The Heart of the Forest
The sun has set. A gentle breeze crawls along the water as we dip our tired paddles into a magical lake of black silk. A colourful loon call echoes across the granite rockfaces, and I swish my head to get a glimpse of her, but her ripple and song are all that remains. The canoe bobs, as we halt the swish of our paddles to listen to the sanctuary of wild. Crickets, evening bird song, wind rustling the pines. We have come to love this place deeply. This is our escape. This is home for our hearts. Nothing has felt more peaceful, more a part of us than this place, deep in the woods of Northern Ontario.
The canoe slides onto soft, muddy clay. Painted in the deep blue above is our ivory crescent moon, glowing ever brighter in the darkness. Our arms are weary from a day of portages. Our skin like brail, raw from scratching our bites.
Our cold feet press against the still warm pine needles. The sun had baked the ground, and the pines pungent aroma continued to swim through the trees. As exhausted as we are, we feel at peace, because for the next few weeks we will be living on these rocky shores. Gazing into crimson sunsets, diving through the black waters, falling asleep to faint coyote cries, eating wild blueberry pancakes & dinners of fresh caught fish & wild leeks. It’s a time that we will never forget.
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As a child I was taught to respect, give love, and take only what I needed from the wilderness. I was given a few valuable survival skills and still nature felt like a museum. Society has become normalized to us, and so the forests now hold a mystery. We don’t understand them, but they are beautiful to look at. We don’t live amongst them anymore, and so to many of us, the forests become our temples and cathedrals, places of worship rather than home.
After years of exploring alternative lifestyles, I’ve come to learn that camping on a lake for a few weeks every summer is hardly a sustainable method of living in harmony with the wild. We are tourists to this magical place, but camping or hiking in these woods is indeed the first step we must take to feel safe and rekindle that sense of home amongst the pines. By creating a familiarity to the wild, we learn to see the value of it in our life, and hopefully, with time we can seed more and more of the wild into our own backyards.
Remember, for most of us, after a few weeks in the wild we return to a house with a thick mattress, 4 walls, and a fridge full of food. If we truly tried to live off these wild lands, we would go hungry within a week. There isn’t the abundance of food in these forests that there once was. The indigenous peoples who lived on these shores encouraged the growth of fruit and nut trees, but when the Europeans came, the forests were logged, and there was no care or consideration for “the wild.” To survive in the wild we would have to revert to nomadism, and even that wouldn’t be enough to sustain more than a few tribes today.
Many of us North Americans go camping every summer, it’s almost a rite of passage, but most of us will never be able to identify the edible plants that surround a campsite, nor have the knowledge to light a fire without a lighter & newspaper. Yet, for many of us, these camping expeditions, however brief, leave an imprint in our souls. We leave our 4 walls for a few summer days and replace our screens for sunsets, video games for fishing & clubs for campfires. Regardless of our role in society, out here, in the woods, no one is above anyone else. We are a small tribe of humans connecting with our roots. The trees, the creatures, the waters. This is our habitat that has been lost. Here, there is a sense of home that no 4 walls can fill. These camping trips may be have been brief for many of us, but the wilderness has a heart beat, and many of us are pulled back to her wild waters, again and again.
As a human being drifting around this giant ball of fire on the only habitable sphere within light years from us, I’ve come to learn one thing. We need our earth. And yet does it need us? Our little blue planet will continue to spin round and round without us, long after our bones are the trees and our hearts are the rivers. If we are to build a harmonious future with our planet, than we need to look at balanced systems that have worked for humans in the past.
Wisdom Still Blooms in the West
Since the European came to the shores of North America, they have concentrated their energies primarily on the survival of their heritage, not the survival of the native ecosystems that they have conquered. They were focused on preserving their cultural practices and this was best done by clear cutting the lands and using them for conventional farming. This makes sense! Europeans have been using traditional farming techniques for thousands of years. Besides, the Europeans were unfamiliar with the flora and fauna that painted the landscapes of the West, and so they wiped out the unknown plants replacing them with their traditional crops.
On the West Coast of British Columbia, ecologists have marveled at the biodiversity. Only recently are we coming to learn that this diversity was actually encouraged by the indigenous peoples who lived on these lands centuries before the Europeans came. These diverse, and productive forest gardens were unlike the conventional farming practices of the European, and so, it took researchers many years to realize that these food forests of crabapples, acorns, hazelnuts, cranberries, and hawthorn were actually created by man. To this day, the land surrounding many indigenous settlements out West offer far more diversity and edible foods than the surrounding conifer woodlands.
Plants have conquered much of the planet, but we as humans have the ability and therefore the responsibility to us & our ecosystems to encourage certain plants over others. We can encourage diversity rather than plow our land for monoculture crops. Imagine if everyone living in suburbia used permaculture methods over cutting the grass every week. Imagine if everyone’s lawn was a canvas of apple trees, acorns, berries and leafy greens. It’s incredible how productive a small piece of land can be if you use the right methods. Compost, companion planting, plant layering and so on.
