August 1, 2015

JOSHUA STEELE: "THE CLEARING"

Father. Husband. Writer. 



 

the clearing


    There is a clearing in the center of a large, overgrown forest. It is secluded from the rest of this modernized world, surrounded by trees. As the forest swallows up the clearing, one becomes aware of a natural harmony not normally noticed. Green moss and mushrooms grow atop the logs and roots on the forest floor, undisturbed by the clod of men’s boots. Animals roam the forest freely and unafraid.

This forest is part of a plantation, the last of its kind in the area. Most of the others have been bulldozed to make way for houses and strip malls, but not this one. Some great men have preserved this land for over one hundred years, keeping it safe from development and hunting. One of these men is Mr. Simmons. He owns the property now.
When I first met Mr. Simmons, he told me that since he was a young man he always knew there was something magical about this forest. He was always amazed at just how close he could be with nature. As the seasons changed—and with them, the colors of the trees—Mr. Simmons felt he changed with them. Every day was a new experience, he told me. He first found the clearing many years ago and one day he told me just how it had shaped his life. Seeing the clearing for the first time changed mine, too. He described for me that life-changing day just after he showed me the clearing.
#
Mr. Simmons owns the plantation now and these days he spends most of his time on the dikes, making sure they’re well-maintained. Located between the horse pastures and Mr. Simmons’s magical forest, these dikes separate both the common area from the forest and the river from the rice fields.
The rice fields, as they are called, are home to all sorts of wildlife. Formerly actual rice fields, Mr. Simmons converted the area into a wildlife preserve years ago. Herons, ducks, alligators, frogs, and all sorts of birds and fish roam these rice fields.
He enjoys opening and closing the ditch boxes and watching the rice fields fill with water while herons and ducks swoop down into the reeds. He loves watching birds and other animals live in harmony together. He is happy to know he was able to provide them this harmony. Most days, he wakes me and we take a small golf cart up and down the dikes with our morning coffee as he opens the ditch boxes. I’m pretty new here and I haven’t learned everything yet. He’s still teaching me to operate the ditch boxes. Mr. Simmons is patient. He says we’re all a family here. He says he will work with me as long as it takes. “One day,” I tell him. “One day, I’ll be a member of the family.”
Forest, dikes, and rice fields aren’t the only sights to see here. No, on this thousand-acre plantation, there are horse pastures rolling with rye grass, fields of corn, and old cottages dating back to the late 19th century. As if that weren’t enough to keep a man busy, Mr. Simmons is known throughout the region as the expert on all things pertaining to forestry and wetlands, as well as the care of animals, both wild and domesticated. People come from all over the state to seek out his advice. It seems there is someone new here every day and he is patient with and kind to each of them, just as he is with me. He answers all their questions and teaches them what he knows without ever demanding anything in return. Men come from around the world just to spend a weekend walking the property with him, listening to his stories and seeing the place.
The men who work here all tell me they often receive other job offers—many of which would pay more—but they all say there’s nowhere else they’d rather be, no other man they’d rather work with. They all tell me: “There’s no one on Earth like Mr. Simmons.”
This past weekend, as I said, I caught a glimpse into his world and finally understood what they meant. That was when I first saw the clearing.
#
“Nate, what do you think of this place?” He asked me as we walked through the forest.
“The forest?”
“Well, the forest and the entire plantation,” he said.
“I love this place, Mr. Simmons. I’m proud to work the land here. I don’t know any place like it,” I told him.
“Me neither, son. Would you believe I’ve worked this property for thirty years? I remember when Mr. Cato first hired me here. At first, my job was to feed the animals and make sure our crops were well-maintained. I was one of three boys working under him. At the time, the plantation still sold rice and corn to local grocers.”
We stopped several times as he reminisced about a particular tree or showed me a type of mushroom I hadn’t seen before. He knew his way around the forest like he planted them himself. This only reinforced my opinion that there was nothing he didn’t know about this plantation.
“I used to spend every spare moment in these woods. Mr. Cato encouraged all of us to be close with the wildlife here. We started work before sunrise but he would let us knock off around three or four in the afternoon so we could explore. As we explored, we often had questions and he was never too busy to explain something to us or to teach us something new. He was a great man.”
    “He sounds a lot like you, sir,” I said.
    He smiled and clasped his hand over my shoulder. “Mr. Cato was like a father to me, Nathan. Everything I know today is thanks to him.”
