by Steve Schlich

Dawn. The forest. Blazing orange sun-ball peeks over a hill at giant oak and swift river. Red-skinned bodies huddle together beneath conical houses of wood and animal skins. Eight-point stag bends to the river's cool water. Swift shaft of wood and feathers finds the stag behind the right shoulder, felling him half-submerged in the river. The arrow's owners drag the body back to a clearing and campfire.

The stag's body is divided according to its use. The meat is consumed, the bones fashioned into clubs, the sharpened antlers into knives. The small bones and teeth are strung into necklaces, the skin is sewn into garments with sinews and roots.

Red men and otters share fishing rights in a natural pool a hundred yards upstream. Birch bark canoes make their way up and down the river, transporting messages and articles for trade. Along the shore, scouts call to each other in the birds' tongue.

Every pore of the forest breathes in its own place, each complementing the other. The countryside is green and fertile. Nature's gentle see-saw is in balance.

* * *

The brook bubbled merrily—or so it seemed—down the gradual slope, darting in and out among the rocks, pausing occasionally in shallow pools along its path. Small shrubs grew in uneven rows on either side, stretching thirty yards to the larger trees.

The great oaks creaked in their deep, throaty voices with the wind. The more pliable birches and maples swished lightly. Squirrels scampered down the trees, grabbing an acorn or a chestnut and carrying it back up the massive trunks to their homes.

The forest spoke in a language only it could understand.

"I," said the brook, "I was once a mighty river. I flowed down from the mountains, covering the lands, to be soaked up by thirsty roots. I was home to many fish, beavers and otters. Now I am a tiny brook. Why?"

An old oak, standing at the edge of the dry bank, groaned its reply.

"I drank your water. I grew tall and strong, home of many squirrels and birds. Now I stand far away from the once-mighty river. I am starved. If I fell lengthwise toward it, I could not reach my nourishment. My roots are thick but hollow, My body is massive but weak. Why?"

And, as if in answer, a car drove up. It went right down the side of the bank, where a ramp had been cut. It stopped about halfway between the bank and the brook and two men jumped out. They looked around.

"Isn't it beautiful in the forest?" one said.

"Yes," replied the other. "I come here as often as I can. I love the trees and the brook."

"And the sport," the first added, grinning and rubbing his hands.

"Well, let's unpack."

They opened the trunk of the car and retrieved a canvas tent complete with metal framework. Then they pulled out stakes, a hatchet, a Coleman stove, lantern, mosquito netting, bug spray, cots, a radio, a shovel and a box of canned goods. Finally, they gingerly removed two shiny .32s, sheathed in smooth leather.

They began to set up camp.

"I remember," the wind whispered. "I remember when man lived in the wild without all these comforts. They wore animal skins, killed only for food and did not waste. They built crude shelters and planted corn, living with us in peace."

"Truly, they were different men," the brook said. "They drank of my waters, but only when they were thirsty. They washed themselves in my pools, traveled my length in silent canoes. They climbed over the rocks and gazed down at the beauty.

"But these new men wasted my resources. They built a great dam where a small pool had been. They cut me down to a puny brook, using my fluids in wasteful gluttony."

The tree rumbled again.

"They took many of my brothers, these new men. They built the dam with them, and then took more and floated them away. They shoot animals for sport, leaving the whole carcasses untouched to rot in the sun. They cut up the land and dig the metals out of its belly. Then they leave."

The campers polished their weapons, joking about the coming week and betting each other on the number of kills. One loaded his gun, took aim, and shot branches off the aged oak. They cut saplings for a storage tripod. They cut themselves walking sticks, cut more saplings simply to carve on. Their garbage lay in a neat pile on the forest floor, waiting for the wind to lighten its burden.

One of the men lit a cigarette.

"What is this?" murmured the wind as it carried away the ashes, spreading them over the ground.

"What is this?" protested the tree as smoke wafted through its branches.

"What is this?" cried the brook as the discarded butt danced among its waters.

"This creature Man has gone too far," muttered the wind. "He must be stopped."

"Yes," creaked the tree.

"Yes," bubbled the brook. But how?

One hundred yards upstream, the wind rose. A tall grandfather oak, its decaying bark peeling, was buffeted back and forth. Below, the dam lay waiting. The great body of water held back for so long struggled to increase the trickle it became on the other side.

The wind blew harder.

The oak bent and cracked, swinging down on the dam.

The dam broke.

Water came swirling down, by the thousands of gallons. It overflowed the dusty riverbed with a raging torrent. Rocks, trees, dirt were carried with it. The two men did not see or hear it until it was too late.

They joined the flood roughly. Their bodies, their car, their tent with its stakes ripped from the riverbed, their radio, their Coleman stove, all tumbled down with the water. The shiny metal on their guns chipped and scraped against the larger rocks that had braced themselves against the tide.

When it was over, all was quiet again. The wind brushed the branches of the tree, which soaked up the rising waters of the stream, which sprayed into the wind.

Stronger now, the river-once-a-brook spoke.

"We cannot stop with this."

The wind, slowing smoothly, said, "This must be the beginning. We must stop Man before it is too late."

"Yes," agreed the tree, its branches already firmer as the expectation of water oozed within them. "Yes," the tree said. "We must do away with Man, or he will surely do away with us."

copyright (c) 2000 by Steve Schlich


Campground was the first story I ever sold, but it was the second published. It won a prize in a contest run by Signpost magazine in 1970, but didn't get published in the magazine until 1976.  I must have known why at one point, but can't remember now.