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  • An Unseen Performance
  • Alison Hildreth (bio)

There is a walk on the island of Vinalhaven, which is situated twenty miles off the coast of Maine that I know well. It has become a sanctuary among the trees that I have mapped out in my head and then on paper. Tracing my usual path and adding the location of the spring, I feel in some way that I honored the spirit of this walk that has become so important for me, to be among my old friends in the woods.

Often I start as the morning mist is rising over the field. I leave the path and enter the woods. Among the trees, I become part of an ancient ritual performance that has countless participants, each dependent on and in communication with each other. It is rewarding to listen to them. The towering trees sway and creek, creating the music of the forest. Their fallen comrades provide nourishment for insects feeding on the fungus of decaying bark. The downed log makes room for and also sustains the young seedlings. As I crawl over the logs and through the brambles the wood opens up, and I come upon a stunning mosaic of gold and green and grey lichen stretched out on a bed of granite next to a patch of winterberries nestled in a carpet of bright green moss. The set has changed, this is a lyrical interlude with the appearance of trout lilies, twinflowers, columbine in gold and pink and blue.

Abruptly the ground becomes boggy and added to that the blackberry and raspberry briers tear at my clothes. The tone of the forest has changed, becoming darker and more somber. I think of Shakespeare’s “forthrights and meanders” in The Tempest, but I am also reminded that there are rewards in the unplanned journey. The ground is wetter and the roots of the trees are raised rather high above the ground. I have to pick my way carefully. Suddenly in the arms of those roots is a round black pool with emerald tendrils snaking across the surface. I half-expected to see fairies cavorting on it. I had stumbled upon a well-hidden spring and was immediately reminded of ancient water cults who brought offerings and music to the spirit in the spring in thanks for the pure cool water it bestowed upon them. A gift from the depths of the woods. [End Page 37]

Deep underground in the orchestra pit of the forest is a vast plumbing system. The forest floor collects the rainfall and once the soil is saturated the excess moisture is released slowly over the course of many years, deeper and deeper into the layers below the surface. It takes generations but eventually the excess water returns to the surface to nourish the roots. It can also form a spring. Pure and cold. Another unseen performance is taking place below the ground and that is the role of roots and fungi. Their thin filaments can act as a network for an entire forest, helping trees exchange news about insects, droughts, and other dangers. Not only the trees but all the plant species communicate and engage with the music of the forest this way.

I am back in the field and the mist has lifted. I am grateful to have been part of the forest performance. There is wisdom in the trees. The woods connect me to an idea. In my mind I float beyond these woods, cities, countries, planet Earth into the ever-expanding galaxy. Could I become reassembled stardust, a speck in a universal community?

Virginia Woolf puts it best, “It struck me on my walk yesterday, that these moments of being of mine were scaffolding in the background . . . behind the cotton wool is a pattern that we, I mean all human beings, are connected to this, that the whole world is a work of art . . . we are the thing itself.”

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Microscopic Image of water collected August 15, 2017, Vinalhaven Island, Maine, near Seal Bay. Photo: Courtesy Katarina Weslien.

[End Page 38]

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Alison Hildreth, Forest Song. Rice paper, ink, watercolor...


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pp. 37-39
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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