I hated nothing more than chemistry class. It was the worst part of my day. Every afternoon, 2:00 -3:00 PM. It was the last hour ‘til freedom, when the bells rang, and I’d scrape my things into my backpack and make a break for it.
“Annie!” Mr. Schwartz would cast a disparaging look at my fleeting form.
Mr. Schwartz didn’t understand—how could he? All he knew about me was my questionable fashion sense: most days I was nothing but a pile of cumbersome outer garments. “Dressed for the arctic?” he sometimes asked, like we shared some sort of inside joke. Which, to be clear, we most certainly did not! Like I said, he didn’t understand me.
You see: I had places to go, things to do, people to see. Well, maybe not people to see… my social life was lacking, but I didn’t care. I had places to go and things to do and all I wanted at 3:00 PM was to jump from my seat, get to my truck and drive for the Adirondack Park.
I remember the day well. It was October 7th. A Friday. 2:58 PM. The brink of freedom.
Mr. Schwartz gesticulated wildly at the front of the room. He was the really annoying, over-the-top passionate type. Today’s calamity: acid rain.
I have to give some credit to Mr. Schwartz—he really tried to spice up his lectures. But as far as I was concerned, there was no way to spice up the gibberish on the board:
“See this?” Mr. Schwartz raised his ruler and hit the board with a thwack, “This first reaction helps us to understand why fossil fuels are so detrimental to the environment,” he explained, “During combustion, nitrogen and oxygen gas react to form nitric oxide.”
He lowered the ruler to the next reaction, “Here,” he continued, “nitric oxide is reacting with more oxygen gas to form nitrogen dioxide.”
Mr. Schwartz surveyed the room. It was 2:59 PM and everyone was starting to pack up. He always hated that.
“Now,” he continued, unrelenting, “In the final reaction, nitrogen gas reacts with water to create equal proportions of nitric acid and nitrous acid.” He paused, about to reveal the punch line: “Can anyone explain why this might be an issue?”
Mr. Schwartz waited precisely seven seconds before zeroing in on his favorite victim.
“Annie,” he said, “Any thoughts?”
Heads turned in unison to examine me.
“You love the Adirondacks, right?” he prompted, “How might that relate?”
I never spoke in class and I had no desire to start now. I actually hated this school. I was a transfer student and this room was filled with preppy kids who liked me even less than I liked them. And no one cared about the Adirondacks… not the way I did. Suffice to say I didn’t care to discuss it with them.
The bell rang just as I opened my mouth to say something. Cue: mad rush for the door. Saved by the bell. Literally.
I grabbed my bag and followed the stampede, almost escaping before Mr. Schwartz called me back.
He beckoned. I watched as classmates poured into the main corridor, headed for freedom.
“What do you think about all this?” he repeated the question, gesturing to the board.
“What happens when there’s an excess of nitric acid in Adirondack waterways?” he pressed.
My shoulders began to rise for a second shrug, but Mr. Schwartz furrowed his brow in extreme consternation. I tried my best.
“The water becomes acidic,” I hedged.
“Yes, and then what happens?”
Mr. Schwartz answered with a fervent nod.
“Yes!” he exclaimed, “Think about that,” he said, “We’ll talk about it more on Monday.”
I mumbled assent and ran from the room, down the now-empty corridors and into the parking lot. It was brisk, but not too cold for an afternoon in the woods.
I drove the oldest car in the lot: a 1980s Chevy with a mildewed gas tank and an erratic heating system. Fortunately, the radio worked, and I cranked it up to full volume as I pulled away from school and started homeward.
I’m an Adirondacker through and through. Just like my dad before me, and my grandpa before him. Three years ago, my grandpa died, and the next year my mom got a fancy job in Syracuse. We abandoned everything. My school, my friends, the house, and the cherished view from our kitchen: a firework show of trees in autumn; a blanket of absolute white in winter.
We didn’t sell grandpa’s cottage. It was the one thing we kept.
My parents pretended it wasn’t a big deal, just a 3-hour drive. I could visit the cabin anytime I wanted.
But it wasn’t the same. It would never be the same. At least my grandpa gave me his truck before he died. It was a sturdy old thing, even if a little cantankerous. And it could bring me home every weekend.
The sun was starting to set by the time I arrived. The cottage was empty and cold. I’d light a fire later. Perhaps I’d make some tea and read one of grandpa’s books. But first, I had to tap the trees.
I’d been tapping the trees every weekend for almost a month. October wasn’t ideal for tapping—sap flowed best in February and March. But I got enough, and it gave me a reason to come home.
Everything I needed was in a large metal bucket: the drill, a rubber mallet, several spiles, and a collection of smaller buckets. I hoisted the bucket and ventured back outside.
Grandpa’s cabin was situated on a 40-acre parcel of land. Not gigantic, but plenty. As far as my family was concerned, this land was grandpa’s legacy: a place more wild than not. No hunting, no snowmobiles, no ATVs. Grandpa always reminded me that we were lucky to have the land; the Adirondacks was a magical place.
Grandpa loved the trees. He knew all about them. He knew how to use them for sap without damaging them. He had about fifteen sugar maples, all within a reasonable walking distance. We always took the same route, starting off on the dirt road and following the creek down until it gurgled onto old man Lucchesi’s property. Oftentimes we would stop to fish before looping back up until we were back where we started.
These days, I made the rounds alone, drilling a hole about 2 ½ inches deep into each tree. I drilled the holes carefully so as not to split the wood, and at a slight incline so the sap ran faster. I was always careful to avoid old taps, selecting clear expanses of wood under large branches or just above the thickest roots. I pounded the spiles in with the mallet, and placed a bucket underneath.