Working with Wilderness
I live on a woodland homestead in the highlands of Ontario. In the summer we grow a few crops here using some traditional methods, tilling, but we are also trying the three sisters method which was used by the indigenous peoples who lived on these lands thousands of years before us. Heirloom corn, beans and squash. We are planting berry bushes, nut trees, and other edible foods that can help feed the creatures that live here, as well as ourselves. When the leeks are in season we eat more leeks, when the berries are in season we eat more berries, and preserve what we can. Dandelions are considered an invasive species, but they have found a way to adapt and work with the native ecosystem here. Bees, birds, chipmunks, deer, rabbits and all manner of creatures require them as a food source. We as humans, use them as leafy greens in spring and grind and roast their roots for coffee in the fall.
I still remember the first time I blew the soft, fluffy dandelion seed clocks into the sky. Children live in a fantasy world in their minds, but my fantasy world had integrated itself into my surroundings. I remember lying there in the sun, mesmerized as the fluffs soared higher and higher until they melted with the azure blue sky. To this day I don’t understand peoples aversion to them as they violently spray pesticides & meticulously rip this edible green from their yard.
The idea of cutting a lawn may seem like a status thing today, but in the past, forests and fields were turned to grass because the Europeans didn’t have the knowledge to know what these plants were for, and which ones were poisonous. Many Europeans were allergic to them, such as Ragweed which many people to this day confuse with Golden Rod. These “weeds” and plants unknown to the Europeans settlers were used by the indigenous folk as foods & medicines for thousands of years. If you don’t know your environment, it’s much easier to colonize by destroying it, by paving it and replacing it with your own “known” system. Today we live in a world where we are separated from nature. The land is categorized into society, farms & what remains of “the wild.” However, the wild is misunderstood, hence why it is called “the wild.”
We aren’t familiar with the wilds ways, we aren’t taught how to live within it, and so, it appears mysterious, dangerous, impenetrable. There are those of us who have been raised with the skills to engage with it. But we are few. Some of us know how to start a fire, gather kindling, light a match, but most of us will never use a flint, or rub two sticks together. How do you start a fire when it’s raining? How do you track down a drinkable water source? What do you eat if you lose your direction while out on a hike? These are skills that we aren’t taught in school, when it seems as though these would be the first things that you would teach a young human being on planet earth. But they don’t want us to know how to live in the wild. They want us to rely on society. The machine. This makes us easier to control. We don’t want to bite the hand that feeds us.
Our Escape Plan. Weaving the Wild into our Lives
We are all inhabitants of this earth. We require water, food, shelter, and as society destroys our habitat and replaces it with concrete and 4 walls to give us our cozy prisons, we are left with no choice but to accept this. We feel depressed, we lack guidance, we feel lifeless, why? Because our habitat has been taken from us. We are animals, caged in a zoo, and though it may not feel like that, Co-vid 19 has shown us that we are reliant on society for everything, including our own safety and well being. At least for now.
There are those of us who still crave the wild, but I don’t think that escaping and living in the woods away from the rest of the world is the answer. If we truly want to evoke change. If we truly want to transform this monster that is eating our planet alive, than we need to tell it what we want, and what many of us want is to live within the natural world, within the comforts that technology can afford us. We need to merge the “wild” world with the “civilized” world. How?
First we need to create a system that can work in harmony with its inhabitants. A system that doesn’t destroy the land around it so that it can thrive in the immediate. We need to create something sustainable for centuries to come, but humans like immediate gratification, so I think we may need to work on disciplining ourselves so that we can evoke the change we so desperately require.
We can take small steps. Learn how to plant trees & plant oak saplings now. Sure, you may not see it grow to be a king of the forest, but you will have left a legacy of forests for years to come. Plant berry bushes now, reap the immediate benefits of the fresh, sweet and succulent foods you can have outside your door! If not for you than do it for the birds. Western perspectives have encouraged us to see the world as isolated, separate systems. This plant does this, this animal does this, but they are “part of a circle, a hoop that never ends,” as the colours of the wind song so eloquently puts it. Everything is connected. Every tree in the forest is connected to every other tree. The plants communicate with one another in ways that we are only beginning to comprehend, but these forests don’t stand a chance against us. They can send messages to one another saying “Hey! Some insect is burrowing into my bark or nibbling my leaves,” they can then pump more acid into their leaves as a preventative measure. But, they can’t run away from us humans. All they can do is give to us as they always have and hope that we can appreciate their beauty, their food, their shade. Will it be enough? I hope so.
We are entering a time where it is up to us as humans to remember who and what we are, and what we want to become. Do we want to be a parasite? We are adaptable creatures. No other creature could destroy it’s entire habitat and convince itself that it’s okay. We are heavily medicated because our reality is too painful to look at. But there is a solution. Bring nature back into our cities. Build smaller communities together & encourage their growth through wider networks. Encourage needing less to give us more in the long run. It will take all of us to make this change, but fortunately we have the internet to help spread our message of harmony throughout our global forest of human minds. We are ripe to sew our seeds for a new beginning.