It was when I was crashing at my aunt’s place, sleeping in her attic. The place was infested with ladybugs, for some reason. You might think that’s cute. But this is not a fairytale. I was like Rapunzel-boy (or Quasimodo), spending all day curled in bed, in sweatpants, reading. I was 23.
Yes. I could feel life tapping on the windows in the cold nights when I was in, or silently watching me stroll wine-drunk, under the moon on the dirt-road home after partying with the country boys. Life looks like Death in The Seventh Seal.
Something about all this was absolutely unacceptable to my aunt. She’s a hard woman. She learned jiu jitsu in Tito’s Yugoslavia. She has a house full of guns. She’s from Belgrade. She’s tough as nails. Perhaps because I’m a being of an effeminate, cat-like nature, and she’s cast out of iron and Authority, she soon enough assigned me as Squire to the guy who manages the forest in the village. She was very excited about all this. His professional title was forester, or seljak, Man-Peasant. His name is Radovan.
We shook hands. His was a gentle grip. He’s the only person around here who smiles. I remember our first days together. The wily country-dogs are always giving birth to a litter of puppies, 4/5ths of whom always die. One of my first jobs was to grab a shovel and let nature finish up, somewhere far away from the house. I tried to be detached and all that. I laced up my big boots, tucked in my sweat pants, and clutched my pitchfork like a brave young lad. I surrender to you, life. Do with me as you will.
(Some of the puppies survive!)
What a disconnected city boy I am. I mean, I’ve done yard-work before. I’ve dug holes and built walls, worked in yards and gardens, I’ve scrubbed dishes with raw chemical burns and repeated the mantras of prescribed fast food social interaction, hundreds of times per day, tens of thousands of times per month. I’ve watched the endless mechanical stampedes of rush hour, working as a sign holder, for god’s sake. I was hoping my aunt would be surprised at my gritty city capability to drudge. Cinderella-boy. She would re-appraise my candy American ass and believe in my ability to live. I had such determination in mind as I shouldered my wooden rake and marched with Radovan into the wilderness…
Radovan usually works alone in the forest. Under the quilt of winter clouds we poured our energy into clearing the overgrowth of several years neglect. We worked in silence, Radovan deconstructing dry trees and me gathering, piling, and dragging away dead nature. Just that. Occasionally the ever-popular Serbian curse ‘pićku matre!’ (which is, roughly, a-hem, ‘pussy of your mother!’) would fall out at the cuts of rose bushes to suture our torn hands. It was just part of the rhythm. He swings the axe at a particular angle which never fails to sever. The sheer of his scythe sang with the humble stream. I thought of all the days he spent out here, alone, just working. Just this one guy under the cloudy sky. A bottomless silence answered my wonder. There was no caption to the picture, there is no way I can explain him.
Our interactions were few and short. I asked in Serbian if he had children. He does not. For some reason I remarked in response that he was ‘free.’ He said nothing. We went back to work.
The forest is chaos. What looks like a harmonious and static Hundred-Acre Woods is actually a slow-motion war between the trees and the parasites, the ivy and the mistle-toe which carpet the forest floor. Fox dens are dug into the slope, where I’m sure more than one of my puppies has been dragged during the night. Minks slink in the evergreen trees to pounce on the house cats. Radovan pointed out to me one day that only the bushes with horrible, curling thorns resist the creeping ivy parasite…
Days passed. You hear more birds than humans in the village. My thoughts often roamed over one image or subject the whole day. One day I was imagining that we were colonists on the North American continent, clearing the way for our new town. Everyone would need some skill for the new settlement. Who would I be?
Radovan taught me some wilderness stuff. I now know how to sharpen an axe with a rock. Hell yeah. He taught me an old peasant technique in hybridizing fruits, how to combine domestic species with wild trees. I can’t share the details. You have to go learn from the world yourself. It’s a dying art.
I wondered what life was for. It is bizarre to me now how much I enjoyed it all, having my mind completely free, while my body is completely occupied, all in the fresh air. Work in the city, to my experience, is completely the opposite. It’s impossible to let your mind wander while you wash dishes under laboratory-fluorescent light. All you can do is be angry, or dream of the future. In recording these musings with which I occupied myself I realize how sheltered and suburban I really am. As we hacked apart the overgrowth I wondered what role human beings are supposed to play in nature. I combed the ivy with Radovan’s homemade rake. The sky was pregnant with something more than rain. I couldn’t think of any answers. I kept raking.
We would tire out around 3 in the afternoon, and return to the house for coffee. He would smoke a leisurely cigarette, with heavy dark smoke floating on the porch. His silence wasn’t imposing. It was calm and open. I would ask about his life in the neighboring village. My aunt had shared some details. In Serbian I asked about the rabbits he raises. ‘Just for fun.’ He replies. In his backyard he has a pond, where he raises pigs, swans, ducks, geese, and chickens. And frogs. Radovan says he doesn’t put them in cages. They all roam free and live like one big family. For real. He protects them from foxes and they let him take eggs. Nature is strange.
Sometimes, as we labored in the silence reigning from the overcast sky, I wouldn’t think at all. This was rather rare as I felt disjointed by Radovan’s gaze. I must admit at first I would fret over how much of a lay-about or petty-bourgeois I must seem to him, showering every day after reading for 8 hours. He had worked managing the forest all his life, through everything that happened to the world around him. No matter. I realized one afternoon on the patio, as he nonchalantly dragged on his dank cigarette, that he never once bothered about me. He just wasn’t interested; he never judged me beyond how I held the pitchfork. He would refer to me as ‘šef’like I was some young aristocrat dandy. I would refer to him as maestro because of his expertise and practice. We laughed plenty. He felt that I didn’t ‘look down’ on him, that I didn’t judge him in my turn.
Sometimes the day’s work would be 6 hours of shoveling snow. Otherwise the cars would be in a jam. With sore muscles I would mutter syllogisms back and forth on whether this was a good use of time. Shouldn’t I be reading, studying? Won’t more snow fall tomorrow, and when it melts, won’t more fucking ivy grow? Certain as the sun. I was sure that I was the only person who walked in the woods. The villagers weren’t interested in nature. They worked with it. They didn’t want to spend extra time with her. It struck me that these hours and hours of hand and back labor had no particular use or purpose. There was no ‘point’ or ‘meaning’ to it. Our struggle did not affect at all the world swirling outside the confines of our little village. Even inside our realm our work had very little function. Nobody had anywhere they particularly had to be. No one enjoyed the forest, besides me.
But the ivy creeps, the bushes and weeds stretch and overrun the paths, and the snow falls. The puppies lap milk, cry and yelp and play, and fall in frozen sleep. The seasons turn under the swing of Radovan’s scythe. His hands sculpt the automatic nature. He knows all the variants of nature’s pattern. They put up their own unique resistance, to retain their agency and life. He imposes Law, they provide material with impulse. After a while things started to show their transparency. It was work we had to do so I did it. I didn’t wonder anymore what life was for…