The Line of No Trees
by Renée E. D’Aoust
Before the clear cut. And after. Forest not as Dalí, but as Rothko. Not spirals of possibility despite excessive overgrowth, but flat-flat hopelessness with coded color.
Forest as one rapacious wound that reminds me of the scars on my mother’s chest.
* * *
The line of no trees stops us. My mother and I have just walked out of the shaded corner of our property. Our neighbors are massive corporate landholders, ironically named “Forest Capital.” Private equity. Forest Capital clear cuts are happening all over northern Idaho.
Mom gasps. I reach for her right hand, wrap it over my arm, so the bird weight of her forearm rests on my own. I used to take the weight of fellow dancers in the studio or onstage, a hand, the back of the neck, but now I take the weight of my mother’s shriveling arm. I stroke the hand I call “your claw”; her claw lacks innervation and turns in on itself, fingers curling the way a cat’s claws curl around a toy. The radiation that saved my mother in 1977 also caused this.
When my mother lost her first breast, she joked, “Now I’m half liberated.”
From the age of ten onward, I witnessed her fake boob regularly fall out of her bra, splashing into Sirius’s dog dish. That’s how I grew up thinking that feminism intertwined with dog food intertwined with breast cancer. Surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy made my mom free, I believed. Cut, burn, poison.
Twenty-nine years later, when Mom lost the second, becoming flat-flat, we tried dark humor. Mom said, “Now I’m totally liberated.”
We didn’t laugh; it wasn’t in us. Breast begets bone begets sarcoma. Yet I always see a mist of yellow color surrounding my mother. It’s her aura, we say. Sun-color as the life-color of woman. And smell her lavender scent. My lemon-lavender mom.
Mom’s current oncologist says, and I paraphrase: “I’m sorry for what we had to do to you in 1977 to treat breast cancer. We were very aggressive. And I’m sorry that the radiation you received as an infant probably caused cancer.”
My mother tells me, “Before this oncologist, no medical professional had ever apologized to me. Not even my mother.”
My mother’s mother, my grandmother, had her daughter, my mom, irradiated as an infant. My mom was a day old. The belief, for it was belief, not science, was that an enlarged thymus caused SIDS. Irradiate and kill the thymus to save the infant. Cause cancer in the woman. We are here today by the grace of radiation cancelled and radiation scheduled.
“It was accepted medical practice,” said Dr. Saxton, my grandma.
If it had been, Dr. Saxton, my grandfather, would have allowed the full three days of radiation to occur. He cancelled the series. This is a man who served in WWII. He did his time in the psychiatric ward. He came back from electroshock therapy to be the head of thoracic surgery at Vancouver General. Mom was born before WWII, before these events. My grandfather had the strength of vision, of knowledge, of character to cancel my mom’s infant radiation series before — before — he had been taken to the core of himself. And come back.
My mother didn’t even know she had been irradiated as an infant until the first tumor showed up. In her thyroid. To Grandma’s credit, she immediately told Mom what had happened. Mom’s thyroid was cut out, and the tumor was benign, but the actual thyroid had to be replaced with little pink thyroid pills to the rest of Mom’s days. Later, pink ribbons joined those pink pills on the bathroom counter.
When I was an infant, Mom stopped nursing me because of her thyroid surgery. I refused milk formula; insisted on pineapple juice. To this day, I love pineapple juice more than milk. It’s best if it comes out of a little tin can with a pop cap top. Mom had Grandma’s information, but all records had been destroyed. When people wax poetic about Canadian health care, I think of my mom and those destroyed records. Apparently no infants were ever irradiated in Canada.
Here is the ground at the edge of our stewardship forest. In a clichéd movement, my mother and I cross our fingers. We pray that the larch and western white pine seedlings — thousands soon to be planted by a crew on this industrial forest that borders our land — will win out over bunnies nibbling roots and deer eating shoots. We want Rothko’s burnt green to turn to Dalí’s slippery glade.
“Look at that opening,” says Mom. “The light pouring through.”
The adjacent trees are gone. The light is here. We stand in the light.
The old trail we took up Middle Mountain: gone.
The ski trail we took down Middle Mountain: gone.
The deer path winding sideways across our land and over old cedar stumps and round the massive one-hundred-year old Western White Pine: gone.
The White Pine stands, a lone testament to survival. Mom went to talk to the logger. “I like that tree, too,” said the logger. “And no mill can handle that size anymore.”
Sun bright. Woody debris bulldozed into slash piles. Slabs of half cut discarded tree butts everywhere.
“Oh, God,” Mom says. She holds her free hand up to her eyes.
* * *
I remember the skin on her right forearm was still taut and that her fingers looked chicken strong, though shriveled. I should say wild turkey strong. A gaggle of wild turkeys walked across the clear cut. At that time, Mom could still walk to this corner. She was still bending over and picking up forlorn sticks. Unlike me, my mother never succumbed to anger, or to holding grudges. She wondered at the trillium in the forest glade. She never met a stick she didn’t like.
Even those who manage forests and know that sometimes what is euphemistically called a regeneration cut is the preferred cut will admit that a clear cut shocks. When I remember this scarred view, I also feel my mother with me. I don’t remember her flat chest. I remember her claw.
The clear cut, which borders our land, has yet to fill in. What cuts now is to know that I will never stand with my mom again. So my memory has the sound of logging trucks driving away, thunking down the gravel road, and the tire chains thwacking my heart. A hearse didn’t drive my mom away; Dad said it was a van. A white van. Dad remembers he told me it was a dark-colored van. And Joan Baez sings, “The Green Green Grass of Home.”
My mother: gone.
* * *
My mother and I stand in a graveyard museum of stumpage covered by bear grass. I write of our bodies, of our woods, of a boob falling on infinite loop into Sirius’s doggy bowl.
“The deer will come for cover in our woods.”
“They are welcome.”
Gradually, in two or three years, when I look at this different topography, I will be able to look at the places that were so scarred I could not look and breathe at the same time. Soon I will see shrubby undergrowth, and the wounds will recede, covered by saplings and woody shrubs and hard wood.
When I walk over this once-scarred ground, I will be hard-pressed not to slip on an unseen log or bruise my shin because I didn’t raise my leg high enough to step over the unseen log. In what was once forest and will be again, I’ll come back after the planting crew does their work.
I will think of the scars across my mother’s chest. I will think of the scar down Mom’s leg from the removal of thigh tissue that was used as chest tissue because sarcoma tumors were cut out of her chest four months before Mom died. I will think of how each new wound uncovered and covered the last. Across Mom’s nonexistent breasts.
My mother and I stand. I write of our bodies, of our woods, of our compassion. There were two breasts. Now there are none.
The trees are gone, but you encircle them. Gradually, the earth reclaims her duff. Practice makes living possible. There is green.
* * *
I walk with my mother to this corner. The trees are still here. Forest work goes on. I feel the bird weight of my mother’s arm, and the way her arm rests inside my heart, and I know that the fragility of the tree is a lie.
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