The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness
In the past, T and I have discussed the question “Are you a plains person or a forest person?” So, if you had to choose, would you live on the top of a hill with wide views all around, open space in abundance, or would you choose the closer confines of a woodland environment, surrounded by trees? He’s always said forest. I’ve been plains.
Here, in Cape Breton, we are surrounded by trees. Everywhere we go… trees. It is only when we’re on the beach, looking out on to the Gulf of St Lawrence, that there is not forest as far as the eye can see. Other than the Daintree Rainforest in Northern Queensland, I have never before spent so much time in and amongst so many trees. And it’s interesting what it’s doing to my psyche.
Intellectually, I feel excited. All the reading I’ve been doing over the last year or so, about ‘wilderness’ and the impact of the loss of our native large fauna on our natural world, tells me that this landscape is how our own small and terribly overcrowded island would have looked before the forests disappeared. This is what projects like Trees For Life, who’s aim it is to restore the Caledonian Forest up in Scotland, are envisioning. A land literally COVERED in trees. In fact, before we left home, someone said to me “Nova Scotia is just like Scotland, before they cut down all the trees”. While this is true in some sense – there are huge numbers of lakes, some vast, some small, there are hills , there are blackflies aplenty (midgie equivalent), there is even a man playing the bagpipes just outside the cafe where I’m sitting right now – I don’t feel the immensity of space that I do when I’m in Scotland. This is because not only are the ‘mountains’ here that much smaller, but in Scotland the bare and open landscape, devoid of trees in many parts, gives me much more a sense of expansiveness somehow. And, although the Gaelic music also floats around in abundance here, what I hear around me are Canadian accents, and so I feel very, very far away from my own ‘culture’ and, most importantly, my own land.
But what is “my own land” (by that I mean the land of my birth)? What does it really look like? I know WHAT it looks like in present times, of course, but now I also have a sense of what it must have looked like way back when (and perhaps what it ‘should’ look like now?) And it’s pretty radically different. While humans have clearly made their mark here – dirt tracks disappear off main roads, marking out thoroughfares used by people living in the near and far reaches of the forest – because of the impenetrable nature of this forest, it feels like there are large areas where no human foot can ever have stepped. Up there in the hills reside bears, coyotes, moose, and lynx. The kinds of animals that conjure up feelings of fear, excitement and WILDNESS in me.
So, it’s interesting. As I find myself agreeing wholeheartedly with those ecologists that lament the loss of our native wildscapes, those who campaign for the return of our vast forests, for the reintroduction of our lost megafauna, I also find myself questioning just how I personally would cope living in and amongst so many trees again. I say “again” because once upon a long time ago all of our ancestors walked these forests. These tree-covered lands are in our blood, in the ancient memories stored in our very bones. Their roots grow deep within our souls. We are of the forest and we are one with the forest. It is only because we cut the vast majority of them down so very long ago that we have lost that conscious knowing of the wild woods cape. Not only that, but we have also, tragically, become afraid of it.
That comes as a huge sense of loss, for me. When I was in the Daintree I felt fear of ‘what is out there’. At times, I couldn’t fully enjoy where I was because I was worried about what I couldn’t see. And here it is the same. What is out there IS unknown and unseen. We, as humans, do not fare well when we do not know and can not see what is coming towards us. Or, indeed, as my own small family takes its first tentative footsteps out into the world, far away from the comfort, safety and loving arms of our home, family and friends, when we do not know what we, ourselves, are heading towards.
So, I take these forests as a fine metaphor for where I find myself in life right now. I literally CAN NOT see what is out there. I must let go of knowing, and trust that, step by tiny step, we will find our way.
When I first read John Muir’s quote above, I thought “Ha, not for me!” Clearly, I have much to learn. Or re-learn perhaps…