Changing Forest

The Changing Forest

by Joey Salvo

the changing forest

My father wears baseball caps on our hikes to the beaver pond. The little hair he’s had has always been sparse and gray, and the hats are to protect his exposed head from the cold, the sun, or both. In old photos his hair is thick, like mine, a black storm cloud swirling around his head. According to my mother, it was already thinning when she met him in grad school at age twenty-two, and it was mostly gone by the time I was born. As a side note, I’m less than enthused to be turning twenty-two in a month. Most of my father’s hats are baseball caps, although he has a rabbit fur hat from when he went to Russia, and an alpaca hat from when I went to Peru, and the godawful knitted jester hat from when he once went to the Salvation Army store. The caps hang in a row by the door, and as I’m finding my coat he’ll take two from their pegs and offer me one. I’ll shake my head, so he’ll offer the other one, but I’ll say “I’m fine,” as I zip up my jacket, and my father will chuckle and say, “I suppose you don’t need it with all that great hair. I’m not so lucky.” Two years ago I expected my father to break his trend with the caps. Just before winter break he’d decided to shave off the remaining wisps. I thought he’d cave and choose the fur hat, or even the jester hat for our hike; it didn’t matter which, we’d be walking in the woods with no one to see us. But instead he took a red Nike baseball cap, and offered me a Red Sox one. I maintained our tradition and politely declined. We were about to step outside when my mother swooped in with a scarf for me to wear. It was bulky and covered with pink paisleys but I felt a draft through the open door against my bare neck, and accepted the scarf.

My father grew his first beard when he was seventeen. I’ve seen photos. The guys on his track team called him “wolfman.” Even now when he shaves, his face becomes sandpaper. His skin is tough, weathered with creases and full of hair follicles packed into a shield. It was a reassuring texture when I was a kid, the feel of someone who had braved thirty New England winters with only a cap and a plastic shovel, later with a K2 snowplough on a Dodge pickup. The rest of his face matches that image. His neck is thick enough to hide his Adam’s apple without looking like a stack of ham. His nose is large enough to rule over a kingdom.

I didn’t get my father’s beard, but I did get his legs, the legs of a sprinter, stocky, muscular, blanketed with hair. My father was proud to point them out to other people, especially in the proximity of my cousins, whose legs were slim and bony, and also courtesy of their own father. With hair came a sense of heritage, and a sense of power. Anytime my father went on business trips to warm locations he made sure to pack plenty of shorts. He enjoyed places where hairy legs were not the norm. People would stare at him as he walked down the street. Once, he went for a foot massage mostly to watch the expressions of the masseuse. Plus, he added, his hairy legs were why mosquitoes never bit him: hair armor. But then his ankles became smooth, and soon the same could be said of his lower calves. My mother dismissed it as the result of those tight socks he always wore, until the baldness spread to his knees. Meanwhile, the brush on my legs spread to my chest and became a thicket. I grew a foot to reach the same height as my father, now almost completely bald. I was taller if you counted my hair.

My father couldn’t have been more proud. “Soon you’ll be big enough to carry me!” he said referencing the days when I’d ride on his shoulders to see above crowds. All the same, around then my father decided to lose some weight. It had been years since his track days, so at first he just walked, for miles and miles. Then he began to jog, and then to run. He added calisthenics to his morning routine. He bought shoes from New Balance, leggings from Adidas, and jackets from Nordic Track. His favorite new hat was the red cap with the Nike swoosh on the front. He ordered a Fitbit, and started measuring his pace, his heart rate, his breath rate, his blood pressure, his salt intake, his fat intake, his fingernail growth, his hair growth, etc. Are you still listening? I wasn’t. But it worked. He started in September and by Christmas he had lost forty pounds. As a final act of defiance, he shaved his head.

I saw him again after returning from school, and the change was apparent. His clothing had always felt enormous when I’d tried it on as a kid. Now we were about the same size. He seemed lighter in more ways than one, and I wondered if he saw a reflection of himself when he looked at me, not as a high schooler but as he was now.

We were in Columbus to visit my maternal grandparents and relatives for Christmas. On Christmas Eve my father slipped out of the house in spandex for his daily run. I heard him pass under my window on his way back when his Fitbit congratulated him on another successful workout. “4.3 miles,” it said in a female voice with a British accent. “Nice job!” The door opened. My father said something downstairs. I heard my grandfather hum in approval. There was a creak as my father moved across the tiles, and another as he sat on a stool by the counter. He said something in a lower voice, and my grandfather replied, “But you keep healthy. You just ran four miles.”

