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The Democratic Forest: A Love Story
By Eben Wood
For Thrity and Andrés, still there
You know you got there when you reach the fortress, which sits like a table upended into walls. There, in the fortress’s hollow heart, you can trace the grain of history, sit and talk, eat and drink. In this communion you’ve gone all the way from your origins, from protect to defend, because you learned early to circumnavigate. Projections are difficult in an indecisive climate. Things get harder to predict, despite the general tendency. It’s certain there will be storms, but from destruction comes windfall. You already have ballast, leaving port. We all have traumas. So we have no choice but to carry them in our bodies, those soft hulls, protecting them from ourselves and the world in which we suffered them. We are their medium. The axons and dendrites of our nervous system are woven by them. From that web we reach out through our fingers. The cells of the world’s body grip them and we’re pulled forward into the forest, from sea to littoral to peak. The moon appears hollowed out by these same systems, the dead seas, and all the figures in the stars.
So you leave the fortress and the old and new cities built up around it, the buildings like a rainbow where the breakers roll in from the Atlantic. The highways are arteries also, pathways leading out of Carolina to east and west, and south toward the mountains. From the coast you elevate and forget. The city of San Juan hardly disappears when, rising through the river valley, you escape to the plain at Caguas. This is where Thrity and Andrés lived, together, within the solid concrete walls and latticed palm shadows of a gated community into which the storm spun them like a centrifuge. They found shelter, but still they’re spinning. We ate and drank around a table made of the mahogany they’d milled and that he’d built solidly, as the walls are built solidly, in the face of what happened. This was the beginning of knowing them.
On the couch I dreamed of a previous shipwreck. Coming to terms, we call it. In the morning we drove into the mountains. The rivers, those arteries of a liquid system, had forced their own pathways with gravity, carrying the debris downstream. Las Casas de la Selva, the Houses of the Forest, off PR 184 in Patillas, where you have to gun the engine to get up the steep, deeply eroded slope of the unpaved road from the creek, cleared of the windfall, suggests other walls that might protect or defend, or equally imprison. There is a without and within, and so I passed through. The forest is a skin. Eventually Thrity would return to live here alone with the dogs, with Negralora and old Nogal. She and Andrés still share the space, as they do the mill in Caguas, when he returns to help her with the work of rebuilding. Before the storm they both lived at Las Casas, but there are many kinds of windfalls, of trauma and recovery. In her several decades here, after her departure from London and the years she spent on the ferro-cement research ship, the Heraclitus, learning the language of coral reefs, she had learned the language of the forest, of the nerve cells of the world’s body, fluently; she could—he said—identify any plant or creature in the forest. He was born and raised in Patillas, just down the mountain, had left it, had returned. I am, he said, a jíbaro. For both it was about the protection, and about the defense. Of the community, he told me, but the community he spoke about was not only human. You begin, he said, with the water.
She had the physical language of the forest, its many expressive forms, and of the ways to sustain it, the technê. He had the technê as well, the knowledge and technology to transform and transport that language, to render a built thing from its systems, even as it retained the system’s integrity. They were, living there on the shoulder of the mountain, within what would be sight of the Caribbean coast, even the breakers hitting the reef off Patillas, had not the rainforest canopy, the old but still second-growth mahogany and pterocarpus of that former coffee plantation, been in the way. The storm stripped the canopy away, evidence of the indecisive climate, and it was for this reason that they could predict. He could play electric guitar as loudly as he liked, on the theater’s open stage over the natural amphitheater filled with trees. The nursery held thousands of seedlings, her harvest from the rainforest. Her paintings were the systems they lived within and which lived in them, stripped to color and texture. At night the coquí, the tiny frogs, beat a web from their throats through the darkness, a rhythm to map that deep space, the crowns of surviving hardwood punched in silhouette from the stars.
They sheltered from the storm in the bunker-like library, behind the kitchen and the open-air dining room, against the mountainside. The first wall of the storm was hard. Even the concrete walls seemed to vibrate, to sing with the pressure. There was a break between that first wall and the second, spinning in the opposite direction, a break like the fortress’s hollow heart, and there was blue mist everywhere. Even the horizon was gone. The second wall was unimaginably worse. They could hear the forest being torn apart. She told me it was as if time stood still, and in less than an hour almost everything they’d known was gone. She even wrote the exact time in her notebook at one point and she could list the many things that she did in the real space and time of the bunker, densely pressurized, after she returned to find that only three or four minutes had elapsed. It was that compressed. The dogs were in the workshop, up the slope from the bunker, and it lost part of its roof. The nursery and the theater were destroyed. Eventually the winds went to the northwest. All of them, Thrity and Andrés, Negralora and Nogal, the duck and the chickens, the rainforest, Las Casas, had survived. But there are costs to that living, always.
So there is that shared trauma, which is further ballast. This is the windfall: to mill the hardwood that the storm had brought down, that choked the roads, that they’d had to cut their way through to reach PR 184, all the way down the mountain to their neighbors, to the hamlet up the river valley from the coast. He remembered his family home, destroyed in his childhood by an earlier storm. The first trauma, he called it, discounting birth. The saw was undamaged but they had to take it out of the mountains, out of Patillas, to Caguas. They found the land there, in the old cement plant, its Neolithic slabs exactly right to raise the walls of the salesroom, the shed for tools and equipment, to make a solid bed to rest the saw on. It was the permits to harvest the windfall that were the problem. All that’s FEMA and the U.S. Forestry Service, those other colonial fortresses, who were paying for the storm-downed wood to be chipped and dumped into landfill, simply thrown away, but in that utopia of rules there was no mechanism to harvest it.
So systems work, to protect and defend. Thrity and Andrés lifted and moved, seeking egress to a market that didn’t yet exist, with their fingers, their arms, their backs and spirit, the fire of neural systems. What else does the island have? he asked me. Wood and water, he answered. He stayed in Caguas and she returned to Las Casas. Everything needed to be rebuilt, and this takes time. I was with them in the rented home in the gated community in Caguas, with her as the coquí cut up and webbed together the nights on the mountain. I drove southwest through the mountains to Ponce. The roads were broken—Peligro Carretera Cerrada read the orange warning signs—and I had to double back, find my way around, circumnavigate. From Ponce I went east along the coast, through El Negro and Humacao to Fajardo and up through the broken roads of El Yunque National Forest, the only old-growth left on the island from the Spanish dominion. This was the king’s land, nole me tangere, the first European system. In Fajardo my sister’s dog died and because I too had loved him I cried, standing on the eroded concrete jetty as the sea beat against it. I was still thinking about that earlier shipwreck, the debris of losing someone else I’d loved, all these echoes of loss and what we make of them, as I was for the next day through the mountains, the rock walls webbed with waterfalls, of El Yunque, back over its lower western shoulders onto the plain, and again to Caguas. Some kind of full circle, as memory circumnavigates.
It was comforting, watching them work as the rains came and went, heavy and warm, and the saw’s circular blade took apart the trunks of windfall mahogany, and to sit outside together when the work was finished for the day, at a table made of one of those trunks, touching the beautiful grain, illuminated by the oil and beeswax he rubbed carefully, by hand, into the planed and sanded plank, and talk. So the walls rise and fall, as does a ship’s hull. There will be more days like this ahead, loops through the forest and mountains and the sea, each of them a fortress, which is how I know I got there.