the chain saw and the landing became still except for a faint breeze in the treetops. The wind stopped and Justy heard a cracking sound. She looked at the men gathered around the beer cooler and saw that they all stood with their mouths open and hats off. Mark yelled “Timber” again. The cracking sound grew. The tree was cut all the way through but wasn’t falling. Maybe habit or memory held it in place.
Mark watched the tree, the quiet chain saw in his hand. He and his sons kept their hard hats on. A pop, pop, pop came from the trunk and Mark yelled “Timber” once more, as if the sound of his voice could topple the tree. Time slowed, leaving the people and the tree in a void where things forgot to move forward. The redwood swayed and Justy heard its branches scratching other branches, other trees. Micah sneezed. A low, slow creak came from the trunk and then stopped. Jake looked at Mark, then back at the tree, yelled “Timber” a fourth time, the certainty in his voice diminished. The top of the old growth seemed like it was moving, but Justy wasn’t sure, just like she wasn’t sure if she really swam the Eel in her dreams. The creaking grew louder and the whole tree began to sway, barely moving, holding on to its severed trunk. Then it groaned again from deep within and began to drop toward the earth, a swath of red hovering in the sky. Then it picked up speed and fell fast, as if it had given up. It crashed its way downward, graceful even in its hugeness, taking and breaking the limbs of other trees with quick snaps of sound. Finally, it hit the bed Juan had made for it dead-on, and a powerful thud echoed when it landed. The Willys rocked with the impact, making Justy think of an earthquake. Two branches, the ones Jake had called widow makers, impaled the earth, and to Justy, it looked like God had thrown them there.
The afternoon felt split open, and a trancelike quiet filled the space the redwood had left behind. Dust filled the air, and occasional creaks of protest came from the tree as it settled into the earth. But for that noise, Justy could hear no other. Everyone remained still, as if frozen by what they’d seen. The forest itself seemed to be in shock, watching in inarticulate protest. She remembered this was a family day, and the sadness she’d felt earlier threatened to overtake her and shake her body with sobs. She placed Ochre’s stone on her tongue. The tree’s history seemed to press down on her, and she couldn’t look at the raw place in the sky where it had been. The image of the high-water sign in the middle of the other redwood grove came to her, and she was grateful that those trees were protected from these men and their machines, even though she knew that the fewer there were, the angrier Jake would become because he’d have no work. She wanted to know what would happen to the tree now that its grand stretch of time was over. The men looked confused, like maybe this power they’d been granted was both a blessing and a curse. Maybe she knew how they felt.