The Balance of Nature

An American Gothic Tale

The Balance of Nature

In the beginning, there was only wilderness and Man was not a part of it. In these early times, it is said, that the world was a different place. Everything that happened, any event, was part of the design to keep everything in balance. There was no good or evil, only nature and balance. If a forest became too crowded, a cleansing fire would clean out the unnecessary clutter and restore the forest. Later, Man arrived and has since tried to form his surroundings to his own needs, regardless of the consequences to the land or nature. In response to this upheaval and the imbalance it has created, nature tries to restore itself, only to be stopped by Man, as temporary as that may be.

And so the cycle continues, even in modern times. Though the reach of Man seems endlessly powerful, nature still finds ways to fight. It creeps over walls, and under walkways. It cracks roads and buildings. Nature finds any weakness and uses it against us. It is only doing what it is supposed to be doing. Should it stop on our account? Should it bow to Man as though they are gods?

It is here that I am reminded of a story I once heard from an old family friend, years ago. As a child, he would tell it to me and my siblings and claim that it was completely true, though now that I am older, I find it harder to digest. Regardless, I shall tell it to you, as I remember it, and will allow you to make your own decision as to its validity.

In the year 1823, a town was founded known, at least at the time, as Elderwood. There was nothing of particular interest in the town, other than that it was located in the middle of a vast forest, along a great river. The forest provided plenty of timber for building and later as a source of income for many residents, who would sell the timber for a profit. As the town grew, more land was cleared for more houses and more businesses, and more people. And grow, it did. By the year 1870, it was home to thousands of residents and a fairly large logging company, the Elderwood Logging Company. It was around this time that the river was dammed, which backed up the flow of water upriver for miles creating what became known as Elderwood Lake. This provided for the town’s water and years later, brought electricity to the area. The years slipped by and the lumber company and the town continued to grow. It is here that my story begins.

Around the turn of the century, the town and business were at an all-time high. Much of the population was employed by the Elderwood Logging Company, which was now a huge operation that not only logged the timber but also had factories to produce various goods. A man by the name of John Crabtree came to work in one of the factories as the new floor supervisor. John, who grew up in Chicago, was a college-educated man and took great pride in his work. He was of average height and was fairly slim with just the hint of a few extra pounds around his belly. He wore thin glasses that used to be black but was now a muted gray due to the paint having worn from being put on and taken off so many times. John loved to read and was almost always found on a park bench, fully engaged in the latest novel or, if a novel could not be found that interested him, a newspaper. After being hired by the Elderwood Logging Company, John was very pleased to find a quiet park near his new home with plenty of trees for shade in the summer for him to read beneath.

John arrived in Elderwood in late spring when the trees were nearly done with their colorful blooms and were transitioning to their summer green. Though winter was only a few weeks past, it was already becoming one of the hottest years on record. In fact, the morning that John first came to work, the air was already hot and stuffy. The factory floor, being enclosed with little ventilation, was even more so. The employees were hard at work and, being that the jobs required a certain amount of manual labor, were already dripping with sweat. John, as the new supervisor, didn’t have to deal with the manual labor but even so, was still beginning to bend to the heat of the early day.

Now John, being a learned man, knew that the heat was only going to get worse and so, in order to keep up production, ordered all available windows opened. This allowed a slight breeze to move through the factory and helped to alleviate the heat, if only slightly. So John went about his duties to the best of his abilities and was relieved when, in the early afternoon, a few clouds took residence in front of the sun.

