Angry Land

by Patricia, August 2006

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I'm not ready to be wild, or even feral. I am no longer certain that I even want to be. Some of that is likely a product of my being well domesticated -- at least in terms of physical skills and comfort. I can't forage wild plants without a field guide, and I can't read animal tracks or tan hides or make fire without matches, and I prefer a warm sleeping bag and a bug-proof tent to a debris hut. But I can pee in the woods and it doesn't bother me to find a field mouse chewing on my home-baked sourdough bread in the middle of the night. In terms of my own awareness and connection to what remains of The Wild, I can still hear the tune -- even on my city sidewalk.

I was born this way, and I'm not alone. This feeling of connectedness was always strong in me as a child. Between the ages of 9 and 13, I would intentionally do my best to get lost when I snuck out to spend long school-free days in the undeveloped forest that lay beyond the dead-end of our lower middle-class housing plan. I used to dream about how I could sneak some supplies out of the house and just disappear someplace in those woods. I sat in the trees, letting the bugs crawl on my arms, watching the birds and other animals, listening to the wind with my heart, and smelling the sky for rain. As dusk would approach, I would think about how far I might be able to just Walk Out without leaving the shelter of those trees.

Those childhood wanderings are far behind me now. It's been years since I've trailed after my father on a deer hunt, swum in a river, or gone packing a tent into the Alleghenies or the Badlands. For ten months of the year I spend 40 or more hours a week in the campus library, behind a computer or in front of a class. I ride the bus to work, I live in an apartment, and my food comes from the local co-op, or from my father's ordinary working class efforts at gardening and hunting and fishing.

I'm lucky, though, because my city is plainly only a thin veneer of pavement and buildings tacked down atop The Land. Even on the edge of downtown Pittsburgh, I can look out across the rivers at sunset on a June evening, listening to the cicadas, and almost see this place as the local tribes might have seen it in 1491. I can see enough to imagine the original great forests that once stretched from one coast to the other.

The forests we have are not the first trees -- there are introduced species, and blights have largely removed the old American Chestnuts. But they are mature forest systems, maples and oaks that grow now because in the early 1900's there were humans who chose to set the space aside, to clean up the mess that previous generations had left. Humans chose to devote care and effort towards restoration, towards healing, to clean up the watersheds, to let the animal populations rebuild their numbers. When I walk in these woods, I do not feel suspicion or hatred. I feel safe.

When I made my plans to visit Ran in eastern Washington in July, and to help him with projects on his land, I did not yet understand what the land would be like. Sure, I knew it had been "logged" and there were some things called "slash piles" there, but I'm afraid those words meant nothing to me. In western Pennsylvania, we all know what "mining" means -- oily, poisoned waters and huge piles of dead dirt, mine-waste and rock, sink-holes, smokes, and fires underground that will burn long after the fires of industry are extinguished. It means spindly old men dying of black lung in rotting company-town row houses.

If Ran had been working with land in mining country, I would have known what that meant, and I would have been journeying already with sorrow in my heart, and steeled for what I might encounter. Ran's land is in logging country, but he had sent such lovely pictures. How bad could it be? I was eager to meet the chipmunks, and I was wondering if there would be trees I could climb.

I arrived in the Spokane airport with songs and sketch-books, not with work-gloves. I had visions of the stars at night and the voices of coyotes, not the images of trees half knocked down and the echoes of chainsaws.

Once upon a time, Ran's land would have looked like this picture of the Colville national forest, "the largest growth of virgin forest left in eastern Washington: western red cedar, western hemlock, Douglas fir, grand fir, larch." (source)

On my first trip up to the land with Ran, this is more or less what I saw:

Those photos were taken after Ran did a ton of work to clean things up. The two greener ones were taken in June, and I visited from mid-July to mid-August. In eastern Washington it apparently no longer rains at all between sometime in June and sometime in September. Things were dry when I got there, and they only got drier over the next six weeks. On one of his hills (and it's all hills) there are hardy native plants dried up from lack of rain, and also because the loggers (and the loggers before them) took so much shade along with that prime "timber." If new trees grow large, the humans return and take them as well. What they leave behind are piles and piles of dead branches and debris, disturbed soil open to erosion, and young plants left exposed to the ravages of all-day sun on 101 degree days, when there is no rain for months. Soil gives way to sand, and, eventually perhaps, to desert.

And what does the land feel after so many decades of abuse? This is not the kind of land that's likely to great human visitors, no matter how well-intentioned, with joy in its heart. It does not say "Welcome home, feral human! We missed you!" This land is suspicious. This land wants nothing to do with us. This land is angry land, and it does not want sympathy and tears.

Ran's land welcomed me by presenting me with a forgotten childhood fear -- torment from yellow-jackets and hornets. This was followed by a tick bite and an irrational fear of poisonous spiders, and a return of allergies I've not experienced since they cleaned up some of the coal smoke and chemicals from my home skies decades ago. The perfect Zen teacher, this land said clearly to me that I was not ready, I was overconfident and filled with Ego. As I pushed my way through that, I caught a glimpse of the real lesson: it's not about me at all.

You do not come to this land expecting to be healed by it. You come to this kind of land bringing healing in your own two hands as a free offering, or at the very least, a humble spirit and no expectation of being given gifts or rewards or gratefulness for your time and trouble.

I did my best to help. It wasn't much. I helped with some work on the spring pond, and I carried some tools and supplies, and I tried to be decent company. I did a little clearing, and helped set up a camp site. I learned to see and smell the difference between the surviving cedars and firs and pines. I gave some of my drinking water to the oldest surviving trees we could visit, and left offerings of nuts for the chipmunks. I hope the land accepted these gestures in the spirit in which I intended them, but they are little more than a symbolic apology for my weakness, my inability to take the work in hand and truly help. I'm not weak, I'm not unfit, and I'm not afraid to get dirty... but I am not the woman I thought I was. Even on the last day, I found it spiritually easier to pack the tools and supplies back out to the car, than it was to walk in, and sometimes, walking along the watering routes, I could almost feel an invisible barrier, like pushing through sand.

Even without Ran's efforts, his land is healing itself. A small army of weedy plants are taking root, even in the slash piles. There are baby trees which may well survive, and still plenty of young adult trees which appear fairly healthy. There are mushrooms and lichens and mosses. There are chipmunks and squirrels and mice, turkey and deer and elk and moose, and coyotes. There are butterflies, flowerflies, bees, great numbers of gorgeous dragonflies, and a number of varieties of ants. Even in drought conditions, wild herbs are flowering, and wild bushes are producing berries.

We refugees from empire may need the land if we are to survive, but the land does not need us. Fire and desert are normal for many forms of life, if not for post-industrial humans. Even if we had all the practical and emotional and spiritual skills needed for living wild, there isn't much land now that would be ready for us. On this continent, my people came to the land to take. If any of us expect to go back to it now, we'd best be prepared to give. Whatever comes next, for both humans and the land, will be the result of a partnership. We must go as healers, terraformers on our own planet.

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