A Feral Palmistry

River otter tracks, webbed and clawed, five-toed and perfect. Beside them, a great upheaval of sand where, at dawn, the silky-dark family of five rolled and tumbled and slid back down again into the lagoon. The mind’s eye sees this, a knot of water-wet bodies, those wise black snouts. But my first instinct is always to reach down with my own hand and lay a pad in a pad, a fingerprint in the print of a metacarpal the shape of some curved island. A teacher once told me that deeply skilled trackers, like the San Bushmen of the Kalahari, can place a finger in a track, or cup the hand just above, hovering as if over a living flower too beautiful to touch, and in a flush that I imagine like rain coming, see the animal who made the track and where it went, how it moved, where it is now, in that eye of the mind where dreams and stories are also made.

I can’t see with any certainty the river otter who made these tracks, or the coyote who made others as she side-trotted down the muddy trail just up from Wildcat Creek at dawn. I do know that when I cup my hand above those pawprints like they are alive and holy, my hand hums. Once or twice I have, for all of three seconds (and apparently ‘now’ — or maintenant, literally ‘time-at-hand in French(i) — lasts for three seconds in the human mind) felt my whole mind become coyote, shaggy and trotting at dawn, body a lithe taut joyous thing, the whole world a web of smells so sweet and rich and rank and big they filled as much of my senses as sight. It’s a flash, a breath, a story I’ve made from my hand to my head, then gone. And always coyote. He has an interest in humans that the other animals don’t in the old indigenous tales of this land — Coast Miwok, Ohlone, Pomo, depending on where you are. Creator of the world from the tops of various local peaks (Mt. Diablo, Mt. St. Helena); fire-bringer; maker of death. Maybe he’s curious about this five-fingered, deadly-dexterous, beautiful hand, and so the story of his morning sniffs nearer than the river otter’s, the newt’s, the white-crowned sparrow’s.

The human hand has more neural innervation than any other part of the body save the lips and tongue, where our speaking and our loving and our tasting come from. Lips and hands give caresses, carrying the story of love or healing between two bodies. Lips and tongue taste and take in the lives of others — plant, animal — that sustain us as food. There’s a reason, when you see something beautiful that lifts your heart to your throat and lurches it sideways, that you reach out your hand to touch: orange poppies in full bloom in sunlight, shimmering suppler than any silk. Maybe your nose follows, to test the smell, to get dusted with pollen. Somehow, having your hands near or touching those petals brings the bloom in, as if your heart had done it. Reaching out with a foot, or an elbow, or even your lips wouldn’t be the same. The hands, cupping, seem to understand, as if in the touch they are imagining the whole creation of that flower, in whatever humble or rash way they can manage. Because this is what hands do, at their best: they make. They play creator, like Coyote at the top of Mt. Diablo crafting humans from feathers and land from mats of tule.

Our hands are muscled and shaped the way they are for and from the crafting of tools, and then the crafting of other things with those tools — arrowhead, awl, basket, bead, shoe, cape, hat, pot, flute. And on, and on. You know where this may lead — has lead, does lead. When I see a little Bewick’s wren rasping her tinny voice above me in the grape vines, distressed about a cat near her nest, her underbelly and tail feathers an intricate banding of brown and white, my hands itch a little, not to catch her, but with wonder, imagining that small wren in my palm. How light, how quick, the prick of her claws and the warm ferocity of her feathers. Somehow, I can’t imagine knowing her intimately without touch — taking into my body the story of hers. Neural innervation: the nerves in the hands making stories for the mind (and, I would add, the heart too, for we have many neurons there as well).

Viscerally, all of this makes me understand, inside my gut — that root place where the world very literally becomes me — something of the emotional gist of the utterly stunning handprints that accompany the Palaeolithic cave paintings of horse and reindeer, lion and auroch, in such caverns as the French Pech-Merle and Chauvet. The first time I saw an image of the multitude of handprints at Chauvet — ochre red — I felt a thrumming chill through my whole body. I wanted to weep. I felt like the breath had been taken out of me.

Those handprints reach out like ghosts, exactly the same as your own would look if you dipped them in ochre-red paint and placed them side-by-side: 30,000 years luminous between your palms, and theirs. In Pech-Merle, the handprints, thought to belong to adult women or boys due to their size, undulate around the bodies of gloriously speckled horses. Those handprints are like signatures, saying — I (or we) created these creatures on the womb-walls of this cave. But deeper yet, the hands reach out, riding the wild gallop of those hooves, dancing in a kind of palmed frenzy. They get to join with the Being of a horse by making it in cinder and ochre red. Something of the shape shifting of ancient animistic shamanism is at work in this union of hand and horse, hand and cave-wall, hand over coyote track, hand itching to feel the tender wonder of a Bewick’s wren landing there, on the skin.