After a week or two on the job, John became very efficient in his duties and quickly learned all the day-to-day activities and schedules. Work started promptly at eight o’clock every morning. After punching in, John would always go directly to his office to make sure there aren’t any messages or other important things he may need to deal with. By eight-thirty, John is on the factory floor making rounds, chatting with the workers, making sure everything is running smoothly. He is back in his office by ten-thirty to check for any new messages and for his first break. Lunch is at noon, where John usually enjoys a quick meal and reading a few chapters of his book. At one, he is back on the factory floor. It is during this round that John has an additional duty to perform. During the production of the various goods that the Elderwood Logging Company makes, the waste materials, mostly wood mixed with paint and other chemicals, are all discarded into round bins on wheels. By the afternoon, these bins are getting full and must be emptied. As a supervisor, it is John's responsibility that this is done. John, along with a couple of other workers, takes each bin to a chute at the end of the factory floor. The chute is basically a hole in the floor with a steep decline that leads directly to the mighty river that flows within a few yards of the factory. Once John finishes supervising the disposal, usually around two, he heads back to his office to check messages and does any paperwork that may have accumulated. He takes his last break at three and fits in another chapter or two. Then it’s back to the factory floor until it’s time to clock out at five. As a supervisor, John doesn’t get to clock out with the other employees. Once work is done for the day, John needs to get the waste bins emptied and ready for the next day’s work. This is the hardest part of John’s day since he doesn’t have any help as he does in the afternoon. By six-thirty, John is done and on his way home.

On his walk home, John would occasionally stop at a local café for dinner. There was nothing particularly special about the café; the food was no different than any of the other café’s. However, John liked this specific café because it was where could sit and listen to local residents talk about the town and its history. Sometimes one of the community elders would share some of the folklore from when the town was founded, all those years ago. One of John’s favorites was the story of the very first family of settlers, the Croswell family.

In 1823, the Croswell family came upon a great river in the middle of a vast forest and found it was a great place to build their new home. The head of the family, Alan Croswell, picked a spot near the river that had an embankment to protect the home should the river levels rise but not so high that it would be difficult to gather water for the home. Alan, along with his son, Evan, twelve years old, took to cutting down trees on the property from which they could build their new house. Fourteen of the biggest trees seen in those parts were felled to build the home and when they realized they had plenty of extra lumber, a barn for the horses. After a week, many acres had been cleared for the new Croswell property. It was the only clearing in the forest and attracted a lot of wildlife. Alan took this as a good omen and would frequently shoot the unfortunate, curious spectators to put on the dinner table to feed his growing family. His wife, Beth, was two months pregnant when they arrived. Along with his son Evan, there were also two daughters, Ella and Margaret, four and seven, respectively. There was much to be done and Alan had only Evan to help him.

Once the house and barn were done, Alan and Evan got to work on the new fields. The horses were used to till the soil, while Evan planted the seeds. Being in the middle of a vast forest, the family had to grow as much as they could themselves since the nearest town was over a day away by horse. Luckily Alan was very handy and could make almost anything he needed and had plenty of lumber in the forest.

All in all, Alan and Evan worked for three months getting everything built and plowed. They had managed to turn a portion of the wild forest into a farm for the family to call home. Alan looked over his new domain and was pleased. He had tamed nature and bent it to his will. Now that the hardest work was done, he could enjoy his new life with his growing family.

But it wasn’t as easy as he hoped. Though the land appeared to be good for farming, the crops were not growing as well as Alan had hoped. Most of the seeds never sprouted, and the ones that did were weak and Alan didn’t expect much of a harvest. The soil began to dry up and Alan hoped it would rain. Fortunately, being handy, Alan decided to dig a ditch through his field, leading to the river which allowed water to flow in and keep the soil wet. At last, Alan thought, the crops should be able to grow. The next evening, Alan heard a storm rumbling in the distance. Great, now the rain comes, he thought. But the rain brought with it thunder and lightning and raging winds. Around midnight, Alan awoke to a strange light casting flickering shadows on his bedroom walls. He arrived at the window and saw a blazing fire burning in his barn. Some of the leftover wood and unused branched were being stored in the barn and the lightning had found a home there. Already, the flames were licking the roof. By the time Alan got to the barn, he could only stand and watch as it burned to the ground. He was only able to get one of his two horses out before it was fully engulfed in flames.

