The Forest

A close friend posted a picture online recently, accompanied by a passage from John Muir, the Scottish-American naturalist and author.  It read …and into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.

On this past weekend, our Canadian Thanksgiving holiday, two of my sisters went camping with their families, braving the October temperatures in the boreal forest of Algonquin Park.  They also posted online, pictures and messages, waxing eloquently on the beauty and serenity of the wilderness world around them.

I have long believed there is no more beautiful place to be in the world than Ontario in the splendor of October—when the green forest recasts itself in glorious hues of scarlet red, bright yellow, incandescent orange, and intense burgundy.  The sun, lower in the sky, shines through them, and they glow as if afire.

fall

We lived on a lake in the north for a long time—a long time ago.  One of our favourite October pastimes was walking the solitary cottage roads after all the seasonal vacationers had headed home.  Smelling the wood smoke from chimneys of the few year-round homes, kicking the wind-strewn piles of fallen leaves, breathing in the nippy harbingers of winter borne on the autumn breezes.

Occasionally, late in the month, we’d even get the first falls of snow, blown hither and yon before melting away in the late October sunshine.

The forest was a refuge, a release, a reminder that life, once upon a time, was simpler and elemental.

Sixty years ago, I spent a summer planting trees on the slopes of a valley, formerly the rocky, infertile fields of a pioneer farming family.  A lovely, clean river meandered its way along the valley floor.  We worked in pairs, one with the spade, the other with the bag of saplings, and we traded places every half-hour, or so.  I remember it as hard work, dirty work, thirsty work, to be sure.  But I know now it was glorious work, where we were (to steal from the 1965 novel by Peter Matthiessen), at play in the fields of the Lord.

tree

One of us would cut a T-shaped slice in the ground with the spade, then pry it up, splitting apart the base of the T.  The other would gently place a sapling, each about six inches high, in the crevice, and press the ground back together around the fragile stem.  When we finished a row, we’d retrace our path, pouring water from a bucket on each new plant.

I’ve lost track of how many trees we planted in a morning, or a day, or over the entire summer.  But it had to be a lot.  Hundreds.  We’d never heard the phrase paying it forward…it hadn’t even been coined back then, I imagine.  But that’s what we—such callow, carefree boys—were doing.

I had occasion some time back to drive through that same valley, not too far north of Toronto, and I stopped to look at the fields where we had laboured—private property now, far across the river on the opposite slopes.  To my chagrin, I couldn’t see them at first.  And then the astounding reality struck home.  The fields were still there, but the green canopy of a forest covered them—a forest—shielding them from my view.

canopy1

Our forest!  Our trees!

I couldn’t walk through that forest, of course—touching the trees, remembering them in their infancy, as they passed from my hands to the soil that embraced them.  Nor, truth be told, did I really need to.  It was enough to recall those barren fields as they were, and compare them to what they became after we were there.

As I think back on that long-ago summer, I know I left things behind—sweat, friends, youth.  Lost now in the mists of time.

But, as Muir so eloquently wrote, I found my soul.

Gone Fishin’!

When we lived on the lake, I was often asked by old friends about my retirement activities, and what I did to amuse myself all the livelong day.  Most of them assumed I did a lot of fishing.  And they were right, to a point.

In my opinion, there are few pleasures in life to compare to the joys of fishing.  But only, of course, if it’s done properly—that is, my way.

stock_fishing-1024x6561

It’s probably true that there are as many ways to fish as there are people who go fishing.  So, the proper procedures will be defined differently by each of us.  My routine would undoubtedly be totally inappropriate for anyone else.

I developed it as a younger man camping in the wilds of northern Ontario, and it was perfection, itself—or almost, since there was one flaw, which I shall come to shortly.

As I remember it, the proper fishing excursion began quite early in the morning, when all save the birds were still asleep.  I would rise quietly, so gently as to pass unnoticed by comrades on my way from the tent to the water’s edge.  The canoe, already laden with the necessary gear, would be launched smoothly, silently, into the mist-enshrouded lake.

My body would stretch exultantly as the paddle cut deeply through the water’s ebony surface.  For a time, nothing would be heard but the soothing hiss of the canoe across the lake.  My happiness was absolute.

canoe2

I’d watch as the mist lifted, a curtain rising before an audience of one.  Wet, wraith-like wisps would seek to flee the warming sun—frantic, elusive phantoms ruthlessly pursued until thrust from its gaze.

I’d be well offshore when the sun brought the forest alight in greens, bouncing and careening its way through the translucent leaves.  Dark shade-spots would climb the stretching tree-trunks, dance across leaves turned to face the morning light, and then suddenly vanish.

The lake—its diamond-dancing surface reflecting morning back to bluing sky—would part before my craft, bowing away in widening ripples to lap gently against the shore of a small inlet I might find.  I was in awe of the panorama of sunlit trees reflected in the mirrored mere—quicksilver, green, and cold.

The lilting lament of a loon might be all that would break the silence.  Great granite slabs, topped by bush and trees, slanted from on high down into the lake, which tossed back their image from its glassy depths.

lake

Peace would reign, rampant upon nature’s canvas.

Alas, it would not last.  For to begin fishing was to interrupt that sylvan sequence of morning life, to disturb its natural ebb and flow.  Yet, not to cast a line was to deny the purpose of the visit.

