Our blood-soul carries animal memory in our spinal column; the dark hoof and the feathered wing hover in our wild aura.
- Martin Shaw, Snowy Tower
High up on the hill, there is a spring. I climb to it with the dogs. It gurgles out of the ground just downhill from a large fallen cedar, its trunk decaying into soil. The water comes out clean and clear, and runs over black silt, dark algae, tumbles of basalt stone. Down through the steep mountain meadows, where in this season the grass is flaxen and laid to the ground and grown over with the night’s crystals of hoarfrost. The pitcher plants have all turned brown in decay. Where the water runs wide and thin on the rocks it freezes in warbled patterns like medieval glass. It is nearing the solstice; the white sun is in the south.
Around the spring the tall incense cedars and pines sink their taproots. The cedar bark is ruddy and striated; brilliant green lichen grows in tufts where the sun strikes. Their gnarled limbs spiral out, ending in wide-fingered fans of needles.
Nearby where the spring emerges from the earth, there is a cedar bark tipi. When a large cedar falls and the sapwood begins to dry, the bark can be peeled away in long planks of more than an inch thick. This material is insulative, waterproof, resistant to rot. There are a number of these structures scattered over this land, their interiors bedded with a thick layer of pine needles, contained and insular as a den.
Through the trees, across the valley with its tree-furred ridges and blonde pastures, rises the mountain, immense, cragged, white with snow, brilliant in the sun, thick shadows in the ravines. The spring, the trees, the meadows, the ridges, the mountain, are wild, self-willed. The spring emerges from the earth where it will, the trees put down their roots where they will, and the great upwelling of the planet’s heart-blood, the living stone that thrusts upwards into the realm of clouds, clothed in glaciers, rimed with spires of ice, this mountain is self-willed. Measure your own will against its existence and you will know it’s true. Try as we might we will never civilize them.
I come here for this: to drink from the cold spring, hear the trees speak in the wind, watch the dogs run over pine needles furred in frost, sniffing where the deer have left their sign. To see the winter sun sidelight the mountain. To be in their presence and cultivate a bodily relationship with them.
I have spent a lot of time in these woods at night, passing through opaque shadows and bone-white moonlight, trying to move silently just by feeling, vision imperfect. Many of those times were disguised as a game of capture-the-flag. Not to be caught I often went belly to the earth, crawling through the undergrowth, my face in the dust and fallen cedar needles.
Other times I built shelters of the materials at hand – branches and boughs, bark stripped from fallen trees, needles and duff from the forest floor – and slept in them with only a thin blanket. These times the other senses opened, all the scents of the forest coming into me as I moved through their invisible clouds or breathed the soil where I laid my cheek. My ears strained to produce the echolocation of the bat. My feet and hands took me over rocky ground and through running streams, and I followed my intuition to know where I was, not my sight.
Now when I walk here with the dogs, years later and in a different season, I still feel the visceral memory of the place – it doesn’t seem to reside in my head, but in my guts. My body knows these trees, these stones, this tumbling stream. Around are these self-willed beings, their complexity, their individuality, my body among theirs.
Merely allowing them in our minds to be as they are transports us from a dead world to one living. Acknowledging the world has made itself of its own accord, we come into accord with it. And recognizing this, we must also recognize that our own bodies have brought us here, without much of our conscious involvement.
We are wild inside, our guts teeming, our skin permeable to the wild air. The things we make in the woods are wild, the tipi formed from cedar bark and poles of fir. These kinds of homes sheltered people in this landscape for ten thousand years before the arrival of Europeans. They are the outgrowth of wild bodies living in the land.
If everything is wild, if everything is self-willed, what are we to make of the metastasizing cancers of pavement and suburbs, the toxic lakes beside the electronics factories, the clear-cuts, the forests silent of birds and frogs, the expanding dead-zones of the oceans, the subsidence of farmland as it is drained of its ancient waters?
These things come from our appetites, to be clothed, housed, fed, our thirst assuaged. Most of us were born in the captivity of this mechanical mode and don’t know another way. It is bad mimicry of the true and real, but so many of us have nothing to measure it against.
If we listen to the body, though, we can feel what is right. The body knows how to promote life; it’s existence is evidence. The body promotes our existence every moment, and would do so for the rest of the world if we were to let go our conscious gripping of the reins, instead of this odd corner of our brains spurring on the rest of the body to scrape landscapes bare in service of our strange dreams.
Let’s close our eyes for a time, move through the darkness by feel alone.
My body goes back again and again to the spring, drinks in the cold clean water that fell as rain thousands of years ago, and has only now chosen to emerge from its migration through the earth.