Special Report

Woods Work

Reflections from a ravine in dark and deep Montana.

By 6.4.02

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Climbing over deadfalls and picking through an overgrown trail the mind goes into a kind of idle, fastening on subjects at a far remove. Was it generous or merely meretricious of Ken Lay to settle for 30 million as his Enron going-away gift when he could have had 60? Does any CEO walk away from the corporate deathbed with less than 10? And what do those sycophantic board members think when they cash their attendance fee checks, having agreed to re-price the chief's options so that he has an immediate profit of 350 million instead of a wash? Do they snicker when they propose floating more stock for "employees' incentive programs," knowing the respondent stockholder will vote "yes" as they recommend, envisioning a harried company bookkeeper who has three kids at home and will work extra hard to earn incentive stock, not knowing it is pledged to the CFO beforehand?

Coming upon some bear scat still steaming in the deep gloaming of the trail tends to return that idling mind to the business at hand. The bottom of a deep ravine in Montana has been reached and there some fifty yards up a trickle of the crick ("run" in Virginia, "stream" elsewhere, but "crick" in Montana and Wyoming) is something not part of the original setting. A cabin. Well, what was a cabin, now a shack, nearly roofless, giving way to time. The logs had been rough-hewn, but not large. Yes, one man with an ax and saw and hammer could have done it. Enough year-stained labor said there had to have been enough color somewhere in the vicinity to warrant such an enterprise. Or was it that he was tired and this was as far as the search could go? An inflection point in a life?

Ah. There. Hanging from an extended part of the siding. Could it really be? Yes, a pot, a flecked pot still hanging by its handle, as though awaiting a hand to reach for it, fill it with crick water, boil some beans, add whatever the hunt had brought. Mountain supper. A gentle examination revealed this pot to be like none other seen in our time.
The bottom had been repaired. Not once or twice, but three times. With round, ready-made pot patches that filled in the burn-throughs wrought by open fires.

It was not the finding of a simple household implement; it was the economic message stamped those three times in the bottom of it. A hieroglyphic of another time that needed no rosetta stone to explain tough times, needful husbandry of manufactured goods. And care. God, yes. Care. A look upstream, into the darkening woods, said "be aware."

There was no temptation to retrieve the pot, to bring it out, a souvenir of some difficult day. It was in fact imperative to put it back and make it as secure as anything in that settling scene can be. And then to climb out, look back and realize as pilots do that darkness does not fall; it wells up from the deeper ground, from within the earth.

If anyone ever knew who was there and searched for gold, he has died, or moved away. Locals are not sure just which ravine you mean. And anyway, their eyes are fastened eastward, at those burning towers in the city. Where, as here, re-priced options do not matter and precious things must be repaired.

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About the Author

Reid Collins is a former CBS and CNN news correspondent.