Nurse Logs, and Other Lessons from Nature

Nurse Logs, and Other Lessons from Nature

Maggi McGettigan

“There’s something about being in the woods, away from it all, that is healing. I promise. Nature knows how to explain things, how to help understand things.” Dana is a poet, and also an optimist. I am neither of those. Nothing will ever help me understand what has happened. But I can’t keep living in my townhouse that reminds me of what I used to be, walking by neighbors with their pity-filled, knowing eyes, wandering around with the aimless desperation of one who was left behind. So, I go to Dana’s cabin in the woods, armed with wine and books, in the hopes that Dana is right.

From the rocking chair on the front porch, I watch the woods for answers, for understanding. I have been here a few weeks, and even in that short time, so much has changed. I am amazed at how much life can thrive even in the deep shade of thick forest. The fiddleheads have become little ferns under the tall pines. Where there was only a hint of color— a pop of purple crocus, a drip of buttercup yellow— now there are all shades of wildflowers beginning to emerge. While I don’t feel healed, I feel distracted, and that is something. Nature has allowed me to focus my gaze outward because my interior would be too much to bear.

Although sometimes, even distraction is upsetting. The geese by the small pond are pairing up, mating for life, while I am no longer a part of my pair. The birds call out to each other, making nests for their young, while the nursery in my townhouse grows only cobwebs and dust. In these moments, I curse nature, the natural order of things, the familial organization of the forest. How can there be so many signs of life, while I am plagued by death?

One morning, there is a knock on the cabin door. I assume it is Dana, coming to check in, so I rush to open it with my toothbrush dripping behind me and no pants on. It is not Dana. It is a handsome stranger. I slam the door on his outstretched hand. He knocks again. “One sec,” I shout, already running to spit out toothpaste and acquire pants. I look in the mirror, wish I didn’t, and run back to the door.

“I’m so sorry,” I say as I open it.

“No worries,” he says. “Would have called but I didn’t realize anyone was here until I got here, saw the car. And the lights. You keep these outside lights on through the night?”

I glance in the direction he is waving. “Yes,” I say. “I have to admit the dark scares me a bit, out here at least.”

“Ah,” he says, nodding but judgingly. “Well, might confuse the animals. They need to know the dark to know the light. No matter. Anyway.”

“Anyway.” I wait. He looks around. He seems to get distracted by something in the woods, maybe something he sees or hears that I do not. “Can I help you with something?”

He snaps back. “Right. Yes. Well. I’m Sam. I live up the road. Or through the woods, depending on mode of travel. I study them. The woods. I’m a botanist.” He stops, as if checking for understanding.

“Cool,” I say. Always been a great conversationalist.

“Right. I’ve been tracking the progress of a nurse log on the property here, I wondered if you mind if I spend some time with her today.”

“Sure, right. Whatever. Fine.” I start to close the door. If he is here to murder me, I should at least make it more difficult.

“Wait,” he says, so I stop. “Do you want to come?”

“No,” I say, without thinking.

“It’s really fascinating. And if you are up here, in the middle of the woods, I assume you are fascinated by such things? Else why would you be here?”

“My husband and daughter died in a car wreck six months ago.” It just comes out. I’m not sure I’ve said it like that yet, so directly. He doesn’t respond. But he doesn’t look uncomfortable. He doesn’t give me awful pity eyes. He is waiting for me to continue, as if that isn’t the end of the story. As if there’s more. “And I got sick of everyone staring at me and being weird. And Dana said nature is healing or something, I don’t know. So that’s why I’m here.”

For a minute he says nothing. “You should come and see this nurse log.”

I laugh. It is a crazy, weird, guttural sound that I haven’t heard myself make in months. Had he not heard me? Is he not fluent in English? This is the part when people get awkward and back themselves out of being with me, of having to deal with this impossible tragedy of mine.

“Really,” he says. “So much to be learned out here. Dana is right. Besides, what else are you doing today?”

We walked along an overgrown path, and Sam chattered about the trees and plants we passed. “What fascinates me about nurse logs the most is that they are actually more alive when they are dead. What I mean is, when trees are growing upright, they are only about five percent living matter. When they fall, they contain five times as much! And they do so much for the life around them, letting in more sunlight, providing protection from soil fungi, and nutrients, it’s just amazing.”

“Amazing,” I responded, though I didn’t have any idea what he was talking about.

The nurse log was out by the stream that fed the small pond by the cabin. I had walked along it several times but never paid much attention to the enormous fallen tree that marked our destination. It was the size of a car and covered with thick green moss, patches of mushrooms, and all different kinds of grasses and plants. This must be a nurse log. Sam emptied his backpack while I took off my shoes and put my feet in the water of the stream, something that has always brought me comfort. As a child, I would pretend you could toss your worries into a river and it would carry them away for you. I closed my eyes. I listened to the sounds of the water maneuvering its way around the rocks, around my feet. I felt the chill of it on my legs. The birds and bugs around me continued their conversations as if life had not been interrupted by my presence.

“Wow,” said Sam, so I walked over. He pointed to a thin little sapling that seemed to be growing right out of the dead log, its roots a tangled mess that clung to the rotting bark. Clinging for life.

“Cool,” I said.

“Really cool,” he said, and smiled. He looked up at me and smiled again. So, I crouched down to listen. What else did I have to do today? “This is one of the biggest nurse logs I have seen. Beautiful old girl. This sapling here, Eastern Hemlock, will help decay this old tree, but the old tree helps her too, gives her nutrients, protects her from soil fungi that can get to little seedlings. And look, these mushrooms are flourishing. I wasn’t sure, being so big, how things would grow together. But this shows, like, no matter how big the tree, how hard and traumatic the fall, nature takes over. The tree is not gone but changed. It provides life for a new microcosm, a new world. It has given itself to this new world.”

He is now facing the log again, lifting up leaves and rocks and dirt, making notes as he talks. “The forest has it all figured out. It doesn’t stop when one of its own is destroyed. It doesn’t stare at it as if it is now rendered useless. Think of rotting leaves, just dead garbage, right? Absolutely not, they gift their nutrients back to the soil. Even animal carcasses, when not used by other animals as food, will give their body back to the dirt and the dirt becomes better for it. There is no life without death here.”

I wanted to cry. But before I could, a chipmunk ran right in front of us, knocking us both backward in surprise. I laughed again, but more naturally, less gutturally. Sam laughed too.

“Nurse logs, huh. Is that all you study?”

“Actually, I saw you went right to the stream. As it happens, my next project focuses on rivers, creeks, and streams. Fascinating to me how the water you just stepped in will never return to us here. Or will it? See, it is off towards other adventures, a bigger river, maybe the sea. It brings with it the pollution, the debris, of the places it has passed through, never to return. Or does it? It’s a water cycle, right? So how can we tell…”

I let him talk as we both moved closer to the stream. I put my feet back in and closed my eyes. Not healed but distracted. And that is enough, for now.

Maggi McGettigan