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Illuminating the Hidden Forest, Chapter 21: The forest is a nomad

And perhaps that’s one of the problems with civilization. It unrests the soul.

To read the previous chapters of ‘Illuminating the Hidden Forest,’ click here.

Nov. 21, 2019

In the forest, life is on the move, coming from one state and going to another. I am reminded of our Peace Corps years in Burkina Faso, when we visited anthropologist friends who lived in a Fulani village on the edge of the Sahara. This was their “summer” village, occupied during the season when the rains fell, when they could grow some crops. During the “dry” season, they would move their cattle and families to another site. Although they moved between encampments, they had an orbit with fixed routes and stations.

‘Fulani Women at Market,’ watercolor by Carolyn Newberger

The forest yields endless revelations because its fixed routes (roots?) are within such broad parameters. Sure, there are the seasons, and biologic destiny, the soil and sun, rain and beetles, but within the boundaries of the possible, there seems to be not only endless variation, but also endless change. No two days are the same.

In the warmer seasons, I found mushrooms that were proud and fulsome one day and utterly collapsed the next, their entire visible lifespan spent in a few days. Yet others, such as my beloved chicken of the woods, emerge early, growing bigger and bigger, so that each day as I passed by, I would see new shelves pushing their way through friable wood. They can grow to 10 pounds, and as evidenced in my autumnal stews, freeze well.

As I think about the endless movement and variety of the forest, I wonder whether the new emphasis on forest bathing as a means to relieve stress and elevate immunity works at least in part because, wherever you look, there is variety. One’s eyes and mind curve endlessly through nooks and crannies, along 100-foot-long downed tree trunks with no straight lines but brimming with burls, fissures, snapped limbs and dustings of blue lichens. The forest floor is littered with stumps and twigs, old leaves and new growth, florescent mushroom buttons and large, loopy mushroom caps.

There are no sharp edges to stop the mind from wandering, variety to stimulate and explore, sounds to contemplate, and, in some places, water to soothe in the ways only water can soothe. In the forest we don’t see perfect circles, but the roundings and undulations of rock and stone, the tangle and jumble of leaves and sticks, the roughness of barks, the softness of mosses, the sharpness of pine needles softened by the contours of their branches.

I remember driving down a country road on a vacation years ago. As we looked to the right, we saw cows grazing in rolling pastures, woods in the distance, corn waving from their fields. And above we saw telephone lines. Those lines entered my eyes and hit my brain like a slap. The lines unrested my soul.

And perhaps that’s one of the problems with civilization. It unrests the soul.

As I think about it, civilization is about drawing lines. Our place in the world we live in is defined by boundaries, between your country and mine, your city and mine, your house and mine. Civilization is about taming variety with standardization. We standardize mud to create bricks, saw wood to create planks, forge metals to create rods, bars and sheets all with straight lines, sharp corners, perfect curves.

We lose the variety of nature for replicability, and all the benefits that replicability confers. But with those benefits come costs. If we enter and immerse ourselves in the forests from which we emerged at some time in our human pasts, we can recover a world in which our minds can wander, wonder, adapt and rest.


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