The American Forest Museum

L. W. Nicholson

            To your right is the place where the hard oak loomed and lurched. We only have estimates of how tall it might have been. You can see our sign there. Eighty feet tall, it says. Ignore the graffiti. Yes, I know it makes a joke on the word “hard.” Remember there was a tree here once. We must show respect.
            Next to it you will find a simulated birch tree. We discourage swinging on our birch. I assembled it using craft supplies I stole from my daughter Karen’s kindergarten classroom. Her teacher was upset when she found out. You don’t want to think about how devastated she would be to discover you broke this masterpiece made from art supplies purchased on her teacher salary. She really was quite angry that I took them. I had gone originally to visit Karen because my ex-wife wouldn’t let me see her. I was sure her teacher would change her mind about all that. Once she saw the birch tree, I mean. It really is ethereal, isn’t it? The white paint keeps peeling off. I think it is supposed to look that way.
            Ah, yes. Now the dogwood. The redbud. These are not to scale, of course. I made them using toothpicks, beads, and small drops of glue. It took me months to get the shape of the branches right. Please don’t move too quickly as you pass by. Their fragile limbs will break off. You can see many have already shattered to the floor.
            Up ahead is a babbling brook. See how we perfectly manufactured its look and sound using blue cellophane and our CD on track three: “Water Sounds.”
            The stream was a lively thing. Tiny fish swam around in it. Minnows, they were called. Some reports suggest that these small aquatic creatures would swim up to your ankles and suckle like nursing babies. Karen nursed for a long time. My wife and I worried it might have been too long. What’s a normal length of time for a child? I told her I did not think it was right for our daughter to do it for so long. I was drinking heavily then, though. I wasn’t a good judge. Karen is so much older now. Interestingly, fish do not nurse. Some sources claim there were no fish in this brook at all. This research, however, is not highly respected.
            Land animals too found sustenance here among the ripples. Oh, animals of many sorts. Deer would pause to lap up the water. Rabbits and raccoons. I am not sure what else. Certainly, humans lounged on rocks and splashed around. We have seen pictures of them wearing minimal clothing, dipping their feet. You can recreate this feeling at home. Fill your bath with cold water and sit on the edge. Place your feet in the tub and kick. Slow or fast, it doesn’t matter. It isn’t really that satisfying. I’m not sure why they did it.
            No, I have no knowledge of chipmunks. I swear I get asked this during every tour.
            We try to keep things as authentic as possible. Our tourists are always impressed with the realness of our little museum. We use a complicated system of air fresheners released on timers to give you the sense that you are in a real forest. One for trees and one for dirt and one for flowers and one for acorns. This one is my favorite. It took me many years to perfect this scent. I developed it during the years that I was not allowed to see Karen. I remember her forehead was always sweaty. Her hair would stick to it in clumps. When I kissed her cheeks, I could smell salt and moss and honeysuckle. Breathe it in now. It has that damp earth aroma. Makes your lungs feel wet. Don’t worry about it hurting you. It’s all artificial. Nothing to cause you harm.
            Because we do not have any gnats to circle your cheeks, I ask that you all periodically swipe your hands in front of your face. This will give you the sense that you are shooing away insects, and thus you will gain the full understanding of what it is to walk through the forest.
            Some reports claim that men and women would dab vanilla extract onto their wrists and feet to keep bugs away. I will now manually release the vanilla air freshener.
            Do you think she would like it? The museum. I realize you don’t know her, but you like it. I can tell you do. I bet she would skip. She always used to skip.
            I see you have noticed it. Hard to miss. The crown jewel. It was rumors of this, perhaps, that brought so many of you to my establishment. Here we have one of the only native flowers left in our region. We didn’t even plant it. It grew all on its own. I came downstairs one day after hours of carving Styrofoam into the shapes of boulders, and something bright caught my eye. I thought a tourist may have left behind a bottle or a banana candy. Instead, this was growing, straggly but brave.
            Just looking at it makes me swell with pride. See how the leaves look like the teeth of lions, how the tiny petals extend outward like a mane. It was known as the “piss-a-bed,” but more commonly “dandelion.” Put your nose close; it will leave a yellow mark there. Many legends surround this bright bud, old tales about falling in love, falling out of love, good health and bad. It reminds me of my daughter. She had a dress that color when she was a little girl, a yellow dress with tiny umbrellas scattered across the fabric. No, we cannot pluck it. It would be bad luck. We do not do that to flowers anymore.

L. W. Nicholson holds an MA in English from Southeast Missouri State University. She teaches at Mineral Area College and is a librarian at Fredericktown High School in Missouri.