And therein lay the flaw in my perfect way to fish.  The act of fishing became almost a sacrilege in nature’s cathedral of calm, and thus devoid of any joy.  All the pleasure had come from just being there.

So, I had to adapt in order to come to grips with the incongruity of being a fisherman who didn’t like to fish.  I made sure my tackle-box always contained a book or two, a novel, perhaps, or a chosen book of verse.  It held my harmonica, a ‘one-man band’ with which I could while away countless hours.  And there was always a camera, loaded and ready.

tackle box

In short, I still went fishing, but I did not fish.  When I’d reach the perfect spot, I’d cease my paddling, sink back in the bottom of the canoe, and just drift ‘til it was time to go back.

Water-bugs would skitter their erratic dash across the water, an occasional fish would jump with a splash.  When a kingfisher darted down to stand on the prow of the canoe, I knew I’d become a piece of the very scene I was observing.

I was one with my surroundings—at once apart and a part.

fish cove

There were inevitable questions, of course, when I’d return from an excursion.  Where did I fish?  What bait was I using?  Did I catch anything?

I’d reply that nothing was biting, or that there were only a few nibbles.

In that respect, I guess, I was like all true fishermen.  I would never tell anyone where I’d found my favourite fishing-hole.

That would have spoiled it.

Happy to Be Home

Having just returned from a wonderful trip to South Africa, I am struck, as ever, by how good it feels to be home again.

Our journey through that wonderful country constituted the trip of a lifetime, a celebration of our golden anniversary.  Readers of this blog have already shared in some of our adventures, although my scribblings are no substitute for being there.

Over the years, my family has always loved to go on trips.  Be it winter for skiing, or summer for camping, we really enjoyed going away.

camping

My wife and I worked in the school system, so our holidays tended to come in regularly-spaced chunks, which was especially nice when our daughters still attended elementary school.  We were able to get away several times during the year, usually for short spans of four or five days.  That made us more fortunate than many folks, and we appreciated that—one reason, perhaps, why we enjoyed the opportunities so much.

Due a combination of lack of interest and financial realities, I suppose, we didn’t make elaborate journeys to glamorous vacation spots.  Our most expensive holidays were of the weekend-at-a-ski-lodge variety.  Mostly, we just visited with family members who lived out of town, stayed with friends at their summer cottages, or set up our own digs at one of the myriad provincial campgrounds.

Vagabond vacationers—that’s what we were.

In spite of our love for going away, however, and regardless of the type of trip we’d been on, there was one element common to all our family meanderings.  We loved to come home.  No matter how long we’d been gone, it was a real joy to come in the door, drop our gear, and explore through the house.

This lovely memory of bygone days washed over my wife and me once more, upon our most recent return.

Each of us seemed to have one special thing we liked to do when we arrived back, a self-appointed task that served to herald our homecoming.  Among the several necessary jobs—turning up the temperature in the water heater, plugging in the water-softener, or opening windows to dispel the stuffiness—our special tasks stood out in their importance to each of us, respectively, as our way of saying, I’m home!

My wife would spend fifteen or twenty minutes visiting her plants, watering them, talking to them, grooming them lovingly.  My youngest daughter would head to her bedroom to check on whether everything was just as she left it (though, sometimes, given the disarray, I wasn’t sure how she could tell).  My older daughter would take Cinnamon, our dog, on an inspection tour of the house, the sunroom, and the back yard, generally in that order.

For all of them, it was a renewing of acquaintance with home.

My task was to wind the five clocks.  The time on each face had to be adjusted, the chimes and gongs checked to be sure they were synchronized, and the pendulums re-started.  It wasn’t a difficult job, or a lengthy one, but it could be stretched into a half-hour of time alone, savouring the feeling of being back home again.  And, when the next full hour rolled around, and the clocks began to sound, everything seemed normal once more.

clock2

Perhaps you share my sentiment that, when I’m not in the place I love, I love the place I’m in.  My family certainly looked forward to every succeeding trip or vacation spot we planned to visit, and always seemed to enjoy ourselves wherever we happened to be.  But, when it came time to head for home, we were never unhappy with that prospect, either.

Our daughters have been gone for several years, of course, off raising families of their own.  But they’ve continued the tradition of holidays together as often as possible.

For my wife and me, however, holidays are different now—more sedate, more pampered, and to more exotic destinations than in our earlier years—places like South Africa.  Although we miss the girls, we still love to get away.

Way back when, we had a nice little routine we’d go through as each journey neared its end.  One of us would start by remarking on the terrific time we’d all had, how much fun it was to be on holiday.  Someone else would comment on the wonderful weather, or the exciting activities we had shared.  Another might mention some of the memorable highlights of the trip now ending.

“Yeah, it was a great holiday,” somebody would eventually conclude, “but it sure is nice to be coming home.”

Later, perhaps at the supper table, or maybe when the girls were getting off to bed, one of us would look up and re-affirm it.

“Y’know, it’s good to be home!”

home

So, most recently, when all the plants were tended to, and all the clocks were wound, my wife and I settled in with a glass of wine.  No words were spoken, yet we understood how each other was feeling.  And by the time the clocks chimed ten, we were both fast asleep, exhilarated and exhausted by our wonderful adventures.

And most of all, happy to be home.