By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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Where am I? is a question I often ask myself in the woods; not out of lostness, but in order to say what I see round about me, where I stand relative to the sun. I come to terms with my surroundings so that I won’t grow dizzy with inarticulate experience. I have a deep responsibility to remember and reveal what moves me, whether a death angel (Amanita virosa) lifting its one white wing through the leafmold at my feet, or a black man who drudges for the university all day, but spends dusk at the creek religiously casting for sunfish while mosquitoes sing a vicious hymn in his ear. What I see comes as an offering, and an offering asks a return: a bow to the death angel, a visit with the poor fisherman. Such sights should radiate to and from the seer like spokes from the hub of a wheel, a mutual dependence that makes experience move in an ordered way. To put it in emotive terms: as I am moved, I want to be moving.
Where am I? Moving up the south bank of some creek, along a ten foot wide flood plain swept clear, probably, by torrents after the snowmelt. Still, “swept clear” is a half or quarter truth; the plain is clear of dead leaves — some are clumped like crazed, useless nests in saplings — and some topsoil has been whisked off. Most of the inhabitants, though, are amazingly tenacious. Saplings and shoots are staggered, pointing downstream, still burdened by invisible floodwaves, but the spearhead buds of every beech break open, waving green all-clear flags; the bare clay is patched with spring beauty, rue anemone, hepatica, chickweed, and foamflower; a spider stretches its trampoline between a violet and a briar; turtles pile in the sun like skulls dating from the Great Flood; hundreds of acorns are learning to say their first word: root. Except for a nuthatch chuckling over its grub and a dozen flutterbys, I am the only unrooted thing hereabout; even the creek is foreseeably channelled, a liquid root. And I could very well be seeking a place to set down roots, or rooting for sassafras and wild ginger: all good reasons to go into the woods. But what I want from today is simply to walk and remember, to wade in the water. For wading I need a strong staff to keep my balance on the slimy stones, so I make a quick and easy choice: cedar.
I break off a wand from a fallen cedar and bring it to my nose: such tang, such zest, it touches off a smile that always outlasts the smell. Sometimes I’m tempted to pierce my nostrils with a cedar splint, to be the ultimate cedar sniffer. The image hovers drastically; I abandon it with a laugh. Besides, there are always scores of fallen cedars in the woods, beckoning like gnarled hands. Some I approach reverently because they have the attitude of great historians awaiting an audience; others sprawl like emaciated junkies whispering, with a last surge of dry humor, take a whiff on me. I wander like a dog in a boneyard, snapping dead limbs to savor the marrow. And each time I wonder at the rich sunset lavender of the heartwood; like the first glimpse of my lover after I’ve helped her out of drab clothing, the inspiration is as momentous as it is momentary. After that glimpse, you either fall asleep or share a loving wakefulness. I belong with the lovers: a glimpse and whiff of a dying tree’s core, and I breathe more deeply; I want to make a loving way in this world.
That love has taken on some meaningful shapes, as far as cedar goes. From it I’ve whittled poems and pens for inscribing them, fragrant staffs for mushroom hunting, and, for one I love, a walking stick stained with pokeberry blood and crested with three hawk feathers. Chips of it freshened my sweaters through summer; I lived an exhilarating solitude in a cedar shake-shingle shack. It was nothing so magnificent as the House of the Forest of Lebanon, which Solomon had roofed, panelled, pillared, and adorned with hewn and carved cedar; indeed, it let in wind and rain and roaches and mice. But I prospered in happiness as much or more than Solomon, coming home with a bucket of blue crabs or a pocketful of sand dollars or the image of an osprey wheeling over the rough gray surf. . . . Sometimes I was so euphoric I’d climb the porch and plunge my knife in an old shingle: the scent it released was faint and ancient as the remains of Solomon and his palace. Cedar has long been part of the provisions I set store by. This piece I carry is a wand of natural prosperity: wherever it strikes rock, the creek erupts; it finds me footholds in swift water.
