“Go to forest to meet the wise green friends!”
― Mehmet Murat ildan
I just returned from three days in the forest. It wasn’t the most secluded forest; in fact, it was rather noisy as it is circumscribed on all sides by a highway. In the middle of this huge nature preserve is an enormous lake.
We skirted the perimeter and could never completely escape human noise, even as we ourselves walked almost entirely in silence, with soft feet over the softest spots of earth–so reluctant were we to disturb even the natural tapestry of sound.
In quietude, walking mile after mile, I remember other trees I have seen. I remember how much I sought out natural spaces as a child. In the first house I remember, there was a large wooded area behind the house that I used to walk through with my father. During the church years, I would go camping with the youth group. There were also daily hiking trips. In the last place I lived before college, before I would leave the ambivalent nest for good, there was a half mile wooded area behind the condominiums. I would go there and sit in patches of sunlight, doing nothing–feeling myself alive.
Now my partner and I backpack into woods. This time my pack weights 36 lbs, his weighs 43. They are heavier than we like, but we have cots and blankets and warm sleeping bags to make our rest fruitful. We condition our hearts and our legs and our lungs and carry it all. Whatever we bring in, we take out. We leave no trace of ever having been there.
In the forest, trees know no gender, no race, no wealth, no past, no future, no achievement. They recognize nothing but the present moment, they are nothing but pure being. They are an invitation for us to see ourselves as we truly are, also nothing but present moment beings–free of all we think defines us and makes us.
On the second day, we climbed a steep hill. From there, we saw some signs of humans across the way. We squinted to make out the details, but couldn’t see much. If it were a camp, it was in frightening disarray. We decided to go over and see what was going on. What we found was not a camp, but an enormous amount of waste.There was an old car, rusted, busted and torn apart with its various pieces scattered around. There were children’s toys, food containers, clothing, shoes–and a wide assortment of empty soda pop cans. There was even the wheelbarrow that was used to dump the rubbish.
We dated these to the 80′s; the artificial sweetener used was saccharin. We wondered how all this debris could have gotten washed down into this small valley, which is surrounded by trees and far from any road. We perused this litter until we saw that if we followed the trail of trash, we crested a hill and ended up here.
It was an abandoned property, covered in beer bottles, cigarette packs (from a brand called “Red Buck,” which we had never heard of before; but later discovered is the cigarette for the “outdoorsman,” according to their website), and the remains of quite a few children’s toys. The driveway to this property looked to be at least a mile long, so we figured that the people who once lived here had simply started dumping their trash over the hill down into the state park.
We explored the abandoned house. In the kitchen was a box of food, hastily packed–growing old and yet not decomposing. Bottles of instant coffee, packets of Ramen noodles, and cans of soup. It suggested a departure of trauma. We wondered about the story of the people who had once lived here and lamented the rubbish they left behind and mourned the damage it was doing to the ecosystem.
Nature, though, is powerful in its incremental ease, in its unobstrusive slowness. It will reclaim everything, even our mistakes.
It was an interesting detour in our daily hike. The echo of the lives these people lived reverberated in us for many minutes as we made our way back to the trail and headed away from the site of so much ruin. But the forest is forgiving and eventually the earth will reclaim all decay and churn everything, ourselves, our byproducts, our everything, to dust. This thought is wonderful and the trail opens before us like an embrace.
We remark the last day out that we both, my partner Andy and I, wanted to be marine biologists when we were in high school. “It was my first desire to be something that wasn’t attached to my parents’ vision of who I would become,” I say. He says he wanted to be a marine biologist too. We are astonished at this revelation, that so long before we knew each other our dreams both flowed to the oceans. “I gave up the dream, though,” I tell him. “Because the marine biology club at school was always taking trips I could not afford. And I didn’t think that someone like me could be a marine biologist–so far from the ocean, with no money, and with being told by so many people that it was a silly job, a ridiculous job, not a job for me, and with no resources. So I did what was easiest–I read books. Libraries were free and this is how my career opened to me.” Andy nods. “Same here.” We had both been convinced to abandon our naturalist dreams so young because of circumstances and the things other people said. How many simple, happy dreams get derailed that way?
Though I am far from the ocean, my naturalist dream has expanded itself. That nascent desire to be a marine biologist was partly shaped by a desire to simply be in nature, to be away from “civilization,” to be among animals–to enter another world. Backpacking in the forest for days is very much like that, like breaking the surface between worlds. Here there is quiet, not the lack of noise, but a flow of bird song and cricket song, of deer snapping twigs, of packs of wild dogs howling in the dark, dark night, of cicadas singing in the trees, of creek water bubbling gently downward.
We gather sticks and twigs and branches that have already fallen for an evening fire.
This small light is our evening entertainment; it warms us as we sit mostly in silence, listening to it crackle and glow. It connects us to every other human that is and ever was because this sight is one of the most spectacular to we human creatures. The presence of all those other humans, all of our ancestors who looked at fire and marveled, surrounds my awareness as the night surrounds the fire.
Through the night we hear the deer crunching through leaves and pulling down saplings. The trees crash in the quiet of the night; even the crickets seem to pause and listen for a moment. After a heavy listening minute, all the song begins again. Somewhere a deer munches in the darkness.
There is artistry among us, natural sculpture.
On the third day, our packs are 9 lbs lighter because of the water we have consumed. With this lighter load, we walk briskly out of the park, back to the car. We are covered in sweat, our clothes soaked through, when we exit the trail. We head home for grateful showers and a meal not cooked on our biolite stove.
Life here is actual life, it is real life. Life as we have made it in “civilization” is largely artificial, governed as it is by things which do not exist–such as money, time, and virtual narratives (both fiction and non-fiction). It is easy to forget in our standard lives, which are controlled by things we cannot ever touch, see, or directly experience, that what we actually are is as simple and elegant as all of nature.