There is a tranquility here at Valley Forge. I had come across a fork in the rode, and decided to take the path less travelled. It was a good decision. The sun flickered through the dense cover of trees and the rugged, rocky path – jagged rocks, exposed by centuries of soil degradation – ate away at my shoe soles. The silence of the trees was telling. A breeze blew once in a while, making me shiver as the sweat on my back evaporated with the wind.
These woods have a history. Centuries ago, in the chilly autumn of 1777, George Washington and his men had also trekked through here, heading north to make camp for the long haul that was the American Revolutionary war. Washington came here to keep his army safe from British raids. But he would encounter a new enemy.
That long winter took the lives of 2500 of his men, frozen, starved, diseased. Many of them are still buried here, their graves demarcated with small stones and a miniature American flag.
Some of these trees saw it all. I wish they would speak. I would listen.
Soon, I crossed a small bridge over a creek which time had dried, and came to a clearing teeming with dandelions. General Henry Knox’s encampment was only a walk away. He was one of Washington’s favorite generals.
It was there, in that clearing, that I saw it: a fallen tree, exposed at the roots, a sight both majestic, and out of place. The dandelion clearing was severed across the middle by the body of that fallen tree. The path led me behind, to the exposed roots. The scene reminded me of a dead lion with its guts exposed. You are saddened by the scene and fear the lion no more. You reflect on the parts that made the whole.
The mold of congealed soil, dirt and vegetation that made up the entrails of that fallen king of the forest overwhelmed the eyes with detail. Here, looking at that entangled web of dirt and root, of soil and grass, I knew the tree.
“We are usually amazed by the height of the tree.” my friend quipped, groping the ropy vines around the grave site. “But it’s really the roots. It’s really the soil.”
I imagined how it fell, this creature Knox perhaps stood awhile to admire, this creature a different type of people might have taken for their god. Over the centuries, the soil in these parts might have thinned due to erosion, eternally sloping towards Valley Creek. Maybe that was all it took for the roots to give in: an awkward, leaning, unsustainable stance. Branches groaning and roots snapping, it must have come crashing down to earth in that bitter divorce from the soil, warning its friends of the transient nature of existence.
The tree relied on the soil. The soil seemed insignificant to me.
Perhaps Washington also understood his success to be tied to a greater, more mundane force than himself.
The corpse remained silent, passing onto me the timeless lesson of living: little things matter. What was once great is no more and new life will grow out of its cadaver. We are all in a process of constant resurrection.