What We Can Do


There is so very little we can do,
Friends, for these beautiful children of ours,
They will come to grief and suffer and you
And I bow to darkness and evil powers.

The gentle boy who wrote poems goes
For a walk in January and does not return.
His mother and father search the woods. The snow
Is deep. All night their hearts burn

For him. He is found, hanging from a limb,
And the father carries the body of his son
Into the yard and tenderly lays him
On the step. Stephen, O darling one,

See how your parents’ hearts break for you.
There is so very little we can do.
~Gary Johnson


Our woodlot lies quiet this time of year.  There have been numerous wind storms that have snapped trees or uprooted them completely and they rest where they have fallen, a crisscross graveyard of trunks that block paths and thwart us on the trails.  Years of leaves have fallen undisturbed, settling into a cushiony duff that is spongy underfoot, almost mattress-like in its softness, yet rich and life-giving to the next generation of trees.

We’ve intentionally left this woods alone for over twenty years.  When we purchased this farm, cows had the run of the woods, resulting in damage to the trees and to the undergrowth.  We fenced off the woods from the fields, not allowing our horses access. It has been the home for raccoon, deer and coyotes, slowly rediscovering its natural rhythms and seasons.

It feels like time to open the trails again.  We’ve cut through the brush that has grown up, and are cutting through the fallen trunks to allow our passage.

We bought this farm from a remarkable 82 year old man who loved every tree here. After spending 79 years on this farm, he treasured each one for its history, its fruit, its particular place in the ground, and would only use the wood if God had felled the tree Himself.  The old farmer directed us to revere the trees as he had, and so we have.  When he first took us on a tour of the farm, it was in actuality a tour of the trees, from the large walnuts in the front yard, to the poplars along the perimeter, to the antique apples, cherries and pear, the filbert grove, the silver plum thicket, as well as the mighty seventy plus year old Douglas fir, Western hemlock and Red cedar trees reestablished after the original logging in the early twentieth century.   The huge old stumps still bore the carved out eight inch notches for the springboards on which the lumbermen balanced to cut away with their axes at the massive diameter of the trees.

He led us to a corner of the woods and stood beneath a particular tree, tears streaming down his face.  He explained this was where his boy had hung himself, taking his life at age fifteen in 1968.   The old farmer still loved this tree, as devastating as it was to lose his son so unexpectedly from one of its branches.  He stood shaking his head, his tears dropping to the ground.  I knew his tears had watered this spot often over the years.  He looked at our boys—one a two year old in a pack on my back, and the other a four year old gripping his daddy’s hand—and told us he wished he’d known,  wished there could have been something he could have done, wished he could have understood his son’s despair, wished daily there was a way to turn back the clock and make it all turn out differently.  He wanted us to know about this if we were to own this woods, this tree, this ground, with children to raise here so there would be something we could do to prevent this from happening again to one of our own.

I was shaken by such raw sharing and the obvious sacredness of the spot.   Though the boy lay buried in a nearby cemetery, a too-young almost-man lost forever for reasons he never found to express to others, it was as if this spot, now hallowed by his father’s tears, was his grave.  This tree witnessed his last act and last breath on earth.

We have left the woods untouched in our effort to let it restore and heal, and to allow that tree to blend into the forest again, surrounded by new growth and life.  We have told this young man’s story to our children and are reminded of the precious gift of life we all have been given, and that it must be treasured and clung to, even in our darkest moments.  This father’s tears watering this woods are testimony enough of his own clinging to life, through his faith in God and in respect to the memory of his beloved boy.

The old farmer and his wife now share the ground with their son, reunited again a only few miles away from our home that was theirs for decades.  Their woods is reopening to our feet, allowing us passage again, and despite the darkness that overwhelms it each winter, the woods bear life amidst the dying as a forever reminder.

And we will not forget.  It is so very little, but the very least we can do.




9 thoughts on “What We Can Do

  1. Emily, there are no words to assuage the shock and sadness that you experienced on that fateful day in 1968 on what was to be your land, home for your growing family and beyond. By the desperate final act of a 15-year old boy suffering an anguish that only God knew, it forever become sacred land, nourished by the tears and grief of those left behind to wonder ‘WHY?’


  2. Addendum
    First line should read…”shock and sadness that you experienced upon learning of the tragedy that occurred
    on that fateful day in 1968…”


  3. Thank you Emily for this beautiful post. Heart rending but incredibly beautiful. I love how the farmer didn’t cut down the tree or become bitter at the woods but instead it became a place of healing and sacred as you say. I love how this story was passed down from him to you to your children and now to us your readers. Thank you.


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