That Thing with Feathers: Hope and Literature in a Time of Pandemic

As communities grapple with how to function in a time of pandemic, so many decisions feel fraught and weighted. How do we move forward? What will the world look like once we emerge, and what must we do to shape it for the better? THP author Chip Ward considers all of this as he recalls a film shown to him as a young boy during a rainy-day recess.

Running the Movie Backward

When I was a child in elementary school I watched a movie that is so embedded in my memory that it is still vivid today. Like all children we hungered for recess and were ready to burst onto the playground where we could run and yell and shed the orderly suppression practiced for hours in a classroom. On rainy days the playground was closed and we gathered in the school auditorium to watch movies. Most were black-and-white stock films from the government on hygiene and safety. The grainy antiseptic presentation of these topics did not resonate in my eight-year-old mind. It is difficult to take brushing one’s teeth seriously when you have so much pent-up energy you want to bite someone.


“Next the chain saws screamed and sawdust flew, coating the hardhats of the lumberjacks with the soft fresh cells of the tree.”


There was one film, however, that was a big hit because it was run once forward and then again backward. The movie was made to explain how the timber industry turned trees into boards. First we saw the lumberjacks as they walked around the forest assessing the trees to select the most profitable. Then they unloaded their enormous chain saws and our anticipation grew. Next the chain saws screamed and sawdust flew, coating the hardhats of the lumberjacks with the soft fresh cells of the tree. They jumped back and the focus shifted to the tall tree as it slowly turned and tilted and then rushed to the forest floor with an explosion of dust, leaves, and branches. The lumberjacks climbed up on the fallen behemoth and walked the length of the trunk to trim the branches, which fell away until the trunk was bare. Chains were applied and the dismembered tree was dragged down the forest slope to a loader that stacked it on a truck that drove it to the mill. At the sawmill the log was debarked and pushed through a giant wheeling blade that divided it into neat uniform boards. The last scene showed carpenters carrying boards from a stack and fastening them to the frame of a building. 


So far the film was pretty bland except for the huge tree crashing to the ground and the obvious danger of the buzz saw. But we watched with anticipation because we knew that when the film concluded it would be run again backward. The boards were pulled from the building and stacked. At the sawmill the straight boards were pulled through the big saw where they emerged as a whole naked log that was soon clothed as a scattering cloud of bark was sucked back on. A truck loaded with logs drove in reverse along the highway to a loader that lifted the load of logs onto the ground. A chain magically pushed the logs up the forest slope where lumberjacks walked their length and touched each raw spot with their bladed wands until the severed limbs flew up off the ground and fixed themselves into the fallen tree. At last the giant tree would rise up from a storm of debris and wobble back to a steady sturdy place against the sky.


“Although we accepted that the world our fathers made was harsh and necessary, in our hearts we were on the side of the tree.”

We children laughed and cheered. We were too young to think big picture, and it would be a decade before I would hear the word ecology. Although we accepted that the world our fathers made was harsh and necessary, in our hearts we were on the side of the tree. We rooted for restoration because that awesome tree had an integrity and beauty that was rudely violated by the lumberjacks and their machines. My biophilia was unnamed and discouraged back then but it was strong nonetheless.


“... I pray we can run this movie, this thing we call “civilization” or “the economy,” backward to a world before the fall, the chains, the mill, the stacked and orderly pieces.”

At this stage of the pandemic I think we, too, feel toppled and delimbed. Our lives were cut and ordered to be assembled into an economy that has collapsed. Who will pull us up from the debris and restore us to a living whole, heal the raw wounds, lift us into the light? Today we live like fugitives who hide and avoid but someday we will emerge again and find one another. When we do I pray we can run this movie, this thing we call “civilization” or “the economy,” backward to a world before the fall, the chains, the mill, the stacked and orderly pieces. And when we do, I will laugh and cheer with childish delight.

CHIP WARD is the author of the novel Stony Mesa Sagas. He cofounded HEAL Utah and served on the board of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance for several years. Starting as a bookmobile librarian, Ward ended his library career as the assistant director of the Salt Lake City Public Library. His books Canaries on the Rim: Living Downwind in the West and Hope’s Horizon: Three Visions for Healing the American Land, describe his political adventures. He is a regular contributor to TomDispatch.com and his essays on conservation have appeared widely across the web. An essay about homelessness, “How the Public Library Became the Heartbreak Hotel,” is the inspiration for the movie The Public. He lives in Torrey, Utah.


This project has received funding from Utah Humanities (UH). UH empowers Utahns to improve their communities through active engagement in the humanities.


The months ahead will be challenging for arts organizations, including Torrey House Press. Connection though story will help us all manage this essential stay home time, and THP will be innovating more ways to give authors a platform to inspire and comfort. We’ll need your help to do it. You can help Torrey House Press weather this by making a donation of any amount today.


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