Dank earth smells waft up from under my boots. With my ear pressed tight against the cool poplar trunk and my eyes closed, I breathe in the fall smell of wet soil and soapberries.
Then it begins again: the rattling, the creaking and swaying. I have the tree locked in a tight embrace, a literal treehugger, and listen to it playing in the wind. The shaking leaves sound like pebbles washing on shore and as the wind pushes harder, the tree’s cool, smooth trunk leans into me. Somehow, I can sense or imagine the broad, strong foothold of the root system under my feet.
I don’t hug trees all that often even though there is nobody here to raise a questioning eyebrow at the practice of getting up close and personal to large plants. But when I do, it always amazes me how much noise there is to be heard and how much of the tree is moving. After all, they don’t strike you as a particularly mobile or talkative life form when you look at them.
It seemed like a good idea to listen in on a windy day, as long as there are still leaves on the poplars. The tree feels wildly alive and vibrant, and it is only when I get cold that I let go of it, my cheek, hands and sweater front all dusted now with the white-yellowish powder that poplar trunks are coated with. I marvel at the throbbing, rattling trees all around it as I go back to the cabin and brush the poplar dust off myself – it is so easy to dismiss all these countless plant lives being lived from, at least from our human point of view, which tends to suffer short attention spans.
Maybe I’m more susceptible to treehugging these days because it’s been a meagre wildlife summer. Oh, they have come by: moose, caribou, wolves and bears, leaving a tantalizing track here, a broken-off poplar sapling there, a rock rolled onto a path and droppings in plain view. I just haven’t seen the animals themselves. I have been out of sync.
A couple of weeks ago, I could have gone and seen the bear that Nooka and Milan treed – the old dog has thankfully retired from her self-subscribed job as resident bear dog. Contrary to old Leshi, the other two dogs don’t have to be forcibly removed from underneath the tree that the bear is perched in.
The tell-tale barks followed by scrabbling sounds as the bear went up a spruce informed me of what was going on and after whistling and shouting a couple of times, the dogs returned, panting with excitement. I contemplated going over to look at the bear but decided against it despite my craving for wildlife sightings. One time, a treed bear had looked at me entering the scene with such horror that he spattered the bushes below him with freshly digested soapberries. Since then and Leshi’s retirement, I prefer to leave the treed bears at ease.
With the dogs locked away, I expected the bear to climb down fairly soon because that’s what they usually do here. Once he was gone, I thought I would go over, look for the tree the bear had been in and guess by the claw marks at the size and age of the bear. But although everything in the cabin was deadly quiet, the bear didn’t dare come down for a good hour. When he did climb down, it was hard not to notice: bawling loudly and breaking countless branches on his way, he eventually got back on the ground. That didn’t stop his string of bitter complaints – I could hear him for a couple more minutes as he grumbling disappeared into the forest.
The spruce tree he had been in was too thick-barked to find any scratches on, so the bear’s size remained a matter of conjecture to me. I think it was a young one, what with the length of time he stayed in the tree and the loud complaints on his way down.
Maybe the bear had also listened to the tree talking in the wind as he sat up in his lofty perch, his heart thudding hard in his chest at first until it became calm again and finally, the tree was the loudest thing he heard.
Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who lives at the headwaters
of the Yukon River south of Whitehorse.