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.
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.
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.
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.