    Just as the clearing became visible up ahead, we stopped to sit on a log. We took a minute to appreciate the way the sun’s rays beamed through the trees just ahead.
    “Beautiful, isn’t she?”
    “The clearing, sir?”
    He didn’t say anything, but he pointed. I squinted and saw a fox in the distance.
    “I had just walked out to the clearing and I was lying in the field, lost in the clouds, as usual. Then I heard a low cry just within the forest. I was used to hearing all sorts of wildlife: the sounds of deer rustling through the forest, owls hooting, or rabbits hopping along—but this was different. Something was trying to get my attention. I walked to the edge of the clearing and looked through the trees into the forest. At first, I saw nothing. For a moment, I thought I’d imagined the whole thing. I heard the cry again and looked closer. It was then I saw something moving under a nearby log.
“I leaned in for a closer look. It was a baby fox. She looked up at me and whimpered. ‘Who do we have here? Hello little one,’ I said in a soothing voice as she continued whimpering. ‘Don’t worry, she’ll be back soon.’ I reached out to pet her and when I did, she nuzzled my hand.
“The next day I came back to the clearing and basked in the cool breeze as I ate lunch. Somehow, I’d forgotten about the fox. I had almost finished my sandwich when I heard the cry again. I smiled as I remembered the cub.
“’Hello again, my friend,’ I said to the fox. ‘How are you?’ As I smiled at her, she cooed. I could tell she was hungry, so I broke the rest of my sandwich into little pieces and spread the pieces out on the ground in front of her. The way she devoured everything told me her mother hadn’t been back in days. As she finished eating, I decided to spend the night in the field to keep an eye out for the mother. If she didn’t return, I resolved to raise the cub myself.”
    I picked up my feet and looked down.
    “I never saw the mother so I fed her again the next day. When I did, she looked up at me and smiled. I knew then I would take her in and care for her as long as she needed me.”
    “That’s incredible, sir.”
    “I called her Madeline and I came out every day to feed her. I didn’t want to confine her to the indoors, so I built a den for her and made sure she was protected. As she grew up, she always came back to this clearing. No matter where she went or how much time passed, she always came back here to wait for me. She was really very playful and loving.”
    The fox in the field started walking toward us.
    “Athena here is the third generation, directly descended from Madeline. When Madeline had her first cubs, the first thing she did was bring them to me, sort of like she was introducing me to her new family. As they grew up, we would all play out in the clearing several times a week—you know, with a ball or something. Every litter of her descendants since then has done the same.”
    I sat in awe of Mr. Simmons and his story. I’d heard of people raising foxes in suburban areas, finding later that natural instinct took over in adulthood; I’d never heard of anyone successfully raising three generations of foxes and sharing a bond with them all, even as they reached maturity. I wasn’t sure what to say, so I patiently waited for him to continue his story.
    “Athena is about to give birth. It is a special experience and I’d like you to be here to see it with me.”
    “I’d be honored, sir.”
    Athena walked toward us and lay down just in front of the den. She looked up at Mr. Simmons and he got down off the log to comfort her. I’d never seen a wild animal give birth before, so I sat back, observing. She eyed me with caution and seemed almost frightened, but Mr. Simmons reassured her. Eventually, she relaxed as Mr. Simmons continued to coax her.
“It’s alright,” he kept telling her. She yelped as the contractions started.
After nearly a half hour of labor and more yelping, she pushed out two brown cubs, a boy and a girl. They looked more like puppies than foxes to me. Mr. Simmons sat back as Athena picked up each by the scruffs of their necks and licked them clean. Then she nursed them for the first time. After that, she brought them to Mr. Simmons, and as he picked them up, one by one, he nuzzled them with his bushy beard. He smiled at Athena, then he turned to smile at me, grasping my shoulder. Athena looked to me and then back to Mr. Simmons. Mr. Simmons nodded to Athena. At this, without hesitation, she presented her cubs to me.
She watched attentively as I knelt down and introduced myself to them. Mr. Simmons told me they were blind and deaf at first and they would only sense my scent and body warmth. He told me that by introducing myself to them at birth, the cubs would from then on recognize me by scent and would trust me for the rest of their lives. I picked up each and cradled them to my chest a moment, before placing them back on the ground in front of Athena. Afterwards, as though this had told Athena all she needed to know about me, she nuzzled my leg as a cat might, then took her cubs into the den Mr. Simmons had built under the log.
We named the cubs George and Verona.
    “She likes you, son. Welcome to the family.”
~JOSHUA STEELE

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