We tend to imagine the Palaeolithic people who worshipped and sang and painted in these caves as so different from ourselves that they are barely relatable or comprehensible: men and women in furs and skins with stone tools and nomad ways, saber-toothed cats in their dreams and life-spans we scoff at. And yet, and yet, I see those handprints and I see a longing that has not left us. I see a longing that has become tempered or misshapen by sadness, by a story of exile, but the same — held up in praise, in awe, to touch the mystery of the wild beings so like us, and yet not us at all. Held out because in touching we make, we love, and we kill, and how can we know all three, and not carry a sorrowed praise through all of our days?

spotted_horses_and_human_hand-141155A2CE568937286

Our hands made our minds what they are. It is the hand that separated us from the rest of animal-kind, in the sense that it allowed us to eventually step out of the natural processes of evolution and natural selection. It allowed us to make, yes — and so beautifully — but it has also allowed us to take as much as we want, at least to a point. We have yet to reach that point, but we are near, and we know already the kinds of devastation — myriad as the kinds of song — that we can wreak. It is the hand that makes us different (not better, lord no, for in it is our own undoing, and the world’s). Yet it is also the hand that reaches out in the cave paintings of Pech-Merle to make a bridge between human and horse; my own hand reaching down to bridge woman and coyote.

Superficially, our hands don’t look very different from a chimp’s. But beneath the outer structure, our hands are muscled — especially our thumbs, which rotate in a complete circle in their sockets, able to make precise, firm contact with each finger-pad — and innervated in ways that are utterly unique. The combination of flexibility, strength and precision in our grip, our palms, our forearms and our fingertips, is so complicated that it instigated a total overhaul, or re-working, of a large part of our mammal brains in order to make it all work. The nervous system had to change dramatically in order to respond to each new need and action of the hand — from the overhand throw of a rock to the flint-knapping of an obsidian blade to the incredibly difficult and precise act of threading a fishbone needle. Or, more literally, they evolved together — hand, nervous system, brain.

The bones, muscles and tendons of the hand, c.1510, by Leonardo da Vinci. The Royal Collection (c) 2012, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Neurologists such as Frank R. Wilson, author of The Hand, asserts that tool-making came first, and after it, or from it, our own particular brand of spoken language. He claims that ‘evolution has created in the human brain an organ powerfully predisposed to generate rules that treat nouns as if they were stones and verbs as if they were levers or pulleys. […] We humans are instructed (or constrained) by our genes to build sentences the way we build huts and villages. (ii) Just as the making of a tool has steps — a beginning, a middle and an end and then the anticipated use that has nothing to do with the present moment but an imagined future, or even an imagined array of futures — our minds likewise took form around this growing sense (or feel) for sequentiality.

In other words, as our hands became unusually skilled and deft at making tools, clothes, then objects of ritual beauty and adornment, our minds started making things too — stories. They started making narratives, sequences of events that told us who we were, that attempted to explain the inexplicable all around us. Being makers-with-hands, we want to know how everything else is made, and functions, especially that most inexplicable thing of all at the far end of the sequence: carve, polish, lash, aim, throw right into the heart of a deer. Death. Our making hands made our making minds, not the other way around, and our knowledge of the workings (think tools) of the world all around us, our own bodies and lives and deaths, made us the beautiful and terrible creatures that we are.

I could go on with this topic in a pinwheel of directions, each spoke offering a new thicket of connection. How we speak of mental understanding as grasping, getting a feel for, getting a grip. How, as babies, we learn to speak simultaneously as we learn how to manipulate objects with our hands; or, as Wilson writes, ‘playing with anything to make something is always paralleled in cognition by the creation of a story.’ (iii) How palms have been read for thousands of years as somehow containing the story or map of a person’s life. How many healing traditions have centred around the power of the hand, as in the story of the Greek god Asclepius (whose statues were later made with gold hands to represent the healing power of his touch) or the ancient Japanese practice of Reiki. But my mind — and my writing hand, as it were — lingers with the way a skilled palm can read the story of an animal track, the way 30,000-year-old handprints beside the roiling backs of wild horses make my own palms hum. I am caught by the idea of the hand as a bridge as much as it is also a scissor, severing us. And I am above all, as a writer and a maker of myth-inspired, ecologically-rooted tales, waylaid by the idea that stories might actually, in some sense, reside in — or come through — the fingers and hand as much as they do the mind.

I have long known that something very particular and very important happens for me when I make use of those very fine human motor skills needed to delicately wield a pen — a grip and an action very similar to the threading a needle and sewing: embroidering a tale, spinning a yarn — and put it to paper. I cannot write fiction on the computer at all, unless I am already so fully in the flow of the story that it has unfurled far, far down the path of my imagination. Something is loosened, or triggered, or whatever it may be, in my mind when my fingers grasp the pen and the ink flows across the page. I’m no good at all at telling a tale aloud, probably in part because some circuit, luminous in my heart as any moon, has been made in me (since age seven or so) between index, thumb, pen, and mind, so that the story comes out best when those muscles are activated, and my eyes can read the words like coyote tracks across the page as I go. When I’ve seen truly brilliant storytellers spin their tales aloud, such as the wild and wonderful Martin Shaw, their hands move with their words, mesmerising, perhaps helping to coax those syllables out of the air and firesmoke, the wingbeats of passing pelicans. A story told aloud without the dance of the hands is hard to imagine; the hands can’t help themselves. They want to make that tale too, be it wooden spoon or fairy-tale.

