If a Tree Falls

(Dream Water, by C.D. Clarke)

Before she could take off and I could get more than five steps upstream, the tree hit the water so forcefully, the top exploded. Splinters of shrapnel dotted the creek and began to float downstream. A wave broke against my leg.

The tree had fallen across my fly line, so I slowly worked it free and looked around to confirm that the tree hadn’t jarred another loose. But the woods fell silent. Even the cicadas took a breath.

In the quiet, the sound of laughter was surprising. With gallows humor, we imagined cartoon images of me being driven neck deep into soft silt; I laughed at comments about my running form in knee-deep water. Had a bear followed me upriver, my daughter would have been no more surprised than when a tree fell in the forest and landed in the trout stream.

As I tracked its thuds and breaking brush, I felt like an outfielder watching a ball come off the bat, rising into the sky, and beginning its descent as if it were tracking me, not the other way around.

I’ve always heard that in such moments your life will pass before your eyes. Mine didn’t. This disappointed me a bit, as there are episodes I’d like to watch again even if they play by in a flash. Either my memory is going, or there wasn’t enough time before the tree fell to replay such a long life.

But afterwards, the falling tree prompted another memory, one of an October morning on the Fryingpan in Colorado. The nighttime temperatures had dropped below freezing, pushing ice crystals up onto the edges of the mud puddles where I parked my car, the earth moving up and down as freezing and thawing cycles competed.

The Pan where I fished cut between two ridges. On one side, the paved road paralleled the stream and ran up to the lake above; on the opposite side, a dirt road allowed fishermen room to pull off and park.

When the sun first hit the ridge, the thawing released a rock the size of a pumpkin. Bounding high as it gained speed, rolling and leaping down the mountainside, it kicked loose gravel, creating its own small landslide, clearing the highway and hitting the guardrail with a clang that caused any living creature to turn and look.

An hour later another, larger boulder gave up its perch behind me. With its heft, it rolled more surely, with methodical bounces. As I tracked its thuds and breaking brush, I felt like an outfielder watching a ball come off the bat, rising into the sky, and beginning its descent as if it were tracking me, not the other way around.

As it bounded into view through the sparse pines, I realized it wasn’t coming for me but for my rental car. Every tree that could have stopped it missed. Moving with more deliberate force than speed, the boulder cleared the woods, and with one last leap cracked into another rock just large enough to check its progress. It stopped yards short of my car.

The dust settled and the quiet returned, and I remembered that I hadn’t checked the insurance option on my rental car. Near misses can add color to our experiences outdoors—providing they miss. With enough frequency, these events can make a person feel like a disaster magnet, when, in reality, they serve as reminders that the world isn’t a static place. Catastrophes and mishaps, great and small, make mountains into rubble and trees into sawdust. It happens whether we’re there to see it or not.

From this near encounter with the tree, I learned several lessons. First, a forestry degree can save your life; the split second from crack to falling tree gave me five steps. Second, on a stream littered with standing dead hemlocks, never stop to fish on the downhill side of one. Last, I now know the answer to that age-old question about trees falling in the forest. My answer is that there are two sounds: the crack of the tree, and my scream as I scampered like a walrus possessed.

Jim Mize has just completed an award-winning collection of humor for fly fishermen titled A Creek Trickles Through It. For more information on this and his other books, go to www.acreektricklesthroughit.com.