“It’s something I think about, though,” said my father. “You know, my father was about my age now when he passed.”

“Ah, don’t think that way…”

“I know. I know, you’re right. But I do. All the time.”

“Hm.”

The microwave beeped.

“I’d say I’m doing pretty well now,” said my father. “I’m back to what I weighed in college. But that’s just now, I wasn’t so careful when I was younger.” He chuckled. “I guess I didn’t think I’d live this long.”

We don’t usually say much to each other as we walk to the beaver pond. The first half-mile takes us through a grove of young saplings alongside a stream. As we move deeper the pines get taller, but even these trees are young. The entire forest was buzz cut fifty years ago for the lumber industry and the old stumps are everywhere. The live trees are healthy. The woods are thick and brown, and at the end of the mile the pond shines through their branches. It’s the size of a football field, and cuts through the bushy forest to create a smooth emptiness, exposed to the cold sun. At the pond’s center stand the few trees from before the land was flooded by the beaver dam. Their gray trunks lean at odd angles and their branches are wispy. I’ve never known them to look any different.

The winter my father shaved his head we were standing by the shore, looking out at the frozen trees when my father said, “I wonder if he’s still here.” I turned to him. “The beaver,” he said. “I wonder if he’s still alive.”

“How long do beavers live?” I asked.

“I don’t know. Ten years?”

“Maybe.”

“I think it’s gotten bigger.” He pointed to the far edge of the pond. “I don’t remember it going that far out. He must still be working on it.”

“He seems like the kind of beaver who would.” I answered.

“Do you remember the first time we found this place? It was a long time ago, you might not remember.”

“I think I do.” I didn’t.

“It was fall. We kept hearing this loud smack, and it turned out to be the beaver, hitting the water with his tail.”

“Right.”

“You were pretty young back then. I carried you over some of the way. You were so little, I remember this one time you fell asleep on my shoulders. I think Momma has a picture of it somewhere.”

“Oh. Good.”

My mother does have that picture. It’s sitting on a bookshelf near the framed photos of me between the ages of two and four. Those were the years when my parents took me to a photographer at the mall for our annual Christmas card. In one set-up I’m climbing out of a wrapped box. In another I’m riding a miniature polar express train that was probably meant for a younger child. I remember having these photos taken as much as I remember our first trip to the beaver pond, that is, not at all, but they still stand in the place of honor on the cabinet by the front door where everyone will see them.

Throughout grade school I was one of the shortest kids in my class. My face was round, and my cheeks were plump with baby fat. Looking in the mirror felt like looking at a cherub. I was with some friends once in sixth grade when I asked a cashier for a cup of milk, and she smiled and crooned, “Of course, sweetheart! Would you like a cooookie with that?” The main office at our school had a stack of old yearbooks, and I sometimes flipped through to the back to see the graduating eighth graders. None of them looked like children. One kid had a swirl of thick hair and the beginnings of a beard. He reminded me of a photo I’d once found of my father in high school. I never met the kid. I never even saw him except for the cropped photo of him in the yearbook. But I must have looked at that page too often because I remember that his name was Timothy Driscoll, his graduating quote came from Dr. Seuss, and his listed nicknames were Timmy, Timbo, and Sketchers.

At one point my doctor was concerned that I was in the lowest percentile for average height of boys my age, and one of the higher ones for weight. My parents weren’t worried. “This is just how our family is,” my mother explained. “You’ll hit puberty and then you’ll just shoot up. That’s how it was with your grandfather, your uncle, and both your cousins. Just you wait.”

“When am I going to hit puberty?”

My mother waved a hand. “Oh, probably high school.”

So high school was my target. I looked forward to the day when I would leave behind the yearbooks and my friends asking me if I had any “cookies.”

In high school the first, blessed shadow appeared on my chin. Hair. I wasn’t sure what to do with it. The more it grew, the more accurately people began to guess my age, though. It started to spread a little in college, a straggly forest restricted to the underside of my jaw. I had expected it to be the same color as the rest of my hair, but it was a darker brown, almost black, stormy, like my father’s had been. My freshman roommate, capable of beard growing, said there’s an initial awkward phase when the hair is long enough to be noticeable but too short to seem intentional. The summer after my freshman year, I worked at a lab in Chicago, away from most of the people I knew. I went for three months without shaving once, and the hair grew, but it never spread. I told people I was prepping for winter with a homegrown neck warmer. My friend saw me again in September, and he asked if I’d like some honest advice from someone who’d had a beard for a while. I said no, and shaved.

