Flecks of splintered red berries exploded on the ground as I sat on my pebble. Globs of red goop stained the white snow and splattered across my trousers. The crow perched above was the source of the mess, with a fresh meal of winterberries.
“Out of all the trees in the forest…he picks this one. Pinecones… the gall of that bird” I mumbled to no one.
I flicked the chunks of fruit off my clothes and wiped my hands clean.
"Would you cut it out?" I yelled up.
The crow continued to gorge himself. It was the response I expected. I wrapped up the remains of my mushroom stalk. I only had time for a few mice sized bites from it and appropriately so, after all, I am a mouse. My lunch break was over and I still had twenty more trees to fit in before the day ended. This year was particularly busy for tree-tuners. As if our job of solving plant growth problems wasn’t difficult enough. We were the ones to fix the plants when they didn’t follow in line with the climate. Replacing bits of their internal clocks so that they could grow properly.
The unusual changes in the weather had the trees’ internal clocks all out of whack; like a groundhog without a burrow. I was headed down the hill towards a cluster of oak trees still holding onto their leaves and acorns, despite the snow on the ground. I knew exactly which gear needed replacing and before the day was over, the oaks would be set right; their leaves would begin to shed by nightfall. The squirrels over in thicket knoll had lodged the complaint… in their family, they didn’t like climbing trees to fetch acorns. Some squirrels they are.
Tree-tuning happened to be a very old profession, usually passed on through families… but it was very stressful. The forest population is always keen to complain when the redbud flowers dropped too soon or their favorite gumballs are rotten. They always let me know when things aren’t right but when they are, they never say thanks. Would it really have been so difficult for that greedy crow to have said thank you and taken his mess over to the next tree? Especially after I spent three hours hammering out a custom brass piece for the winterberry bushes per the crows’ request? No one knows the plight of a tree-tuner. I felt like the most disrespected critter in the forest.
I scurried along towards thicket knoll. The path was beaten down; it had been well traveled that morning, the dark bed of leaf matter showing from underneath the snow. I hoped to spend my time working in solitude, and my interaction with the crow was enough for one day. I rounded the bend heading down into the blackberry thicket, quickly passing by the thorny stalks that hung dormant like skeletons.
“Oh, thank goodness!” A voice called out from the quiet.
“I worried I’d be stuck her all day before someone came by. Could you please help me? Some of my bristles are stuck.”
I looked around, clearly, I was the only critter about; I had to respond. I sighed, once again, someone needed me to fix something.
“Hhumm. Yes, of course, just a moment.”
I rumbled through my toolbox for the woodcutters and then scampered into the thicket. After my eyes adjusted to the change of light I looked around for the source of the voice. There, stuck in a net of broken brambles, was a woolly bear caterpillar.
Great. I thought. These things are always so cheery. I’ll just work quick to free him and be on my way.
“Just a few snips…. one there… and you’re loose.” I turned to leave.
The caterpillar celebrated. “Thank you! Oh, just great! Wait… don’t leave, I haven’t really thanked you yet. Hey, wait, where are you going? Can I come?” Without turning around I stopped and rolled my eyes.
Hesitantly I responded. “Well, I suppose, come on then.”
I waited for him to catch up and we moved down the path together. The woolly bear followed after me, the ripple in his bristles rolled through his body as he moved. I wanted to make the trip quick; walking with the woolly does not help my reputation. The woolly bear caterpillars are the most hated in the forest. It is believed that the color of their bristles makes the winter long and cold. If their stripe is narrow like it is this winter, they are hated, for it brings a severe winter. At least the confused oaks weren’t too far ahead and I would be rid of the woolly.
“So, it was lucky you had all those tools with you, what do you do?” The woolly asked, gasping a little as he walked.
“Oh. Those. Well, it really isn’t that interesting.” If I told him I was a tree-tuner, I didn’t want to hear about what herb or plant he needed me to correct.
“Sure it is! I mean I’m a caterpillar. I don’t have much going for me until I’ve transformed. Try me.”
He did have a point.
“I’m a tree-tuner.” I said quietly.
“Fabulous! What a wonderful job – being outdoors everyday, meeting all of the other forest creatures, talking, having responsibility…” The woolly went on with compliments “… not to mention solving problems!”
I cut in “Stop it. You have NO idea what it is like!” Oh Mr. Mouse, says the woodpecker, this tree was suppose to die last week and we haven’t been able to move in yet. Mr. Mouse, where are the crocus blossoms? Mr. Mouse, this tree only has one fruit. Mr. Mouse this is supposed to be an evergreen. Mr. Mouse where are the leaves? Mr. Mouse. Mr. Mouse. Mr. Mouse. Mr. Mouse! Pinecones! Where is the thank you Mr. Mouse, thank you?! Tell me that!
The woolly caterpillar was silent for once. I’m sure he had never considered my discomforts. Serves him right, what did he know?
“Mr. Mouse. Thank you, truly, the forest owes much to you.” The caterpillar sniffled.
I was stunned. I didn’t expect to receive gratitude. Now that I had it, I was not really sure what to do with it.
The woolly continued “—and not just for your work as a tree-tuner… thank you for stopping to help me… thank you for not blaming me for your troubles. I’m sure you know I am not among the most liked in the forest. The others blame me for the weather, based on my appearance. They say it is my fault that the winter is too long or too cold but my brown band is not something I can control. What can you do when animals only value your appearance? They blame me for their discomforts. Do they even know that winter is hardest on the wooly caterpillars? Do you know that I will freeze solid for all the months in winter? I might as well be a rock. Actually, as a rock I would not be hated.”
Pinecones! I had never thought of how the woolly feels. How could I do this? I sit here day after day, complaining that no one knows how I feel. I’ve never considered the wooly, or the squirrel, or the rabbit, or the crow. I suddenly feel as if I am no good at fixing problems. No one can fix a problem alone.
“Woolly bear, would you like to learn how to tune a tree?” I asked.
The woolly bear brightened up instantly. “Oh, would I! There isn’t anything I’d rather do more.”
The forest was never silent of stories about mouse and caterpillar. No longer were the complaints for mouse or woolly alone. It was all about what they could accomplish together, for neither of them had to travel their plights alone.