Pure Prop

A reading from The Overstory, by Richard Powers. 2018, p.86-87.


He wants to keep heading west. Trouble is, the only strip still west of him feels like going east again. And yet he’s got his used but solid F100, new tires, a fair amount of coin, his veterans disability, and a friend in Eugene. Beautiful back roads lead through the mountains all the way to Boise and beyond. Life is as good as it has been since he fell out of the sky and into the banyan. The truck radio drifts in and out through the canyons, like the songs are coming from the moon. High lonesome blending into techno. He’s not listening anyway. He’s trancing out on the miles-long walls of Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir. He pulls off onto the shoulder to relieve himself. Out here on these ridges, he could pee on the highway’s centerline and humanity would be none the wiser. But savagery is a slippery slope, as he has often read to the horses. He steps off the road and into the woods.

And there, flag at half mast, eyes toward the wilderness, waiting for his bladder to lift the lockdown, Douglas Pavlicek sees slabs of light through the trunks where there should be shadow all the way to the forest’s heart. He zips and investigates. Walks deeper into the undergrowth, only deeper in turns out to be farther out. The shortest of hikes, and he pops out again into . . . you can’t even call it a clearing. Call it the moon. A stumpy desolation spreads in front of him. The ground bleeds reddish slag mixed with sawdust and slash. Every direction for as far as he can see resembles a gigantic plucked foul. It’s like the alien death rays have hit, and the world is asking permission to end. Only one thing in his experience comes even close: the patches of jungle that he, Dow, and Monsanto helped to clear. But this clearing is much more efficient.

He stumbles back through the curtain of concealing trees, crosses the road, and peers through the woods on the other side. More moonscapes stretches down the mountain side. He starts up the truck and drives. The route looks like forest, mile after emerald mile. But Douggie sees through the illusion now. He’s driving through the thinnest artery of pretend life, a scrim hiding a bomb crater as big as a sovereign state. The forest is pure prop, a piece of clever artistry. The trees are like a few dozen movie extras hired to fill a tight shot and pretend to be New York.

He stops at a gas station to tank up. He asks the cashier, “Have they been clear-cutting, up the valley?”

The man takes Douggie’s silver dollars. “Shit, yeah.”

“And hiding it behind the little voter’s curtain?”

“They’re called beauty strips. VISTA corridors.”

“But . . . isn’t that all national forest?”

The cashier just stares, like maybe there’s some trick to the question’s sheer stupidity.

“I thought national forest was protected land.”

The cashier blows a raspberry big as a pineapple. “You’re thinking national parks. National forest’s job is to get the cut out, cheap. To whoever’s buying.”

Recorded July 7, 2020

Location: Belchertown, MA

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