Over the years Altwatter gave up hunting
and took to bringing me along on fly fishing trips and “naming treks,”
his attempt to catalogue and archive through my senses and in my head
the names, images, habitats and habits
of most life forms within our town’s fifteen mile radius.
He feared for the Great Blue Heron, Poachers swarm the woods,
leave a mess not fit for carrion. It vexed him that other species
might reach near-extinction due to human abuse like the Great Blue
and Trailing Arbutus had in his life time. He said, Too few
people understand the sense in names.
After I became fluent enough to name
and to know by sight; birds, wildflowers, animals,
insects, nests, leaves, tree shapes, animal tracks and animal scat,
he announced it was time I learned to name the trees by their bark.
This was another lesson and test.
In early winter we hiked deep into a swamp forest
where with the imperceptible slowness of bone growth
the ice membrane that edged the round black pond
at the heart of the marsh
grew together and thickened.
Standing on a ridge above the lowland I watched
ground fog lofting itself through the shrubby osier and cranberry.
Thinning, it ghosted its way over the tops
of black spruce and tamarack
giving form to the bare bones of distant hardwoods.
Like vapor from a dying glacier
dense fog hung above the black hole.
Buried in this landscape
I found it impossible to concentrate
on the specific qualities of each tree bark.
That’s a black gum, he growled. Take a hard look at that bark.
No other like it. Touch the bark. Touch it.
He grabbed my hands and held them against the trunk.
I went through the motions and rubbed my palms along the ridged bark
memorizing the texture. The short blocky plates felt like armor.
It’s like alligator hide, I said scrawling a note in my field book.
Altvatter never praised me for my efforts. Just once his lips formed
a stiff lipped smile, his voice warning me away like barb wire,
Girl, you know more than most grown men. Don’t forget it.
With these words the skin on the ridge of my spine tightened.
A phantom creature foraged past the borderland between us.
Something Altvatter didn’t name.
I could hear its hunger in his voice,
see the other eyes flicker behind his eyes
when I rubbed my palms along the Locust’s bark.
By the time winter set in for good
and the ice on the pond froze deep enough for me to cross
I learned to vacate my body, to float above the tree tops
like a Blue Heron winging its way past the hunter’s range. With that
he quit name-grilling and badgering me to reel off the familiar ones:
Bloodroot, Jack-in-the Pulpit, Bittersweet Nightshade, Virgin’s Bower,
False Rue Anemone, Bindweed, Bastard Toadflax, Loosestrife, Showy Lady’s Slipper, Kingsnake, Swallowtail, Sapsucker, Black Locust, Tamarack,
Damselfly, Dragonfly, Solitary Sandpiper, Black Phoebe, Great Blue Heron,
Trailing Arbutus, Blue-eyed Charlotte. I can’t forget these names.