Act 1 Scene 1: A Walk in the Woods
It all began with a snow-topped log pointing into the woods on a Sunday afternoon in mid-March. Anna Arnesen was trying to gather herself together—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. Trees also had feelings. They looked after each other. When they got thirsty, they cried out in ultrasonic volumes that humans can’t hear. They made friends based in part on their sexuality, although sometimes both sexes were represented in their foliage, flowers, and cones.
But now Halden’s woods, “Footsteps to the Catskills” as her father once called them, 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 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’d just 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 it all made sense.
As the trees in the forest continued to speak, she did her best to listen. She could almost hear their words—words that not only reflected the present, but that went back in time like her own impressions.
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 fresh, 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.
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 of dancing you see in commercials, where people swing and move their hips in celebration of what they’re buying. But this tree couldn’t move. Nor could it celebrate anything—frozen in time with no music to hear.
Soon she stood at the edge of a different lake, where she was greeted by a huge boulder. 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 nimbly. Beyond it stood a beaver hut, presiding over the lake like a fortress.
She stood still and listened again. Suddenly 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 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 breathing that she couldn’t hear. Something mythic and moving that she couldn’t see coming toward her.
As crazy as it was, she thought of trolls.
She had often fantasized about trolls growing up. They had saturated her grandmother Christine’s fairytales ever since Anna could remember—sometimes labeled as “defenders of the forest.”
Christine once said at a family gathering that she believed her granddaughter had “secret powers” not only to imagine trolls but also to bring them to life. Everyone took it as a joke. Even Anna tried to dismiss these troubling 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 fat and hideous, or else beautiful even if they had tails.
Anna thought 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, trying to dismiss it as just another “troll delusion.” 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.