Books are paper ships. They take our minds places where our bodies will never go. I reread My Side of the Mountain as a little mental vacation and found that the path led right back to Druidry. A really good book will reveal something new every time you read it. I wasn’t expecting this, as a child I read this book so many times the cover practically fell off. I really thought I had gotten everything that was there from its pages long ago. Like so many other kids, I wanted more than anything to be Sam Gribley and run off to the woods. I was all about the mechanics back then. How do you make a fire with flint and steel? Will a fishhook made of twigs really catch a fish? I still eat blackberries, miners lettuce and the like out of my local wild places, but killing something for food was way too icky back then and I didn’t find a flint and steel and learn to use them till I was an adult.
Rereading it this time the connection with nature unfolded for me. Sam lets the forest guide him. The animals tell him when the snowstorms are coming, not in words, but by seeking shelter. By watching what they eat, he learns to find food. The trees provide a home for him:
“I looked at that tree. Somehow I knew it was home, but I was not quite sure how it was home. The limbs were high and not right for a tree house… Slowly I circled the great trunk. Halfway around the whole plan became perfectly obvious. To the west, between two of the flanges of the tree that spread out to be roots, was a cavity. The heart of the tree was rotting away. I scraped it out with my hands; old, rotten insect ridden dust came tumbling out. I dug on and on, using my ax from time to time as my excitement grew.”
Sam has that connection with the world that religion is supposed to provide, that some of us seek through Druidry. To him it is as natural as breathing, a part of life rather than a set of specific skills filed in the mind under “spirituality,” “religion,” or “connection.” He has no need to cast a circle or sit in meditation to get guidance from the natural world:
“I was singing and chopping and playing a game with a raccoon I had come to know. He had just crawled into a hollow tree and had gone to bed for the day when I came to the meadow. From time to time I would tap on his tree with my ax. He would hang his sleepy head out, snarl at me, close his eyes, and slide out of sight. The third time I did this, I knew something was happening in the forest. Instead of closing his eyes, he pricked up his ears and his face became drawn and tense. His eyes were focused on something down the mountain. I stood up and looked. I could see nothing.”
The world will indeed talk to us if we listen. Specific exercises are only one person’s attempt to show us how to create an experience like Sam’s with the raccoon, to teach us one way of listening. The story is all around us. The aspens showed me how they would gladly create a forest on the Laney College campus last Saturday night. I stopped to say hi on my way home, and to tell them how glad I was they were there. I fear they won’t be soon, the college seems to be systematically chopping them down, small grove by small grove. I am enjoying them while they’re here and the experience is all the more precious to me knowing how suddenly they may be gone. I had just spent a moment with my hands buried in the leaves, eyes closed, watching them flicker in my mind as the wind blew softly around us. I turned to look at the estuary before us, and saw the tree’s clones, lining up before it, marching slowly down towards the water. The brackish water would stop them when they got there, as would the concrete and steel of the buildings behind me. If left to themselves, though, they would gladly fill the space between, until the wide streets stopped them. In time, though, if left to themselves, they would even crack through the concrete and asphalt.
Was that vision a spiritual experience? I could certainly file it mentally that way, if I chose. But it’s just the way the world is. What the trees told me is the very definition of “invasive species,” and that is undoubtedly why the College, who planted those trees in the first place, is taking them out slowly. Methinks it’s a case of the pot calling the kettle black, because if we humans aren’t “invasive” I don’t know what is. I thanked the trees, wished them well, but with a little trepidation. I realized that I’d done the same thing with the trees along the bank next to the road, and now they were stumps. Last December when I discovered them cut, I wrote this poem:
With my eyes I see only sky.
Where branches were lacelike there are only stars.
Chain link lies trailing in the dark water.
But the tide flows out, necklaces of ripples shine silver.
A night heron glides low, silent, then gone to my eyes.
We stand together in the dark, the peace of the ghostly grove an echo of what was.
Those stumps are now clusters of shoots, many as tall as I am. They say very little to me now, they’re far too busy with the work of growing. It is almost as if they were knocked back to babyhood, rediscovering their fingers and toes and stretching towards the sun. I didn’t realize, until I stood with the mature grove that evening just how much I had missed what amounts to conversation with adults. It’s completely different, but essentially the same. The questions I asked last year are being answered, as if the campus aspens are one being, which leads me back to Gaia, and the fact that we truly are one organism. The conversation is far too big to write down, and stretches backwards in time, and far into the future. Long after I am gone it will still be going on. Off somewhere on the sidelines is the thoughtlessness of the college, planting trees as if they were ornaments, cutting them to stumps when it suits them, leaving those stumps to grow again. The chainsaw and the grounds staff have the armaments to win this battle easily, but the aspens may well win because time and the inexorable energy of life is on their “side.” Battle is only joined on one side because the aspens have more sense than they do.
What really struck me about “My Side of the Mountain” this time was how similar Sam’s conversations with his forest are to mine with my urban forest. The longer he spends on the land, the quieter he gets, the more he hears. In my forest, at first I heard nothing, or so I thought. I have come to realize that our conversations span years. Trees really do live on a totally different timescale. Consciousness is similar, on a deeper level it is one, but its expression is unique to each individual. The trees are gone, but the roots remain. One aspect of Druidry for me is to get at those roots, whether it be the aspens, a story written in a book, or the heart of a song. All any of us have to do is say hello, ask a question, and listen for the answer.