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Authors: Ann Eriksson

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Falling From Grace

BOOK: Falling From Grace
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Praise for
In the Hands of Anubis
by Ann Eriksson:

 

“The book is a page-turner from the get-go. Eriksson is particularly gifted at writing about the natural world and farm life in rural Alberta.”
—
Globe and Mail

“Characters are compelling, realistically drawn, and three-dimensional. Vibrant.”
—
Quill & Quire

“Compelling.”
—
Alberta Views

“A lovely and loving exploration of hope and human connection.”
—
Times Colonist

“Eriksson weaves her story with a natural simplicity.
In the Hands of Anubis
is touching and poignant.”
—
St. Albert Gazette

“An engaging novel about love and loss.”
—
National Post

“A lovely little book. It seems at times to touch on all the humor, the sadness, the joy of the human spirit.”
—
January Magazine

Falling From Grace

Ann Eriksson

For Gary

~

A lifetime can be spent in a Magellanic
voyage around the trunk of a single tree.
—E.O. Wilson, naturalist, 1994

Grace: The attractiveness of charm
belonging to an elegance of proportions
—Oxford English Dictionary

1

I climb
trees for a living. My mother, Grace, a woman of great compassion and little tact, claims I climb trees to make myself taller. She likes to relate to anyone who will listen how as a child I climbed anything, my stubby arms and legs wedged crablike between door frames, scuttling up the lattice to the garden, the china cabinet, the drainpipe to the roof. She is mistaken, my intent not to be taller. When my feet leave the ground, I rejoice in the release from gravity. If I could fly, I might, like the marbled murrelet, never touch the earth, setting my feet only on the highest branches of the tallest trees. What I seek most is solitude in the company of trees. Connection with another being.

My trees are not garden varieties or boulevard specimens. The trees I climb are wild and old and tall. Trees of the ancient rainforest: western hemlock, Sitka spruce, Douglas-fir, western redcedar.
Tsuga heterophylla
,
Picea sitchensis
,
Pseudotsuga menziesii
,
Thuja plicata
. I take comfort in the naming, in knowledge itself. When I stand surrounded by these massive conifers, I understand how Tolkien conjured the Ents, the tree beings, who unearthed their limblike roots and thundered across the landscape to fight the armies of Saruman. Their centuries-old trunks are my avenue to the forest canopy, where few venture and much remains a mystery. My job, my life's passion, is to explore this uncharted territory, bring a small part of it to earth, and attempt, in my own limited way, to understand it. My subjects are the inhabitants of this arboreal world, the mites and beetles, the spiders and ants, that dwell in the suspended soils and moss mats high in the oldest of trees. The hunters and the hunted, the parasites and the scavengers.

I don't, of course, work alone. Logistics dictate otherwise. The weight of equipment. Safety. I choose my climbing partners with care the way a storyteller chooses her stories. And this story was chosen with the utmost of care. This tale is not about me, Faye Pearson—three feet, ten inches tall—little person, dwarf, woman of short stature. This tale is about subjects much smaller and much bigger than I.

• • •

I met
Paul at the end of a long fruitless day of interviews. When he walked through the door into my office, I could have sworn I smelled cedar boughs, as if he trailed the forest into the room after him. I found myself reluctant to let go of his calloused fingers, which reminded me of the texture of bark. The way he folded his tall, lanky body into the chair gave me the distinct impression he didn't belong indoors. His first words: “I'm thrilled to meet you, Dr. Pearson.”

“Thrilled?”

“You have a great reputation.” His eyes were the same dusty shade of green as the lichen
Lobaria
.

“I work in a great field,” I answered, painfully aware of my reputation. The previous applicant had left no illusions, a farm boy from the Fraser Valley, his interview promising, until he asked if he would have to do all the climbing because of “your arms, you know.” “No, I don't know,” I shot back. “What's wrong with my arms?” I regretted the flush of embarrassment on his face. The irony of a person like me studying microscopic bugs at the top of massive trees does not escape me. I could imagine his skepticism. After all, I stood no higher than his navel, my feet propped on a stool under my desk. But I was tired of explaining myself, educating the ignorant. And I expected civility. He tripped over his own feet as he left the office. I scrawled a giant red NO! across the farm boy's application form and filed it in the trash. I wished I were up a tree hunting for bugs. A task much less taxing than finding a suitable assistant.

“You've done a remarkable amount of research.” I flipped through Paul's resumé, impressed by his credentials. “Arborist by training?”

“That's right.”

“Tell me about your last position.”

“I climbed for Nadkarni on her cloud forest project in Costa Rica,” he answered. “We studied epiphytes.”

