Many years ago, well before I could comprehend what I was looking at, the forests around me seemed ageless. I could superimpose dinosaurs roaming amongst the trees I couldn’t yet identify. I could feel the pull of an ancient world. These small tracts of land I walked through seemed like primeval relics of a world unchanged since the beginning of time – but you don’t know what you don’t know, until you do.
The full burden of knowledge can crush an unsuspecting student of life. The weight of truth can be unbearable – leaving the cowardly to cower in the corner, oblivious to the mirage we call reality. I was exposed little by little, slowly inoculated with the full breadth of the ecological damage we face.
My childhood was an urban existence. The street trees and derelict lots were my Yellowstone. Pigeons and rats were my wildlife. When I moved to the countryside an acre of trees felt unending. I fell in love with the idea of wilderness instantly. Like a Disney story, it was love at first sight. Only the sight, the love, was for something completely different than what I first thought. Now I look at those same tracts of land, those small chunks of wild surrounded by civilization and I see it as it is: a sad imposter to the wild spaces that once were, but also a glimmer of hope for the entire world.
This slow composting of facts and figures, direct observations, and life lessons have formed a deep humus layer of wisdom, learned over and over by countless seekers of truth over eons and human lifetimes. The greatest lesson we learn as observers of wild places is this: We see the world not as it is, but as we are.
That hard truth speaks to the blindness we all have in our own perceptions. I have observed with my own eyes the same tract of land for 20 years. I have watched as a wall of green turned into red maples, box elders and willows. I have seen marks in the soil transform into fox tracks and deer hooves. I have witnessed lichen spread centimeter by centimeter. I have studied with wonder as the girth of a small spindly sycamore sapling grew to an 8 inch diameter.
And through my observation and growing awareness, I have come to recognize the turning of the seasons by a smell on the wind. I have seen the invisible connections become visible. I have begun to understand the connection to space and time: the fertile soil built of limestone bedrock, which once was the bottom of a shallow tropical sea. I have identified the anachronisms in our forest – a lesson born of injury, like so many of life’s deepest lessons. Just as the Mastodon discovered the sharpness of the honey locust, I too, became aware of her power as blood spilled from my own pricked finger.
Lately I have begun to hear the forest, not in words or visions, or even a way I can describe, but a symphony of all I have seen and witnessed. I can hear faint whispers of what the earth is communicating. And with all I have seen, and can see today, it is the ghosts of what once was that haunts me the most. The layers of connections that have been severed are unfathomably complex, like a great spider web that connects all things to all other things.
What Was Lost
The crushing grief that comes with being haunted can either paralyze you into inaction or drive you to dig deeper: to listen harder, to pay attention to the minutiae. It has empowered me to listen to the land in new ways, to search for the missing pieces and become what was lost – the hands and claws, the hooves and paws that once roamed our forests in abundance.
We are facing multiple existential crises all at once: climate change, biodiversity loss and habitat destruction. The mere thought of things to come is enough to paralyze the most mentally sound. What can one human being do alone? What chance do we have of making a difference?
Then I remember this obscure fact: the small actions of millions of leaf cutter ants working in unison can cause disturbances in tropical forests, the size and scope of which only forest elephants can achieve. Small actions, one on top of another, like stacking bricks to build a wall, can become the foundation for another future we know is possible.
We often run headfirst into tomorrow, ignorant to the hard won lessons of our ancestors: the taste of fertile soils, the feel of your heart beating out of your chest as you run towards your wounded prey, the sound of chanting and dancing in a language born out of the landscape itself, the faith that every action is pulling upon that great web to which all other actions are connected.
I am reminded that small doesn’t mean insignificant. It just means our actions must be more precise. We must find our fulcrum points where our efforts make the most difference, where the culmination of your existence regenerates the landscape in which you reside. Being part of a place is not just blood or historical rights. It is a state of being – one where the ego is composted to feed the ecological systems we rely on for our very existence.
Consider starting small. Find a spot you can go everyday and sit. No agenda, no journals, no cellphone apps required – just sit and observe quietly. The power of this exercise is not in what you will see but what you will ask: “What is that? Who is singing that beautiful song? Where is the wind coming from? Why does the snow stay in this spot for longer? How does the squirrel climb so fast?
The power in questions is that they lead to more questions – and deeper observations. Until one day the invisible, the connections between the pieces, are as visible as the oak you rest your back on as you sit and watch the seasons change.
Another simple interaction is collecting refuse left in our wild spaces. Often a piece of litter can pull you out of a daydream. Like a text message it rips you away from a state of BEING into a state of thinking, planning, complaining. Simply by picking up trash, we can create a more beautiful world, where our minds can roam with the wild creatures around us.
So go forth into the cracks and crevices – leave the paths for the visitors. Wild creatures use the brambles for protection, they listen to the bird songs to warn them of danger and they dart quickly past the pavement – past the houses and manicured landscapes – into the unkempt. They listen to their gut and instinct as much as their senses. For in wild spaces the ego is destroyed. Slowly but surely, you will remember that you too are a part of the ecosystem – and in that, we come back home.
About the Author – Wilson Alvarez
Wilson Alvarez is a certified permaculture designer, inventor, gardener, skilled tracker, bowyer, nature-awareness instructor, and writer from Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
For the past fourteen years, he has taught classes and workshops on bio-intensive agriculture, regenerative technology, foraging, hunting, trapping, tracking, and wilderness survival. Wilson has studied through the Wilderness Awareness School via the Kamana program, and he received his Permaculture Design Certificate via Susquehanna Permaculture. Wilson currently serves as the Woodland Steward at the Horn Farm Center in York, PA where he is implementing his research on biomimicry through the Reintegration Project. Learn more about Wilson’s work.