Friday, June 28, 2013

Birnam Wood

I led a Leave No Trace (LNT) course for some teenaged trail workers a few summers ago. LNT focuses its efforts on getting visitors to public lands to visit as lightly as possible. I started the course by handing out little plastic tags emblazoned with the 7 Principles of LNT. Smart-ass Kid #1 raised his hand, “Um…like, these are plastic and we’re supposed to be leaving no trace and like, protecting the environment, so why are you giving us these?”

I was glad the kid asked. It made segueing into my personal queasiness about this somewhat twisted view of environmentalism a lot easier. I would have felt dishonest not mentioning the double-standard of ethics inherent in that moment, and better to have the student ask the question than for me to wail on and on like a disgruntled harpy.

It bothers me that we continue to separate woods and not-woods worlds, and that we treat them so differently. I own an LNT instructional DVD (came wrapped in plastic), several LNT stickers, three training manuals and textbook type publications, and a pint glass—presumably to be used for drowning my sorrows at the entire trinketry connected with leaving no trace. I think that you can get water bottles, hats, t-shirts, fleeces, bumper stickers, and I don’t care to know what else, all emblazoned with the logo. And I’m all for protecting public lands. I’m just equal opportunity world protection. But it’s high time—as storms wash cartographic distinctions away, as boundaries are eroded—that we stop pretending that protection, that awareness can start and stop at the trailhead.

Despite everyone I know having a story of some hellacious trip to the woods, I still think that most of the people who go to the woods would agree that life is better there, or at least in a calmer, deeper key. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” wrote Thoreau. In part, I think that this is why anyone goes to the woods. Life outside the woods, if we let it, becomes a maze of expectations and requirements. It feels as if our lives and choices are no longer our own. And so, when we can, if we are the people who must, we throw a few things in a backpack and run away for the wild hills and hidden woods, for deserts and oceans and jungles and any place beyond the bounds of normal life.

Almost without exception, my dearest friends are people who have sought out and known wild places. I’ve lived with many of them in strange little pocket communities tucked in among mountains and valleys and lakeshores. I know that the wild places answer something deep within myself, and I suppose that I take on faith that anyone else in the wilds, in these communities, has something resonant at their core. I love these people faster because I suspect our hearts are forged similarly. Perhaps our hearts and souls do not always match exactly—and I know that the words I grasp at barely scratch the surface of what I’m out there for—but there is a sense of  “you and I, we are seeking and finding something similar out here in the wilds, beyond straight roads and power lines and day planners.”

What I find in wildness is the closest truth I know to what holiness might be. To have a sense that personal and sweet in common with a stranger is beautiful.

And so, I’m friendlier to people I meet on mountaintops than at subway stops because I think we’re similar. Also, perhaps, because I’m meeting them in a place and in a way where I am at my best. This isn’t to say that I fall in love with and befriend every stranger on every trail, or that I don’t have bad days in the woods, or that I suddenly become an angel around stunted balsam fir trees. But I am more likely to be kind in the woods. When I start to get peeved at strangers in the woods, it helps to remember that there is a sliver of commonality between them and me. And I hate them a little less, humor them a little more. (Mostly.)

When I worked on a mountaintop summer camp in the White Mountains, we read this Rene Daumal passage to campers before they descended to their non-camp lives. The words remain in my bones: “You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.”

It is the art of conducting oneself that gets me. I’ve been beyond lucky to have lived swaths of my life in wild places. I swear there is something better out there than pursuing the normal American Dream of dangerous and hollow consumption and the itching feeling of being controlled, and of never being or having enough.

But now, I have descended from my woods and wilds. I live in a city, although I doubt this is permanent. But, I am guided by the memory of what I’ve seen as possible, of what I have known, and I find pieces of that goodness here. I’d like to think that I put a little of that goodness into this world, too. Something as a balm against the often frustrating pursuit of cultural expectations, a wild force against the clutter and bad chaos and violence of the so-called civilized world.

In Macbeth, the three witches prophesize that Macbeth will rule Scotland until Great Birnam Wood comes to high Dunsinane Hill, where his castle sits. As forests are not noted for their mobility, Macbeth assumes he is invincible and becomes a despotic tyrant—the play is Shakespeare’s shortest and bloodiest. Heads are rolling left and right, chimneys toppling, horses screaming, women and children slaughtered, thunder, lightning, and Lady Macbeth loses her cookies over her part in bringing on the horror. Never mind Denmark, shit is rotten and bloody and crazy in Scotland.

The Thane of Ross has a great line, when the awesome Macduff asks how Scotland is faring: “Alas! poor country, Almost afraid to know itself.” So beaten down by the powerful that the country has almost forgotten its strength. The key, I think, is the word “almost.”

Because, a few lines later—after learning that Macbeth slew Lady Macduff and all the Macduff children—Macduff assembles an army and lead them up to Dunsinane Hill to kill Macbeth. Of course, as camouflage, the army will cut down and carry the trees of Birnam Wood before them.

To Macbeth, it looks as if the forest itself has revolted as the army swarms up the hill. The trees arrive, bloodshed ensues, and Macduff relieves Macbeth of his head.

Not a traditional ecological or world-saving text, I know. But, if we could learn to be how we are in the woods, out of the woods, I suspect that a lot of the pseudo-powerful forces that seem to control our lives outside the woods would start to fall.

And so, we must try to live more deliberately, to plan and prepare ourselves for what we may come across, to live with only what we need, to be aware of our surroundings and our resources, to take time to do nothing but seek our happiness, to be silent at times and to speak our minds at others, to see beauty, to be capable in and aware of our bodies and more self-reliant, and to be as kind to the strangers at the grocery store as we would be with the strangers on the ridges. Those who have been to the summits and descended, those who know the principles of living lightly on any landscape, those who have hidden their hearts away in the woods, now is the time to come forward and live those better ways that you know are possible. You might be happier, too. I hope so. The closer I pull my life here back to the themes of life in woods, the happier I am. That I know.

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