It was nearly freezing when I returned to the cabin. My hands were numb with cold. The only source of heat was a woodstove, and I’d run out of wood last week. I grumbled to myself, irritated that I hadn’t brought a new supply with me. The local store would close in less than 15 minutes.
I grabbed my keys and made a dash for the truck. It sputtered to a start, and I jerked it into gear, making my way down the curving dirt trail. I was probably driving at a faster clip than normal; I usually took this road at a tentative pace. My grandpa always said that deer were the most dangerous animal in the Adirondacks.
I purchased a bundle of cedar logs just as the store was closing. Pleased with myself, I began to make my way back to the cabin. The radio blasted a country tune—some song about sweet tea and summer nights. It felt out of place on a chilly autumn night, but I sang along nonetheless.
It happened just as grandpa’s cabin came into view. I turned, accelerating slightly as the road opened into a larger clearing. It was a deer, and I swear, it hit me, slamming into the side of the truck with such ferocity that I careened the left, right into a sturdy sugar maple.
My face slammed into the wheel, and everything faded into blackness.
The first thing I knew was that I wasn’t cold. I could feel warmth on my face, and cracked open an eyelid. I was lying down in a meadow, clad in a T-shirt and tattered jean shorts. The sun was high in the sky; the blades of grass looked as though they had halos.
It was a voice I hadn’t heard for two years. I jerked up, peering around until I saw him. I leapt up and landed in his arms.
“Grandpa!” I half-laughed, half-blubbered the word as I hugged him close. He answered with a rumbling laugh of his own.
“What’s this fuss all about?” he mused, “I’ve been looking all over for you. Come on.”
“But…” I stammered, “Is this heaven?”
Grandpa smiled, “Sure feels like it right now,” he agreed, “But I’ve got something to show you.”
He turned away, toward a thin path winding toward the creek. The familiar maple route.
We walked in silence for what felt like forever. I had this nagging feeling that something wasn’t right. I couldn’t remember how I’d gotten here—or where I was supposed to be. I looked at my hands. They looked like they always did: chipped nail polish, chewed fingernails. I felt the same—and these woods, they looked familiar, most certainly grandpa’s property—but somehow… it just felt different.
“What do you notice?” Grandpa asked, at length. We’d stopped in front of an old bench he’d built for my grandma, about ten years back. It looked even older than I remembered it; the wood was gray and worn, with moss growing on the back. But even more noticeable was the trees. I didn’t recognize any of them—and I’d been walking this route for years.
“Where are the sugar maples?” I asked, finally.
Grandpa simply nodded and continued on his way. We approached the creek. He stooped to pick up a fishing rod, and beckoned me to join him at our favorite fishing spot. It was shaded, and the water ran slower here. He bated the hook, cast the line, and waited. After a while he handed the rod to me, and I sat, waiting. Nothing bit. The water was clear, but I didn’t see a single fish.
“What’s wrong? Why aren’t there any fish?”
Grandpa dug around in his pocket. He retrieved an old newspaper cutout and handed it to me. The article looked worn and well-read, like it had been sitting in his attic for decades. It was titled:
DAMAGE DUE TO ACID RAIN PROVES IRREVERSIBLE IN ADIRONDACK PARK
By Michael Lekometros
June 2nd, 2132
I paused at the date, staring.
“Grandpa,” I breathed, “How long ago was this published?”
“Bah,” Grandpa waved his hand, “I can’t really remember. A few years ago.”
My eyes were fixed on the article.
“The world has changed,” Grandpa announced. The fishing rod lay abandoned beside us, the water eerily clear and empty.
“Spruce forests are almost entirely gone. Hardwood forests in general are almost unheard of. Streams are empty of fish. Insect infestations in forests threaten to wipe out entire species. I read about all this years ago. There were warnings. But I dismissed them. I wish I hadn’t. I wish everyone else hadn’t.”
He stared back into the water, “Life as we know it was designed to exist under specific circumstances,” he said, “Fish can’t survive in such an acidic environment. The species we rely on for recreation and survival, they’ve all adapted to a different world – a world that existed long before we did. And humanity is changing ecosystems faster than these species can keep up.” He paused, drawing a breath before continuing.
“This park is nothing like the place you used to know, Annie. I’m not saying it’s good or bad. But it’s different. And it will never be the same.”
“But what about maple syrup?” I asked. It seemed like such a silly question, compared to the severity of an entirely different planet.
Grandpa shrugged, “It’s history,” he said.
Tears threatened to spill, and I turned away. “Why?” I could barley choke out the word.
“Not enough people cared, I suppose.”
Grandpa took my hand in his, “People like you need to care.”
I turned to look at him. He smiled at me, before hoisting himself off the ground. He groaned with the effort.
“My, I’m getting old!” He mused.
He began to walk. I started after him, but he waved me away.
“I think you need to take some time to look around,” Grandpa said. “Give this world a good look.”
I started to say something, to beg to stay with him, to tell him how much I missed him.
“What do you say to tea in a few minutes?” he said before I could make my plea. “It’ll be ready when you get back,” he promised.
I let him go, disappearing down the little path toward the cottage. After some time, I retraced our steps, back up the path and into the meadow. I sat down, looking around. The longer I looked, the more I realized that this place wasn’t home. The trees were stunted and gangly, with little foliage. The meadow was warm, but it didn’t hum the way it was supposed to in summertime. I lay back in the grass. The sun had sunk low in the sky, still exuberant and warm, but with a muted glare as it approached sunset. Nothing made me drowsier than afternoon sun. I let my eyelids fall, blocking out this new world until nothing was left of it.
At first, there was nothing. Then there was sound: it was a shrill, whistling noise, which jolted me awake with a gasp.
I was on the couch. The fireplace was stocked with wood, an old book on my lap. Several feet away the kettle whistled and rumbled with the sound of water, ready for tea.