He eventually started heading back to the house after tying up the horse under one of the few trees still standing on the property. About halfway back to the house, he noticed his feet made a strange squishing sound as he walked. In the light of the remaining remnants of his burning barn, he could just make out the soggy water that was covering the ground. This was odd to Alan, as the storm hadn’t rained much and had mostly blown around and set fires, but unbeknownst to him, it had let out a torrent several miles upstream, which was causing the river to rise up and attempt to flee its normal confines. For a moment there was a break in the clouds and a full moon appeared, giving Alan plenty of light to see what was happening. In his fields, he could see his irrigation ditch was already overflowing and was beginning to form ponds over his lackluster crops. At the riverbank, which he had chosen to keep the river away from his home, the river was nearing the top of the embankment and had already created a moat around his new castle, which was fortunately on a small hill above the surrounding clearing. As he stood there, the water started creeping into the smoldering barn, which hissed and sizzled.

He ran back to the house and immediately began to rouse his family from slumber. He gathered everyone, including his very pregnant wife, and climbed onto the roof with a few blankets he had gathered. The roof had a nearly flat section over a small porch that soon became a bed for the family. When morning came, Alan woke to a very different place. The water was now all the way up the small hill and was at least a foot deep inside his home. His horse, still tied to the tree, was standing in a couple of feet of water and looked particularly unhappy. Where his crop fields had been, he only saw water. The barn was barely visible, as most of it had burned down and only a few boards could be seen sticking out of the water. The family stayed on the roof all day and the following night, eating what Alan could find floating around what was once the kitchen.

As the next morning dawned, the water had receded enough that the hill could again be walked upon. By that afternoon, a path had opened up that led off the property and towards the nearest town. And so, having been beaten by nature, Alan and the rest of the Croswell family walked away from their home; the young children and pregnant Beth rode upon the unhappy horse.

Months later, many other settlers arrived to the area, and the town of Elderwood was founded. The Croswell family returned and rebuilt the barn and fixed up their flooded home, but Alan never tried to farm again. The elders say that Alan did not respect nature and the balance it tries to keep. Nature was unhappy with Alan and fought back leading to them leaving, though only temporarily.

There were other similar tales told by town elders in the café, warning of fighting against nature and the consequences of trying. Though John listened intently, he considered them only part of the local folklore taught to children to teach them good morals and other such things. But, occasionally, the stories would make him think of his own life and also about the duty he performs each day at work, dumping waste into the river. At least he isn’t trying to farm, he would think and put it to the back of his mind.

John continued to work at the factory for many more months, and soon the days began to get shorter and the nights colder. It was in his first autumn at the factory that John began to notice a few things about the area. The factory was on a cleared space of land near the forest on the outskirts of town. This particular factory was the last of those owned by the Elderwood Logging Company and also the newest, having been built only a year earlier. The backside of the factory was built only ten feet from the edge of the wilderness, separated only by a small narrow clearing. John remembers seeing the clearing on his first day of work, covered only in short grass with a few picnic tables for workers at lunch. Now, the clearing was becoming very overgrown. The tables were completely hidden from view by the grass and vines that had crept in. The vines were also climbing that side of the building, covering the majority of the outside wall. In a few spots, the vines reached the roof.

On his daily rounds, John noticed that on that same wall, the vines were reaching inside in any way they could. Through small cracks, open windows, and even where the roof met the wall. He took note of it and decided to bring it up with his superiors at their next meeting. The vines were also growing along the wall facing the river and were starting to grow into the waste chute. John made another note and continued on his way.

It is important to mention the dam again. As stated previously, the river was dammed upstream from the town and had created a lake behind it. Originally built of mainly wood from the forest, it was later strengthened with concrete to be able to add the ability to generate electricity, though wood still made up most of the structure. To compensate for changing water levels, the dam rose fifteen feet over the average water level and also had a flood gate that could be opened if it became necessary to relieve pressure. The dam was located only half a mile upstream from the factory where John Crabtree worked every day and the lights of the factory were powered by the dam, as was most of the town.