Plants that grow on plants
. “Nalini's a close friend of mine.” I smiled, my train of thought sidetracked when he smiled back. I forced myself again to the sheets of paper on the desk in front of me. “Eucalyptus forest in Tasmania, marbled murrelet nest sites in Oregon and Washington, arboreal lichens in Alaska,” I read with approval. “Contracts in Chile, Argentina, Ecuador. Impressive.”

“Climbing, yes.” He shifted in his chair. “But I'm no scientist. I have no degrees. You're the pioneer.”

“Yes, well, no more than my colleagues elsewhere.” I fiddled around with the pen in my hand, flustered by the unexpected praise, and closed the folder. “I need a skilled technical climber. You're more than qualified.” I took a breath and asked him the one question I really cared about. “How do you feel about working with me?”

He blinked, wrinkled his forehead, stroked a wispy, fledgling beard, and considered my question for a moment. “Not a problem.” He leaned forward. Flecks of gold in his irises caught the light. “I'm surprised you asked. It would be an honour to work with you.”

I excused myself and put a note on the door. Research Assistant Position Filled.

If I had known what would happen, I never would have hired him.

2

A black
bear burst from the trees and barrelled down the slope and across the road. I slammed on the brakes and the car skidded to a stop in a rain of gravel and dust, the startled white of the animal's eye visible, sun glinting off its spring coat, rump muscles working under the loose skin as it disappeared into the brush on the other side of the road.

“Close call,” Paul said. “Great driving.”

“Call me Lyn St. James.” I shifted the car into first gear.

“Who?”

“A nickname from my brothers,” I said. “They taught me how to drive.” I related to him how Patrick and Steve had shown up on my nineteenth birthday at my university dorm room and presented me with keys to a dented four-door sedan, powder blue, with new sidewall tires, a purple bow taped to the door handle. “You're crazy,” I had objected, kicking one stubby leg into the air. “I can't drive.” Steve had handed me a package and I tore open the wrapping to reveal three shiny metal brackets. “Pedal extenders,” he announced. “They're adjustable.” Caught between tears and an urge to cartwheel a circle, I blubbered onto their sleeves. Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined driving a car. “You'll be like damn Lyn St. James,” Patrick had drawled. “Best female race driver in the world.”

“You're lucky to have family,” Paul said. I didn't tell him my brothers had also rolled me drunk as a lord into my bed after midnight. I woke up in the morning with my first hangover to find a note on my desk.
Sorry about the botany exam, Lyn. If you fail, you can always join the race car circuit.

I pulled over again to allow a hulking truck loaded with logs to pass, the fourth that morning. The dust from the eighteen-wheelers lingered in the air. Paul closed his window and I inched the car along until the view ahead cleared, the road bone dry from a week without rain.

Paul pointed out a distant ridge where a single tree stood sentinel like a missed hair on a shaved head. “Why the hell would they leave only one?”

“Must have an eagle's nest.” I shook my head. “No doubt it'll fall this winter in a storm.”

He scrutinized the map. “Here's our turn.”

We had tried four sites in the past two weeks; two inadequate for our study needs, the others threatened by logging. Otter Valley was our fifth prospect, promising because of the provincial park that protected an extensive stand of old-growth forest along the creek.

We entered a narrow track through the trees, cringing at the squeal of overhanging branches along the side panels of the car. Twice we stopped to move fallen saplings that barred our passage. At the river, the wooden planks on the one-lane bridge rumbled and banged under the car, the white swirl of water visible through the cracks. A clearing at the side of the road provided parking. We stepped out into fresh, moist air; the rush and tumble of the current. An impenetrable green wall of old-growth forest bordered the road. A wooden sign announced the boundary of Otter Creek Wilderness Park. No facilities.

I opened the back hatch to unload the gear. When I turned around Paul had disappeared. “Paul?”

“In here.”

I followed the sound of his voice through an overgrown gap between two trees to find him perched high on a fallen hemlock, the girth spread wider than he stood tall. “Big trees in here.” He whooped and jumped to the forest floor with a muffled thud. “Let's go.”

We shouldered our loaded packs, a pile of climbing and camping equipment left for a second trip. I led the way up the path, a rudimentary map to big trees—sketched on the back of a bar coaster by a colleague—tucked in my pocket. The trail along the river was wide and well worn, the ground cleared and flattened here and there for campsites. Shafts of light filtered through the branches. The blue ribbon of Otter Creek sparkled on the other side of a wall of falsebox and salmonberry. We passed giant conifers, head-high sword ferns. Our spirits rose with the possibility we'd found a secure study site where logging was forbidden.

BOOK: Falling From Grace
13.2Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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