Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Light in the Forest

     During the summer of 1979, I worked as a contract archeologist in Nicolet National Forest in northern Wisconsin. It was the responsibility of our group to conduct archeological surveys of areas that were under consideration for logging, road development and other purposes. We searched for signs of prehistoric human habitation and put our findings into environmental impact statements, as was required by the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969.
     Our work took us to extremely remote areas of the forest, places that hadn’t changed much since glaciers covered them fifteen thousand years ago. It was normally easy to tell if we would find any cultural remains based on the proximity of fresh water. Early Native Americans would not have hauled water any farther than was necessary, the same as any modern campers. In fact, the first question I would ask myself after getting out of our work van and looking around was, “Would I want to camp here?” If the answer was no, then chances were good that we wouldn’t find anything. I could confirm my hunch by sticking a shovel into the ground. If it made clanking contact with rocky glacial till within an inch or two of the surface, then the area was going to be a “write-off.” Native people wore soft-soled moccasins and would not have lived on rocky ground. To make things official, though, we needed to line up ten meters apart, try to dig holes that were a shovel blade square and a shovel blade deep, shake all that dirt and rock through half-inch mesh wooden-framed screens, examine what remained, refill the holes, march ahead ten meters, and do it all again, and again, until the entire area was surveyed. We would frequently dig over a hundred holes each in a single day.
     We so rarely found anything even remotely interesting that we developed a sense of gallows humor about our work. When Jodi would hand over yet another pulverized rock and ask for the umpteenth time if it was maybe a fire-cracked rock from a primitive hearth, Chris would examine the rock carefully, look her straight in the eye, and ask, “Which shoulder do you want me to throw it over?” A pebble with an interesting shape would be dubbed a “love stone” – just another effin’ rock.
     So our expectations were low when we set out early one morning to survey an old-growth maple forest. We followed the ghost of a leaf-covered double-track for a few miles to where it disappeared completely and parked the van. Getting out, I looked up at the forest canopy far above. It was so dense that only the dark green light filtering through the leaves would penetrate, like sunlight through stained glass. The cathedral effect was enhanced by the trees themselves, each trunk standing absolutely straight and extending more than thirty feet before branches appeared. The air was moist and cool, almost chilly, on what should have been a hot, sunny day.
     We noticed some old cans rusting into the ground near where we had parked and soon located other evidence of modern humans. Jack found what looked like a large silvered television tube, and it took us a moment to figure out that it was the remains of an old thermos bottle, its steel case long since rusted away. Our best guess was that the area had once been used as a maple sugaring camp, probably more than thirty years ago since there was no plastic to be found.
     We gathered our shovels and screens, assumed our ten-meter separations, and began digging the first of many holes, in a line perpendicular to the track. I was the farthest one out, which I didn’t mind because it gave me the added responsibility of charting our course with a compass and tying survey tape to shrubs in order to maintain the alignment of our grid for the return leg. When I stomped my shovel into the ground for the first time, I was pleasantly surprised to have the blade sink all the way in. Beneath the ancient layer of dead maple leaves, the soil was loamy. It went through the screen like water, leaving almost nothing but the leaves behind. I didn’t expect to find anything of interest, like a projectile point or a pot sherd; we were miles from any water source.
     The ease of the digging and the dark coolness of the forest lulled me into a comfortable rhythm. It must have been a couple of hours and many holes later that I noticed something strange up ahead. There was a column of white light shining down through a circular hole in the canopy. Our course would take me right to its edge. As I dug the remaining holes leading up to where the light shone down, I kept an eye on the hole in the canopy, wondering what had caused it. I was right at the edge of the light before I saw the depression in the ground. It was a circle about sixty feet across, the same size and shape as the hole in the canopy above it. In its center, mixed with dead maple leaves, was a large circular puddle of black mud. Was it an isolated sink hole? I didn’t think so. The local geology didn’t support that idea. I puzzled over it as I stomped the dirt into my most recent hole, and then I nearly jumped out of my skin. Just five feet to my right was a dead deer. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t noticed it, but I had been preoccupied with the light and the depression. The deer, a white-tailed doe, appeared to have died in the last few days. Its eyes were not fully sunken, and it was not yet bloated and stinking. There was no sign of violence. I stared at it for several seconds, half expecting it to get up and run away, and then my eyes were drawn back to the light. Whatever had killed the deer was somehow associated with this strange place. I was sure of it. Maybe it drank from the mud puddle and was poisoned somehow. No, there was no mud on the deer’s hooves. What was it then? And what had happened here in the first place to create the hole in the canopy and the mud-filled depression? A small meteorite falling to earth? A flying saucer landing?
     I was still staring back and forth between the dead deer and the depression, trying to figure it out, when I heard Bart calling my name. He had been ten meters to my left, but now he was way ahead of me. I skirted the edge of the depression – there was no way I was going to dig holes in it – and ran to take my position again next to Bart. “That was pretty weird back there, huh?” he said. “Yeah,” I responded. Weirder than you would believe, I thought.
     The next day, we surveyed a grassy meadow in the same vicinity as the maple forest. The meadow was dotted with large rounded boulders, known as erratics, which had been left behind by the last glacier. They looked like giant Easter eggs sitting in the tall grass. The work was difficult, shoveling through the dense turf, and we dug fewer holes than normal. As we slogged back down the dirt road we had worked our way up, feeling tired and dirty, and looking forward to a cold beer, I noticed a boulder a few feet off the side of the road. It was about the size of an oil drum and probably weighed at least a thousand pounds. It was lying on its side. It had been pushed over from its original position, leaving a depression where it had stood. The grass at the edges of the depression fanned out around a circle of dirt criss-crossed by worm holes. The worms were long gone, but the dirt was not yet dried out. The boulder had been tipped over in the last few days, maybe on the same day that the deer had died. Was there a connection? I didn’t know, but I did know that if a bear had pushed over the boulder looking for worms or grubs, there would have been scratches in the dirt, and there weren’t any.
     What else could explain it? I felt my face flush as I stared down at the depression, and sweat ran down my back. The others in my group had moved on down the road, not intrigued enough to delay that waiting beer. I looked up slowly. The woods surrounding the meadow felt as if they were closing in, like a dark wave cresting. I was in the presence of something I couldn’t understand, and it was frightening me. My skin tingled with electricity. I wouldn’t have been surprised to ride a beam of light up into the sky at that very moment. I scanned the sky to make sure there wasn’t something up there. It was blue and empty. I bent over to pick up my shovel and screen, and I walked slowly away down the road. I did not look back.

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