The vines were not the only peculiar thing that John made note of in those autumn months. The factory was built close to the river, by design, for waste disposal. However, John noticed that after a good rain, the chute would get some water in it as the river would rise. This is to be expected, however, John took note that the water was slightly higher after each rain than the one before. It was as though the river was trying to reach inside the factory, though of course, that could never be. John made more notes and continued to supervise. It was on a particularly nasty fall day that changed the town of Elderwood.

It was soon becoming winter, and all the trees were barren. The day had been as cold as ever and there was talk amongst the workers that snow could soon be arriving. The day was very dreary and as cold as it was, snow was a good possibility. At lunchtime, it started to rain. Not just rain, but downpour what seemed like entire lakes worth of water. By two, there was already water in the waste chute. John had told his boss at the last meeting about his observations and was told that they would look into hiring a few laborers to trim the narrow clearing, though the water in the chute was expected and it wasn’t as if the entire building could be moved.

By two-thirty, the water was nearing the top of the chute and John feared it would start affecting production if it spilled out onto the factory floor. He sent word to his superiors, in the hopes that they could provide some sort of counsel or assistance. The rain continued to drown out the countryside. The factory roof, being made of tin, made a certain noise when hit by rain that John normally found relaxing. On this day, it was getting to the point of deafening and was beginning to drown out the noise of the workers. Just before three, John received word from his superiors that the rising water was not a problem confined to the factory. Other parts of town were seeing it as well. John was ordered to send the workers home to take shelter with their families and ride out the storm, though when informed of this, many of the workers were wary of heading outside the building into the great deluge. Eventually, they all had left and John was alone. As he was about to head out into the rain and trudge home, a loud crack could be heard reverberating through the air. At first, John thought nothing of it, until it happened again. This time louder and from a direction away from town. What could make such a noise from out in the wilderness, upriver? John decided it was best to get home as fast as possible and started running.

John’s home, though not in itself anything great, did have one thing that made it special. It was at the end of a road, not far from the forest, at the top of a hill that while not steep, began much closer to the factory than his front door. Thus, after running for a few minutes, much of which was uphill, John began to tire and slowed to a brisk walk and then to a stop for breath. It was here that John witnessed what few others ever have. When John looked back down the hill toward the factory, he saw nothing but raging water. At first, John was not sure what he was seeing as it was raining very hard still and visibility wasn’t best.

In the distance, John witnessed a great wall of water rushing downstream. The factory was already gone when he turned to look but the relentless water was still going, making everything it touched disappear in its wake. It passed over the logging company grounds and surged onward through the town. All the buildings along the river were erased as though they were never there. The water never seemed to end, it just kept coming with a singular mission, moving onward, never stopping. But it was over quickly. Where there was once a town, was now an even greater river of fury and tenacity. Geography alone is what saved those who lived to tell their tale. The river flowed through a valley that eventually held the town, which was centered around the river and as it grew, expanded out and uphill. Just over half of the residences were high enough uphill to avoid desolation by the wall of angry water. And so the town of Elderwood was forever changed. Three-quarters of its residents were in the path of the river when it broke through the dam. The town was never the same and never grew as big again.

The logging company went bankrupt when all its buildings were destroyed. Many of the other businesses didn’t return, either. The surviving elders talk of it often and refer to it as nature’s revenge for destroying the forest and dumping waste into the river. John Crabtree became jobless when his employer went bankrupt, and though he stayed in Elderwood, he never worked as a supervisor again. He opened a small bookstore when the town was being rebuilt. He met a young lady and got married, had three children, and grew into old age. His bookstore is still there, though the town changed its name after the flood. When John passed, at the age of 91, the bookstore was being run by his offspring and their children. It is said that before he died, John could be seen in the same café almost every afternoon, telling stories about the wilderness and why we should respect nature. His favorite tale was the story of how he barely survived the great flood and that it happened not because of chance, but that nature was mad at the town and was trying to restore what the settlers had done to the land.

urban legend
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Michael Peterson
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