Alongside the main beaver pond is a smaller offshoot. I remember when it used to be dry ground, but in recent years it’s started to fill with water. By the year my father shaved his head, the pool had developed its own stream. My father was happy to see it. We’d just passed a few trees with gnaw-marks at their bases.

“Someone’s been busy,” he said.

“Maybe it’s his children,” I answered. My father smiled.

“Maybe it is.”

The smaller pond lies in a valley that extends for a few more miles. If it keeps filling up, it will eventually be larger than the original pool. For now, it’s still small.

I’m still young looking, but I don’t look like a cherub anymore. In high school I stopped gaining weight and started growing faster. By tenth grade I had to poke new holes in my belts and watchbands. My doctor, who had once expressed “concern” about my weight, now asked if I was avoiding food. My arms had become sticks. This was around when I found another few photos of my father from his high school track team days. In one, my father is crossing the finish line with two competitors gasping in his dust, both his arms raised in triumph, biceps flexed, his bearded face open in a roar.

Shortly thereafter I decided to build up some muscle. First, I tried swimming, the activity that my eighty-year-old grandfather does daily. I started doing laps, but the only pool I had access to was the community one that was three feet deep and circular. Crossing the pool along its diameter meant dodging toddlers in water wings and ten-year-old's tossing volleyballs. I can’t blame it all on the pool though; more often than not I ended up reading Miss Marple mysteries in a deck chair by the water’s edge. Guess I’m ready to be eighty after all.

Next I tried lifting. The previous Christmas my mother had received a pair of weights from a relative. The weights had remained on the floor where my mother had first set them (“Oh, they’re purple, how nice”), and had since survived multiple clean-ups. I tried lifting one weight, then the other; they had a nice heft to them. I was doing some exercises, feeling pretty good about myself, when I noticed the labels that said, “five pounds.”

My father once suggested calisthenics. “Come on,” he said, “I’ll do’em with you.” His leg hair was by this point in full retreat. I did maybe ten pushups with my father, and then stopped. When he reached twenty, I said I was going outside to exercise more muscle groups and left. My motivation was not what I thought it was. On the bright side, my father was so motivated he eventually lost forty pounds.

There was at least one activity that my father and I were happy to share. My mother used to cut my hair, but then my father and I started going to barbershops together. We almost never went to the same place twice, but all the shops we visited fit a model. They had wood paneling, signed black-and-white photos of baseball legends, fifties music playing through the radio, and the quintessential barbershop pole. As many times as people asked me how old I was, they asked my father if he was my grandfather. After a while we didn’t even have to exchange a look. My father’s haircut would finish a bit quicker than mine, so he’d ask for a shave to make up the difference. We both had conversations with our barbers, in which my father would talk about the future of technology that his company was developing, and I would talk about how new-fangled music couldn’t compare to the oldies we were listening to. Sometimes we both asked for a shampoo, and when we stood up from the chairs our heads would smell like mint.

My father didn’t mention that he’d shaved his head before I saw him two winters ago. It wasn’t something I had expected. I wondered if he had gone to a barbershop or if he’d just sat on the stool in the bathroom at home and shaved it off himself. I didn’t ask when I first saw him. I didn’t ask on our walk to the beaver pond, or on the way back. I didn’t mention it during eleven hours on the road to my grandparents. My father didn’t mention that my neck, which he’d last seen in August during my three-month beard experiment, was again smooth.

The next morning at my grandparent’s house, I went to take a shower and found my father’s razor and toothbrush already by the sink. The comb was absent. But when I pulled back the shower curtain I had to laugh. Sitting on a ledge by the tub was a little green bottle of the mint shampoo.

My father and I still walk to the beaver pond in the winter. It’s a quiet walk, with no one to see us but each other. At the end of the beaver trail, by the beaver pool and the beaver stream, we stand for a moment before agreeing that it’s time we head back. So we turn and retrace our steps past the young pond, past the old pond, past the saplings that are still growing and their ancestors that are still standing. Our strides and our boot prints are alike. He wears a hat and I wear a scarf. But from a distance all you can see are two men walking together through a changing forest.

About the Author

Joey Salvo

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Joey Salvo is a Senior at Northwestern University majoring in Creative Writing and Neurobiology. He is the creator of three blogs that combine essays, fiction, and satire with original photography.