Make Believe in the White Oak Woods

When I go home to North Georgia, I bring my 1-year-old son to visit the old foothills philosopher. A wise man, he speaks in primordial chords. 

He lives in a cabin in the white oak woods where he listens to coyotes by firelight. Each day is Thanksgiving, he reminds me. He shares stories of what he’s seen. Turkeys wandering along springs. Buck deer that stalk and then disappear. Trees with dancing leaves of a thousand starlings. 

These stories are the appreciations of a foothills philosopher. “Your young son needs you to remember,” he says. 

We follow a trail along the creek bed. He points at the sunlight where it plays on the water as it flows between rocks. He calls this his favorite kind of glitter. 

Preoccupied with my daily life, I ask, “Why do we care what the birds do? And why should I care that coyotes gather to howl in the night?”

“I am old, and the search for that answer keeps me alive,” he says. “We must keep looking, keep listening for the primordial chords.” I say I will try, but that I do not know water light like him. 

Further in the forest, we find a glen, a sanctuary. Our entrance seems to have cued up the breeze to come in to conduct the orchestra of late autumn. I’d forgotten that sound, the crisp rush of so many leaves falling simultaneously, flooding the air so heavily and completely that we might be standing in a dream, or under water, even, dry as old bones in a khaki colored waterfall. 

“They play whether we notice or not,” the old man says. “You can bear witness even in the city. You will see more when you look through your son’s eyes.” 

I remember the time I once saw a hawk snatch a mouse from the street, and how it used a telephone pole top to perch in victory. Cars clunked by underneath where I stood on the sidewalk. The hawk struck a pose over its prey, spread its wings and gaped its beak as if to gloat before the feast. I knew I was lucky then to be right where I ought to be. 

I feel similar fortune today at home with my son and the old man in the white oak woods.

The trail leads out of the forest to a pasture where we meet a young black bull. From my left hip, the boy smiles and watches the bull with blue eyes wide enough to receive all of the beast. This bull approaches us at eye level and is enormous, by far the largest creature my young son has ever seen. With each step, his hooves sink slowly in the mud. He breathes in and exhales loudly with the quick strength of a gust of wind, as natural a force as wind too, only it blows from a more grounded source. 

The foothills philosopher is gone on into his cabin, but I understand what he means. The sound of the bull’s nose is one unchanged in the millennia that massive mammals have roamed the earth, sniffing out grains and blowing away hard dirt and snowpack to get at the sweet, get down to the good. But my son and I don’t have any food to offer, so we just admire him awhile before we leave him be in his pasture. 

Right when we turn, though, the young bull wails his horn, and we spin around to watch him finish his long call, a meandering bellow strange to urban ears. It is nothing like the make-believe moo the boy’s learned in Old MacDonald’s song. It is the real thing—one of the old man’s primordial chords, the kind that makes us believe.