Hard to say what cedar is to other Americans. I rarely see a hope chest anywhere, that reliquary of the ritual garments of infancy, christening, and marriage, protecting the once-worn skins of several lifespans against the moths. What I remember are little boxes and plaques in Appalachian tourist traps, garishly stained, adorned with some pseudo-colloquial doggerel (“Ma loved Pa/Pa loved wimmen/Ma caught Pa/with two in swimmin. Here lies Pa.”). And there are the lonely graveyard cedars, evergreen sentinels over the dead. Like the doctrine of the resurrection of the body, there is something brittle and acrid and stubborn about them. Instead of preserving some evidence of the circle our lives draw (the hope chest is a benign Pandora’s box), they protect a death far worse than the loss of a body: the death of imagination. Foresight and insight — those presentiments which enable us to provide, adapt, correct, and celebrate — yield to tunnel vision; the injustices, oppressions, even the instantaneous joys of this world are seen through the wrong end of the telescope; at the other end, beyond the grave, larger than life, is a Better World. No nuclear disasters, no depressions, no more racial or sexual unrest, no more dream visitations by the napalmed children . . . it is a world of eliminations. No cedars grow there. If the present inhabitants of Seattle, those who are dying of boredom and petty worry and praying some god to get it over with in a hurry, could only hear the words of their city’s namesake, the great Dwamish chief Seattle: “Your dead cease to love you and the land of their nativity as soon as they pass the portals of the tomb and wander way beyond the stars. They are soon forgotten and never return. . . .”
To never return, to want never to return, not even as a raindrop or a breeze (or a nugget of plutonium, which seems to have the best odds for survival these days) — I can’t imagine it. I imagine myself a cicada nymph, snuggling the roots of a lonesome cedar for thirteen years, then flying to a branch to play my musical saw loudly over the righteous tombstones. Maybe my music would coax a couple of sinners to start over again, as crickets or mockingbirds. Music may not make the world go round, but it sweetens each revolution. Pull a morning glory vine, you start the earth spinning like a prayer wheel. Here’s a little circular prayer, good for all living things, you can put into practice while you spin: One good turn deserves another.
The creek keeps lullabying the rocks. A tulip tree snags the sun, then lets go. I take another toke of my wand, a dose of prophecy: I think of Ezekiel, who had words of cedar for another country’s once-upon-a-time greatness.
And when he had spread forth his shadow,
all the fowls of the air made their
nests in his boughs, and all the
beasts of the forests brought forth
their young under his branches,
and the assembly of many nations
dwelt under his shadow.
And he was most beautiful for his greatness,
and for the spreading of his branches:
for his root was near great waters.
Surely this is the cedar that Jefferson sat under, writing words that have a special fragrance for schoolchildren and sentimental patriots: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. This is the hopeful cedar our history textbooks were made of, where the memories of our leaders and deeds were kept incorruptible. We lived under the highest tree in the garden of earthly delights.
We still do, but its shadow has grown ominous. The hope chest has cracked open, a swarm of death’s-head moths circle and scatter overhead. I no longer get much light or warmth under here. Our great tree snakes eruptive roots into Vietnam, Chile, and Palestine as surely as it overshadowed the Cherokee, the Nez Perce, and the Dwamish; chunks of it, little death-boxes inscribed with bad jokes, are sold along the restless, lonesome highway; its seedlings stand like totems of forgetfulness over the tombstones of tourists who found a black hole at the end of their starry tunnel; its lumber goes to build a condominium for slumlords on top of ten ghettos; its shavings are pornographic postcards, hypnotic billboards; and as the foliage of dollars is stripped away to soften the banker’s bed, a bald imperial eagle is revealed, swaying in a huge, fouled nest at the top, so fat with the carrion of children and peasants it can hardly fly.
The American cedar: I carry its splinters in me everywhere.
And strangers, and the most
cruel of the nations
shall cut him down and cast him
away upon the mountains,
and his boughs shall fall in
and his branches shall be
broken on every rock of the country;
and all the people of the earth
shall depart from his shadow.
Ezekiel, sing to me, be part of my provision: be in the sun like a wheel of fire, in the creek like a cedar waterwheel. Be in my poor wand so when it splits I will find you. I’m awake: ready to listen, ready to act.
All the fowls of the air dwelt
upon his ruins,
and all the beasts of the field
were among his branches.
I’m writing to you beside a creek no wider than my afternoon shadow. On the other side a winter wren pokes nervously through cedar wreckage. I see where a raccoon tore through some crayfish. I’m sitting naked on a large rock; my ass is white as a flag of truce. It’s mid-April, mid-day, the earth wheeling through its two revolutions. My skin warms like a cupped egg; I feel children rising inside me, ready to be born, to wade in the water, but I don’t feel free enough yet to give them birth. I don’t have a name for this singing creek, Ezekiel, but I touch my wand to the water: I want you to know exactly where I am.
Robert Hill Long