Translating the forest

A woman on the ferry told us only eccentrics would go to the island in this weather. ''I know; I'm one.'' The eight other people on the usually overcrowded mailboat had agreed. But having the woods to ourselves was worth waiting on the docks in the wind. We'd huddled together - a small bunch of pilgrims watching the rain begin to freeze and give the planks a polish. Even the gulls were having trouble balancing on the updrafts.

A husband and wife leaning on worn Army surplus backpacks said they always go to the island this time of year. No competition for the campsites. But they'd come prepared for a cold night.

Before this conversation with the other ''eccentrics'' on the ferry, the three of us hadn't really talked over our reasons for going to the island. It involved some sacrifice. We'd left behind a still glowing wood stove and a pot of hot chocolate in the old house we'd taken for the weekend.

It was my idea to go. I figured they needed more than a room with a view. They needed this island. The musician had spent three months in a Boston accounting office. That alone would have been enough to send me to the sanctuary of a Maine forest.

And the painter lived in a Cambridge apartment building where the stairwell was the living room. Whenever I called, she'd tell me about the smell of exotic dinners, settling children's battles, and listening to other women talk about work and family. And about how she never had time to be in her studio.

A third of the island was still rough forest, with rock promontories poking out a hundred feet above the sea. You could walk for miles and see nothing man-made, except the trail itself.

When we landed, the two island residents left the ferry and hurried up the hill to their houses. The rest of us headed for the forest. There were enough trails so that our small party was soon on its own.

At first, while we were still on the gravel road that leads into the forest, we were busy making sure everyone saw a leaf that was still red or an ice-covered berry. We'd interrupt each other with memories of other walks or childhood camping trips.

Then as the gravel road ended and the trail began, I became more quiet - partially in awe and partially in vigilance. An owl left its branch softly. Small beetles pushed deeper into the leaves. In a stream, melting ice creaked. I felt as though I were in the presence of some hermit sage, waiting for him to speak his few words of truth. I wanted to apologize even for the crunch of my boots.

I search for an analogy to explain to myself why a forest is a unique sanctuary. If I appreciated finely tuned machines, I might find a comparison there. Except that, while there is consonance and order in the forest, it is not at all like something we have made.

A jay calls a warning - oblivious of me. Pig nuts lie ripening in a spot of sun. Some squirrel will bury them soon. If it forgets one long enough, it will sprout in the spring.

It's not that I cannot see the disarray of rotting leaves, what's left of a small smooth animal skeleton, or trees snapped by lightning. I see them, but I also see what the forest does with them. It balances unsettled accounts with great forgiveness, making monuments even of what is broken.

In my analogy-seeking, I'd wandered just far enough ahead of the other two to be alone but not cut off. I love the wildness of the forest, but I'm still the child of civilization. And I go alone only to the tamest woods.

I couldn't see them back down the winding path. But, I could still hear them.

''Burnt sienna. Or maybe the maple leaf is ochre. The rock is not black. It's two or three colors.'' The painter is translating the forest into inks and pigments.

''Do you try to copy the color exactly or do you improvise?'' The musician is doing a National Public Radio interview.

''I'm looking at color and at shapes, trying to create form from color.''

I'm a purist. In the forest, you talk in hushed tones, if you talk at all. And even this talk of art is not reverent enough. I try to put even more distance between us.

I admit grudgingly to myself that they are enjoying their woods and I mine. But I am glad when the path drops down behind a hill and they are completely out of earshot.

We are coming to the ocean. I stop to watch the wind bend the tops of pines as though they were sea grass. Then over the rushing wind I hear another sound. The musician is singing.

As she tops the hill, I turn to face her. With hands on hips, completely serious, but trying to appear as though it's all a joke, I announce, ''No singing allowed in the forest.''

She stops. But the silence in the forest is no longer the same.

As the three of us reach the ocean, we feel the brashness of the spray. And we stand there looking out to sea as though we were shipwrecked.

Suddenly the musician begins to call out: ''Come on. Come on. We won't hurt you.'' Then we see what she sees.

Four seals are diving and playing in the surf. When she calls, they stop, look up, and one swims closer. He's remarkably close. Only a shallow trough and some rocks separate us.

Two seals continue to play, while two watch us. Then they dive in unison and reappear, pleased with their hide and seek. Their energy is uncontainable, a hymn of joy.

We must have watched for nearly 20 minutes, until we were too cold to stand in the spray any longer. Then we reluctantly returned to the trail. We had to start the long walk back.

When we got off the ferry, people from the mainland told us that seeing seals swimming off the island is no miracle. But their devotion to the ordinary didn't completely spoil it for us.

If it was a miracle, it was probably intended for me. It was a reminder that there's reverence in exuberance - and that singing is allowed in the forest.

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