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hunger of the pine

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Duck Newton loves the Monongahela National Forest.

It’s a fact. Sky is blue, grass is green, and there’s never been a more beautiful testament to nature’s power, never anything closer to Heaven.

When he’s a child in grade school and no more than ten, he’s sent to summer camp, and though he’s hesitant at first about the entire ordeal, he returns from it with a newfound respect for nature. Other kids stumble into patches of poison ivy and wasps nests; he watches as they all complain of peeling sunburns and, even though he’s whiter than fallen snow, can’t relate. Little Dougie nearly drowns; Duck takes to the water easily and gracefully. Every kid is itching at their mosquito bites, but they just don’t find him appetizing.

He’s never felt quite at home back… ...well, home. Everyone’s always made a tremendous fuss about him back there, and it’s always been very awkward. Only his parents are never too impressed, and more exasperated with the attention he draws (if unintentionally) to himself. So, of course, there’s a moment when he’s hiking and the woods are so peaceful, and he thinks to himself that he doesn’t ever want to leave this place. It’s not a practical thought, and of course, he’s sent home just like the rest of his peers, but the forest…

...it’s hard to explain, but it just won’t leave him alone.

His thoughts become preoccupied with it, so he starts learning everything about it that he can. He memorizes rote facts; sometimes he forgets to eat breakfast, but he can tell you every type of tree. Starts to lose interest in school, though his grades remain passable, but he can tell you about every bit of wildlife that populates those woods. He finds pictures of it and pastes them to the wall of his bedroom, fixated and fascinated. He forgets to sleep, and his parents find him huddled over a National Geographic about national parks.

He sees it in everything he does. He does a report on it for school and passes with flying colors, all while other grades dip. His clothes become all earthy tones, browns and greens and occasional light tans. When the next trip occurs, he’s ready. He’s got the whole thing mapped out, every trail envisioned and scouted. He can identify every bush and berry, every branch and twig. He leads the hikes, and isn’t so fond of them, ‘cuz of all the noise.

And yet again, the forest has its way with everyone else. This time, little Dougie falls on a rock and breaks his leg in a way that might not ever heal. Many of the children fall ill this time, and then the counselors, and everyone has to go home except Duck. They forget him, and he forgets himself, wandering the woods and foraging when necessary.

No one finds him until three days later. He’s been subsiding off of berries mostly, ‘cuz he couldn’t stand to harm the wildlife, but he’s fine. They’re all worried about him, of course, but he doesn’t panic at all because he knows he’ll be okay. Even walking at night, even lost, even wandering, Duck Newton always finds his way. As they’re out looking for him, he’s laying out and enjoying the stars.

It’s the most comforted he’s ever been.

 


  

Duck Newton loves his job at the Monongahela National Forest.

His job, of course, is officially “park ranger,” but it’s so much more than that to him. He teaches folks, young and old, about fire safety; he makes sure that everything is looking healthy and spick and span. It’s a job that he was anxious he wouldn’t get, but one of the other applicants went on a hike and never came back, and the other got the jitters. He takes great pride in it and always wakes up bright and early, coffee mug filled to the brim with the blackest coffee he can take, ready to look after his forest.

Sometimes, it feels more like it looks after him, but he chalks that up to your typical sleep deprivation. It always affords him much needed quiet time, always rewards hard work with a chance encounter of a deer or species of bird that makes his day. He tends to it and minds it, and in return, the forest shows him splendor. He learns to appreciate it during all seasons, though he’s particularly fond of autumn.

He has his first encounter with a black bear somewhere around this time. Duck knows all about different scenarios, and he’s halfway through those in his head when the bear just takes one look at him and turns tail. He’s started to notice this about the wildlife, though he’s chalked this one up to humanity’s tendency to assign human meaning to inhuman things. It almost seems to him that animals steer clear of him the way they might a predator, make way for him, and this is very strange.

It’s also around this time that his first group of well-meaning but nevertheless reckless and stupid teenagers gets a little too carefree with the fire they’ve built and it--and it spreads. It’s Duck’s worst nightmare as he tends to it and makes sure they’ve all learned their lesson, and he tries very deliberately to ignore their obituaries in next week’s paper. He’s become good at that, really, the ignoring -- a burn mark appears on his arm soon as he gets home, and he has to tend to it.

Sometimes it seems to Duck that the forest can take care of itself, but every time he begins to suspect that, it demonstrates to him just how much he’s needed. He cannot afford to be lax in his duties as he looks after his favorite spot on Earth. Whatever semblance of a social life he had before this dies and withers off, which suits him fine. He doesn’t need anything else.

Everyone has an important job to do.

 


 

Duck loves the Monongahela National Forest.

This is just the way of things.

By now, burn marks scar both of his arms. He’s stumbled upon bodies in these woods and been shaken at first, but the forest quickly soothes him with the beauty only it can provide. He’s quiet about several missing persons cases; no one asks him, anyway. By now he’s garnered a reputation (Duck? Strange fellow. Mostly likes to keep to himself), and that suits him fine.

He can’t stomach anything anymore. Used to enjoy his coffee, he thinks, but now the forest only lets him partake of its waters. Used to like a variety of different foods, or--or okay, used to make the same kind of sandwich and enjoy it every day at least, but now he’s reminded of his childhood. Of that time when he subsided on only berries and knowhow. He can’t keep anything else down.

During the week leading up to it, Duck begins to cough up leaves. Leaves, twigs, sap, berries. It’s as though he’s never filled his stomach with anything else, and he has to pause several times a day to do this, nearly feeling apologetic to the forest as a whole. Of course, it understands. Of course, it wraps him up, so gentle, in its presence.

He stops worrying; he stops moving. When nature finally overtakes Duck Newton, it’s the way things have to be, because Duck Newton loves the Monongahela National Forest.

The forest loves him back.