The Forest Nearest Me

The Clove, the Catkills by Thomas Cole (1827). New Britain Museum of American Art, New Britain, CT.

I am blessed that out my back door is a forest of healthy tall unlogged hemlocks, whose evergreen loveliness keeps me from going mad in the long winters of the Catskills.   It is a particular torture of the northeasterner in autumn and winter to suffer the deciduous forest when all leaves are lost.  Then the world look likes an army of bones and sticks and strange creatures of one’s dark imaginings, the bonestick marching ghosts of the haunted forest under a full moon.  The days degenerate, one after another, into more overcast skies than even a juvenile alcoholic whose only work is Poe or Lovecraft can accept, and there is unending dull gray that becomes the color of your mind.

In winter, the hemlocks are saviors.  To watch the snow catch in their needles and display with exquisite forms a lacelike white softness and supple angelic tuft keeps me from the bottle in mouth and also from the pistol at head.

Consider that the snow on the needles of the hemlocks in the last cold storms is lit by that peculiar angular light that only occurs in these latitudes in spring and fall (light never seen in summer, when the high sun oppresses and flattens).  The sight of snow on the needles is a miraculous enveloping almost spiritual thing, such that you can stare at it for a time and forget who you are and enter if only fleetingly a kind of consciousness of light on ice and snow on the evergreen branches.

Such is the glory (picayune perhaps) of the forest nearest my house, on a ridge in the Catskill Mountains at 2,300 feet of elevation.   If I ever dare to complain, I kick myself.  I am out in the forest every day, in all seasons.  Usually I take the dog, beagle-man Apollo, a creature who is speaking, I am convinced, some language of deep time, for his big brown wet almond-shaped eyes hint at mysteries that dry dismal dulled human eyes, too often dependent on the falsifying gibberish of language, do not.

Apollo and I set out on an afternoon one day in a squall of spring snow on a lark – I had no intention of walking as far as we did.  No intention of letting him loose of the leash, but there it was – I hate the goddamn leash.  I keep thinking of a world where giant dogs walk me with collar round my neck, barking commands I barely understand while throwing me scrap-crap food as I crawl and beg and debase myself.  Maybe there will be such a world where alien dog-gods show up from the Pleiades and teach us a lesson.

On this day, a cold spring day perfumed with the smell of snow, we walked leashless in late afternoon through the hemlock forest that stretches for two miles behind the house, along the moss-soaked ledges on the trail that I built with my daughters, with all the world sleek and smooth in the spring gleam of the dusting snow, the air dry and crisp, the skies parting at almost operatic schedule, sun bursting here, steel-gray girders forming there, explosions of light amidst purple and mauve and glowworm-silver rays of cathedral light, and rays of fire meaningful like temples but suddenly erased in gorgeous enormity of open sky.  Gold cloud and then purple cloud, then shape-shifting chimerical snow-squalls, and the peaks in the distance shivered in the squalls and seemed to be lit from within, so that the land itself had a kind of resonating trembling quality, as if it had been tapped like a tuning fork and its hum hovered in the air and projected across miles and could be felt almost bodily, as if I too were a piece of the tuning fork harmonizing.

Apollo and I, meanwhile, walked and walked.  I was awed and yapped to myself and called out to him, and the sun came out again for a brief moment and I stopped and so did he.  The sun was a velvet orange beyond the ridges to the west. Then the bright sky closed like an eye, submitting to cloud, and turned flesh-gray.  The dog and I passed out of the hemlock forest into the open fields of the farmed landscape where our neighbor produces hay.  These fields are set on a steady gradient that take the breath out of a hiker who isn’t prepared. The climb is not steep, but it is steady.  Everything turned dark, and then the wind blew, and out came the last of the sun like an explosion.

Apollo shot away across the fields, feeling that sweetness of absolute freedom of movement that we all wish was ours.  How much of our life is degraded by simply standing around, staring blankly at the infinite horizon of time?  The belief is that the horizon will come to meet us if we merely plant our feet and declare, Here I am and that’s all. (Corollary thought: And that’s precisely where you will die, in mind first, then in body.)

Now in cold spring and in the last of the snow there was a twilight weather of rich creative cloudforms and stippling light and a stereoscopic view in which the mountains floated, the ridges seemed to be rippling water-like mirages, and the sky rippled too.  There was a point when I too was floating, my feet no longer bound by gravity.  A moonwalker was I, bouncing on mother earth, and happy as any earth-bouncing man can be with darkness coming on.  This is what happens walking the great American landscape with a beagle dog and with heart and eyes open enough to see and feel and be grateful.

Christopher Ketcham writes at and is seeking donations to his new journalism nonprofit, Denatured.  He can be reached at