Originally published in South Loop Review, Volume 7, Fall 2005
You don’t really know red until you’ve been sprawled on your back in a grove of sumac on a late summer afternoon. In that singular setting, red moves beyond color and becomes a state of being, not just an emotion or a sensation, but an all-encompassing, self-defining redness.
My favorite sumac grove is on the south slope of the back forty, over on the far east side of the hill just before it takes a northerly jaunt and wraps around to form the bowl of the valley. Back in the days of mules and plows, this hill used to be farmland – an unthinkable concept due to the severe, 70-degree angle of the slope, but a fact nonetheless – and it’s been a long time returning to forest. Here, the yellow grass grows above ankle height, crisp and slender and sturdy enough to put up a struggle when I lower myself to sit on it. Anthills abound here, rounded, solid structures that often grow more than a foot tall. Years of old school farming techniques have stripped the terrain of many of the nutrients that once made it prime growing land, so that now the vegetation is mostly limited to those few plants hearty enough to survive the near-constant onslaught of hungry deer, rabbits and rodents. The species that do manage to thrive are few but fascinating: Queen Anne’s lace, blackberry brambles, milkweed, Indian paintbrushes, a few scraggly, stunted apple trees.
And, of course, sumac. It isn’t a physically beautiful plant in most respects; it’s a skinny and twiggy tree that grows generally no taller than six feet. The leaves grow mainly at the tops of the trees, long and narrow and pointy, shaped a bit like a hand-rolled cigarette. The flowers grow in oblong, fuzzy clusters that resemble some manner of animal dropping but for their deep crimson coloration. Taken individually, they’re rather ugly, or at least unimpressive, trees.
But sumac seldom grows individually, at least not on our land. Sumac germinates rapidly, forming ever-expanding groves that become the dominant feature of small patches of land like the corner of this hillside. I am lying on my back in one of these patches, watching the clouds pass through my filter of red. From this angle, the leaves crisscross and interlock, creating a protective canopy that makes me feel invisible to the prying eyes of the outside world. Not that anyone would ever be around to see me way out here, but if there did happen to be someone, I feel confident that I would never be spotted. At this late stage of summer, the green sumac leaves have begun to turn a rich burgundy and the sunlight strains through those leaves to create that absorbing, penetrating redness I spoke of before. Even though I am out here alone in the middle of the deep woods, I have seldom felt safer.
I come out here by myself mostly. Sometimes if the whole family is out for a walk, or just my little brother and me, we’ll stop and linger among the sumac, but mainly this is my place. When I’m called on to walk the dog, I often head straight back here and sit among the skinny trunks nibbling on a blade of grass, watching the dog hunt grasshoppers in the underbrush. Sometimes I leave the dog behind and wander back here on a whim, stepping a little more carefully so as not to unnecessarily damage my bare feet. Sometimes I’ll even head back here when it’s pouring rain, because nothing fills a body with a sense of glorious solitude quite like listening to the pounding of rain against a leafy roof while trying to make out shapes amidst the deluge.
In pleasant weather, the view is immaculate. Immediately opposite me is the north slope of the back forty, the most heavily forested part of our two hundred acres, a visual cacophony of oak and elm and birch. It’s a vertical sea of rolling green in summer, an earth-tone painter’s palette in fall, an icy white web in winter and a bubbly landscape of budding anticipation in spring. Right now it is deep and green, inviting me to dive on in. I might make a go at it were I not confined by the wooden bars of my sumac cell.
Most days there isn’t a lot to see from the grove other than that treescape. Sometimes whatever herd of cattle we’re hosting at the moment will stroll through the bottom of the bowl, lingering around the three gigantic cottonwoods that mark the start of the spring runoff gully. Perhaps I’ll spy the angular silhouette of a red-tailed hawk dipping and squalling through my red-leafed kaleidoscope, or a hungry, circling turkey vulture silently alerting me to a death deep in the forest. On a truly eventful day I might see a deer or two meandering out of the low gathering of birch at the foot of the tree line, braving the open terrain for a few sunny moments before scampering back to the nurturing wood.
But usually it’s just me, on my back, belly speckled with fractured sunbeams, feeling the twin tickles of the coarse grass and the wayward insects clamoring over this fleshy new obstacle. From this vantage point, I am king of all I survey. Through the jigsaw of lanky brown trunks I cannot even see the barbed wire that signifies the end of our land and the beginning of the neighbors’. This is mine, this little crimson pocket of paradise, and I will bask here as long as I choose, lounging in the lovely, luxurious red.