If a Tree Falls

(Dream Water, by C.D. Clarke)

Get to runnin’

[by Jim Mize]

My daughter suggested that on Father’s Day we should go fishing. Never one to shun a good idea, particularly one that involves fishing, I suggested we try Humility Creek and get an early start.

The temperatures had lived in the 90s all week and even darkness brought little relief. The water levels were falling into that summer patter where riffles go from bouncing to gurgling. The woods sounded lethargic, woodpeckers spacing out their drilling into single halfhearted taps. Humility Creek warned us early it would live up to its name.

Humility Creek falls through the North Carolina mountains in a watershed well protected with shade for cooler temperatures and with stable soil for clear water even in runoff. At least until recently, when the hemlocks that provide much of that shade and stability suffered an onslaught of woolly adelgids. Now the hemlocks have become a standing graveyard, and the primary role of their bony branches is to snag errant backcasts.

“Without limbs to grab the live branches of other trees and slow its fall, it dropped like a bludgeon.”

We waded into a long straight pool, my daughter working the riffles with a soft-hackle while I lofted a hopper into the shadows along deeper water where browns lurked. In the windless heat of the morning, a sharp crack interrupted the tranquillity. I instantly recognized this sound.

Going back a few decades, a forestry degree from my college required a timber management class that included thinning forests and cutting pulpwood for the state—cheap labor, we called it. After college, I felled a number of dead trees for firewood, helping friends feed their woodstoves and keeping a few odd sticks for my camping trips.

As a tree begins to fall, a loud crack signals its surrender. It’s a forest sound like no other, as if something in the tree just gave up, like a snapping spine.

That’s what I heard on Humility Creek, and with a quick look over my shoulder, I saw the tree falling my way. The hemlock had stood dead for some time, losing all its limbs and most of its top. It looked like a telephone pole. Without limbs to grab the live branches of other trees and slow its fall, it dropped like a bludgeon.

I broke into a run upstream, knees flying high in the spray, feeling as though I were moving in slow motion while all around me the world sped up, branches breaking like flashing highway mile markers as the tree rushed down.

My daughter hadn’t seen me move this fast in at least a decade, and her questioning expression suggested she wondered what was chasing me. Not long before, she knew, I’d encountered a black bear just above this hole, and the commotion suggested I might have met another. She also knew that things that chase usually catch the one in the rear.