Act 1 Scene 1: A Walk in the Woods

It all began with a snow-topped log pointing into the woods. That’s where Anna Arnesen was going on a Sunday afternoon in mid-March. She was trying to gather herself together for the future—at times a superfluous task, at others an impossible one. Aside from the evergreens, the trees around her were still naked, making it hard to tell the dead from the living except when the dead trees lay on the ground or were propped up by other branches in teepee-like formations.

She remembered reading that same morning how nature supported human and animal life. In one day, a single tree could deliver enough oxygen for four grown humans, while breathing in our carbon dioxide. And trees also had feelings. They looked after each other. They made friends based in part on their sexuality, although they were sometimes ‘polygamous,’ meaning that both sexes were represented in their foliage, flowers, or cones. When they got thirsty, they screamed in ultrasonic volumes that humans can’t hear.

But now, before her, Halden’s woods seemed broken. Too many trees had been cut down for no apparent reason. Long unattended logs lay strewn across the forest floor waiting for a purpose that would never come. Bleached by time into colors that defied description—a little orange, a little green, a little brown, all merged into a mix of pale khaki and off-white. Some cut up like drums that no one would ever play.

She looked down through her iPhone camera at water that was partly frozen. A giant puddle reflecting the pines around it in rhythmic placements, while ice intruded in triangles pointing to the ridge of stones lining the water’s back. The stones were covered in algae and winter moss, clinging in pale green shapes. They marched along the hillside in what had once been a farmer’s wall that spoke of an altogether different era.

She came to a lake decorated by dancing clusters of orange brush where an array of pine and cedar trees lined the shore like soldiers protecting the land. When she took their pictures, the trees began to speak to her. She had also read that trees can count, learn, and remember. Facts that might have seemed impossible when she was sitting in her Stamford living room. But now, they all made sense.

This was partly because of her great-grandfather from Norway. After his Nazi imprisonment, he came to America to live with his son in Halden. In both places—Norway and Sullivan County, New York—his drawings and paintings celebrated mountains, trees, lakes, and streams. They even gave rocks a personalized sense of identity. But trees stood out above all other things in Andreas Olaf’s work. Beautiful, well architected, sometimes snow-covered trees, with attention to each leaf, twig, and branch. Her great-grandfather died well before she was born. But he still seemed to be asking something from her. As if a unique task awaited them both in 2019.

As the trees in the forest continued to speak, she did her best to listen. She could sense their words—words that not only reflected the present, but that went back in time like her own impressions. Not truly memories, but images and feelings that evoked what was no longer there.

A twinge of sadness struck her when she came across a huge trunk lying on the ground with all its roots exposed, spreading more than six feet across. The bark was still on it, so it had recently been alive. Why had it been singled out? Had it miscommunicated with its peers? Had it been knocked over by a windstorm, or were human agents involved? The roots stretched along the trailside, their long fingers reaching out for nourishment but finding only air. A sculpture from nature. A monument. But a monument to what?

Earlier that morning she’d read that the number of trees worldwide had declined forty-six percent since human beings began to farm twelve thousand years ago. And that more than fifteen billion trees are felled by humans every year. The article, “How Nature Suffers,” also noted that the average mammal today weighs fifteen pounds, but prior to Homo sapiens the average weight was two hundred pounds. We humans had created a universe of tamed creatures and pets.

This included, of course, her cat, Waley, whom she adored.

As the woods continued to cry out, she was reminded that her fear for the future had grown significantly in recent years. She was no longer clear what kind of country she lived in. She hadn’t been all that clear before, but now it was even more problematic. A country divided. A country that was really two countries. And she lived, more or less, in only one. The other was foreign. In many respects more foreign to her than Norway. An America seeking its own icon for president, which, much to her surprise, had turned out to be an egotistical media personality rather than anyone skilled in government.

As she walked forward, she came to a dead tree that was still standing, its branches reaching out rhythmically like arms in a dance. The kind she saw in commercials, where people swing their hips and move their torsos in celebration of whatever they’re buying. But this tree couldn’t move. Nor could it celebrate anything. Insofar as trees had souls, its soul was gone.

Soon she found herself approaching another body of water. A different lake. A huge boulder on the shore was the first thing to greet her. A boulder upon which lay the trunks of three dead trees from the broken forest.

Further in, she stood before a beaver dam with boards stretching beside it—her steppingstones to go further into the woods. The dam was a mix of branches and clumps of earth. An unusual product of humans and animals working together. It held the lake water firmly to one side, while allowing a stream to pass through gracefully. Beyond it stood a beaver hut, presiding over the lake like a fortress.

She stood still and listened again. Now she heard a very different set of voices. She could swear she did. Appeals of all kinds coming from the trees, the birds, and the hurried footsteps of animals racing toward and away from her. Appeals but also the patterns of rebellion. A call to action of a most unique kind. As if nature might reform and take matters into its own hands—which in some respects it was already doing through droughts, storms, and fires. But now she sensed that nature had yet to play its darkest hand.

She was almost sure of it.

In that same moment she discerned a force from within nature, but also outside of it, waiting for her in the wilderness. A presence she seemed to have brought forward quite unintentionally, liberating it from its netherworld confinement. Something mythic and moving that she couldn’t see. Something breathing that she couldn’t hear. And yet she felt it coming toward her.

Trolls.

She had often fantasized about trolls growing up. Trolls had saturated her grandmother’s fairytales ever since Anna could remember. Her grandmother, Christine, once said at a family gathering that she believed her granddaughter had “secret powers” not only to imagine trolls but also to conjure them. To bring them to life in the real world. Everyone laughed and took it as a joke. Even Anna tried to dismiss these troubling early morning bedroom appearances as “troll delusions” once she was told what “delusions” meant. But there was a glint in her grandmother’s eyes suggesting a very different interpretation.

Anna remembered that the verb trylla means “to enchant, to carry out by magic.” Trolls could change their shape and take on any form whatsoever, like hollowed-out trees, stumps, animals, and even rolling balls of yarn. They might crop up as a cloud of smoke leaving a dwelling through a chimney. But most often they appeared in various sizes with large noses, big ears, and beards as males, while female trolls could be large, fat, and hideous, or else beautiful even when they had tails.

Anna could have sworn that she saw a troll once in the Norwegian mountains near Lillehammer. It was right after college. The sky was dark. She was descending along a ridge when she noticed a figure as tall as a tree standing beside the train tracks. In retrospect, maybe it was a tree. But it seemed to have magnetic power. Shaggy, bearded, with very little neck and a long nose that, on the other hand, might have been a branch skewed strangely in the moonlight.

Fortunately, it was looking away from her. After standing in awe for a few seconds, she’d hurried across the tracks and down the rest of the mountain to visit her aunt and uncle, where she played cards, drank beer, and said nothing whatsoever about the troll. A well-kept secret placed squarely in the past until its felt presence sprang back in the Halden woods to become a part of her Sunday afternoon.