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An Obscure Conversation between an American Girl and a Croatian Forest

Amy Dewitt

Fallen heroA fallen war hero lay across the trail before us – arms outstretched and grasping, his last look engraved in the grains of his face as the recognition of Death.  Nationality was irrelevant.  There were many landed in the same fate, some fading to decomposition and others twisted with re-growth, but all wearing similar expressions.  What once played behind those still eyes; what must they have seen?  My eyes have seen nothing to which these eyes have been forced.  What must those limbs have been involved in?  Who was behind the gun behind the bullets that left the scattered holes in buildings and trees?  Whose aggression or patriotism or confusion destroyed historical monuments leaving landmarks of destruction along the path?  The flash of reality was strong enough to bring me to my knees.  I was seeing the result of a war I could never understand.

I was traveling with three beloveds in Plitvice National Park, the location of commencement for Croatia’s most recent war.  My heart sung to the fall chill in harmony with shin-deep leaf shuffling and woodpecker beats.  Each hillside brought new colors unheard of to any Crayola; it was a wonderland that left nothing else on the mind beyond: must…frolic.  An ethnocentric love for nature left no room in my vision for war, mines, hatred, death: They are so lucky to have such beauty surrounding them here in Croatia!  How could I be so blind?  Blinded by beauty.  My naïveté was disturbed by a massive beech blocking the path with twisted arms, fallen and ripped out of its roots.  Far from human, this tree and others like it in this Croatian deciduous forest communicated with me across cultures and across taxonomic great divides. 

I saw for the first time a glimpse of what these trees had no choice in enduring.  While I was frolicking and dancing with these war heroes, they were pushing back memories of trembling ground and bloodshed.  Our conversation was personified in the intensity of history; inanimateness was extraneous.  Putting a hand to the bullet-pierced trunk filled my ears with the sounds of gunshots, screams of agony, and choked out last words.  Juxtaposed below the holes were initials carved inside a heart: K+M.  Where are K and M now?  Have they returned to visit their proclamation?  Does this site still hold the love and youthfulness that a dull-pocket-knifed afternoon held years before, or has it been stomped out with the same blood that taints the old beeches? 

This one tree held many questions and many stories within its lifeless bark.  The presence of the war in the park, while not clearly advertised and heavily masked by every UNESCO effort, was too strong to be lost.  In the edited works of Feldman, Senjkovic, and Prica, Fear Death and Resistance - An Ethnography of War: Croatia 1991-1992, they thrash out the struggles in post-war research, fearing a culturological “scientification” of the war that often comes out of a systematic and analytic lens on war.  This lens offers “unintentional legitimacy to a catastrophic human state: each definition automatically becomes a euphemism.”  The article concludes with the simple stipulation: “…for with ethnology, one certainly does not write history,” and wouldn’t even dare to try.  The war can not be erased, but who would want leftover smudges and eraser dust?  If it is forgotten will the lessons still prevail?  As an outsider - an “other”- I can pose questions, but must be careful deriving any kind of answer.  My answers come from an old Croatian beech that no language could have shown me.

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