The Monastery of The Forest


On the wooded slopes of Burnaby Hill, it took patience and and a studied diligence to find flat ground to pitch a tent. The forest floor lay thick and soft, with uncounted decades of fir needles and moss. No one had observed it grow or fall, let alone put the effort into clearing it. But I needed flat ground to sleep well, and a solid place to start a safe fire, away from the curious misinterpreters of my wilderness seclusion. So I cleared and pitched and cooked and slept, and stayed for several semesters of graduate school; a short hike, but a long way from the humanity of my formal schooling.

There was a time when “Fortier” meant “The One Who Comes from the Forest”. For me, there was a time when Fortier Family wilderness camping, meandering through the woods on my way home from school, and weeklong trail hiking was not enough. I was drawn to the woods. And for a time, I lived and found myself there.

In the seventies, the forest marched right up to the edge of Greater Vancouver; that civilized clearing which has now become a sprawling metropolis. Surrounded by mist and mountains, and pervasive dampness from the sky and the intervening evergreens, it was the last vestiges of this same forest that mentored me more than any of my professors. This woodland monastery encouraged an inwardness that was as seamless and varied as the rain itself. But it, itself, was not so inward as I. Its mysteries could be uncovered, with diligence. Mine would take time.  I was immersed, but I stayed dry. I didn’t realize then that what I was beginning to see was a clearer sky than the forest would ever grow old enough to know… Nor could it. I began to make and maintain a clearing for myself; An even more secluded sanctuary.

I was as far from being “at home” in the forest as were the dorm students with whom I studied, or the undergrads whom I taught. My food, I bought in town, or grew in the university gardens. My clothing, pots and pans, tent and sleeping bag and flashlight were all foreign to the forest. I brought my academic studies and my contemplation into a place where this kind of light had never shone before. I also brought with me my very human need for durability, for continuity, for a sense of eternity. The forest knew nothing but growth and transformation. But it taught far more. 

The day I broke camp, I looked back, for the last time, at the imprint of my presence on this forest clearing. (Or was it the first time?) I put down my pack and stood it against the tree I had habitually used for this very purpose. It had become, for me, “The Backpack Tree”. Like everything else there, I had mentally tagged it for personal use, or had gotten rid of it. The campsite had become almost denuded of moss and needles. It had a well-worn path to the stream, on which I had laid stepping stones to keep my feet dry and protect the exposed earth from erosion. In and around the fire pit, nothing grew, nor would it grow again for some time. My tent site was grey and barren. My path out was unnaturally clear of brush and overhead branches.

This was my impact. As frugal as I had been, I had left an enduring footprint that was unmistakably human. Without me, the forest would eventually erase most of my handy work. But not all. Some would outlast the forest. My practical intentions in rock and stone were left as speculative fodder for future archeologists. The forest would never understand, nor remember.

But I would. And upon 38 years of reflection, that understanding is deeper, and the memory has been honed to its essentials. As human beings, we seek what lasts, unchanged and unchanging; the Essential that unites our Selves and all of Nature. If we focus that spiritual impulse on the material world, it denudes and deadens it.  

Unconsciously and by habit or necessity, we denude our immediate environment of anything that might interfere with our intentions. We are unaware that it is the human inner life that we are projecting on nature. Nothing in nature is meant to last. Even the stepping stones will crumble and be melted in time. We want more than our paths to be durable, our spaces to be cleared of clutter. We yearn to find steadfast footing on our journey and to unclutter our own souls. 

I was appalled that I had left such a moss-less scar in the otherwise verdant Canadian woods. Much of my next few decades of life were spent trying to find ways to understand and bring healing to the natural world; to compensate for the damage we inevitably or inconsiderately do to Nature.

But time has marched on since those years in the forest primeval, and the seedlings that were nurtured there in my soul have grown taller, in ways, than any of those towering trees. I can see beyond them finally. And I see that neither clearing nor creation, neither great works nor great ruination will remain in the end. Nothing we build in stone or scar into the face of Nature will really endure the March of Time. We can only speed up or slow down the impact of the Human Journey on the Greater World Journey.

Ultimately, all that will remain is the fact that we have done what we have done; that we have grown through doing and undoing; that the wisdom, love and power behind this evanescence Natual World has transformed us, and has been transformed in us, into our own wisdom, love and creative power. Every thing! Everything! else will be taken up again.

To grow with the Forest, we need to grasp and hold onto thoughts and understandings it sparks, not the material focus which kindled these more human fires in us. We need to take the transient experiences and turn them, by reflection, into enduring wisdom and profound love. Then we must turn this love and wisdom back into the healing practices that bring the better aspects of our growing humanity into a sustainable relationship, for a time, with the rest of The Forest.

Fine rain filters through foliage and fern, wetting, connecting everything and making even the green air alive. It is the sound of continuing. It becomes the silence of growth. It unites the soul with the secrets of the forest.

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