my hand

There’s a story that holds all of this in its palms. It’s a story so old and so unshakeable that it can be found from Japan to South Africa, from Hungary to Egypt to England: The Handless Maiden. A young woman’s hands (or arms) are cut off by her incestuous father, or the Devil, or an evil brother. Handless, she wanders the woods and becomes a wild thing herself, tended by does, eating as they do by reaching out for food with only her teeth. She steals pears from the orchard of a king in the Hungarian version I know best. The king falls in love with the handless maiden; marries her; makes her silver hands. They are happy for a time, but a war breaks out and the king must leave. Alone, the handless maiden gives birth to a child, and all seems well until the Devil meddles again, tricking both king and then queen-mother so that the handless maiden is cast out once more, alone in the woods again, this time with a baby at her breast. As she wanders, and eventually finds refuge with wood-folk (or underworld folk, or desert folk; wherever the tale might be set, these are the folk of the wild ways, in my mind, the folk who know the many-tongued language of the living land), her hands grow back like two fruits, like the stalks of evening primrose, from bud to bloom, re-storied. The king, at the end of those seven years, having sought her for just as long, and become himself a bearded wild-man, finds her and the child at last. All of them transformed.

monkey flower

Some say the loss of the woman’s hands is about patriarchal control and oppression, the feeling of one’s ‘hands being tied’, of powerlessness in body and mind, that their loss ‘represent[s] a feminine being-in-the world that is psychically so bedeviled by the patriarchal attitude that the emblematic hands of self-expression are rendered passive.’ (iv) All of this may be true—stories in the mythic tradition have room for countless meanings. Yet I believe there is another, older layer of resonance here. I agree with Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés that this is a very ancient story of female initiation, a story whose roots find themselves in the goddess cultures of the early Neolithic. But I will take a creative, mythic leap and hazard to push the origins of this story back even further, into the 40,000-year depths of the Palaeolithic, because I see her, the girl without hands, in the handprints on the walls of Pech-Merle.

In its initiatory significance, I believe that this story is about coming into right relationship with the more-than-human, with the wild land, the creatures whose lives we take in hunting, in gathering berries and nuts and medicines (in fingers, in palms, in baskets). The story is about a falling-out of that relationship, and then a healing, a regrowing, a rebalancing, all situated in the hands. Something goes sour in the human community: fathers desire their daughters, or bargain away their daughters’ hands for riches offered by a Devilish stranger. And yet, when the girl loses her hands there is this echo of the shaman who is dismembered by wolves or other animals in the initiation stories and visions of animistic peoples the world over. Dismembered by animals, one is restitched with a wild needle. Hands lost, the handless maiden is at last somehow only animal again. Her arms become weight-bearing limbs, no more, like a coyote’s front paws — maybe used to bat down pears from trees, but not capable of grasping.

Without her hands, does her mind start to change in the way it experiences the world? What might a girl become, inside, without her hands? Does she become more doe, more hare, and the world too? As Estés writes, ‘it is not by accident that the one-eyed, the lame, those with withered limbs or other physical differences have, throughout time, been sought out as possessing a special knowing. Their injury or indifference forces them early on into parts of the psyche normally reserved for the very, very old.’ (v) What part of the mind-spirit grows differently in the maiden, without her hands? How is the mind re-storied, or rather un-storied, without the hands to read and make, to sow and take, the hands which have a nasty habit of laying claim and ownership over that which cannot be owned? A silver pair, no matter how lovingly made, no matter how ingenious the maker, will not solve the problem. The woman must regrow, not remake — like a plant and not a human — her ten fingers, her two palms, in the company of deer, and woods, and strange folk who dwell at the edges, mediating the boundary between human and ‘more-than-human’, as David Abram likes to say. Those two new hands have been tempered in the fire of the great, fecund mysteries of the wild land, the world of wren and fox and lizard, bee and herb and oak and dirt and sky. Those hands are the hands that know how to paint shifting lionesses and antlered reindeer on the womb-walls of caves, leaving palm-prints like proof of a pact of honoring, of right balance, of humility. The handless maiden’s new hands have a whole new set of fingerprints, wildly re-mapped, and you bet she can cup her palm over a coyote track and see the whole story.

lizard

Please don’t misunderstand me — I am not out to make the literal dismemberment of hands or any human body parts a good thing; I write here in mythic and metaphoric terms, in the language of myth-time, from the land of imagining, the place in the mind that dreams, and stories, and sees the life of a coyote unfurl from a single track. I’m saying that our collective hands have become devilish, terrifying, dangerous; that these hands, made by this world, need to be done away with. The hand of this culture which has lost its wild-knowing palm, which has not been tempered in the mud and deer blood and pure creek-water of reciprocity and humility before the land which is our mother — that’s the hand the Devil has soiled, the hand that needs to go under the blade of the axe. But the handless maiden does not remain handless. We are what we are. Whatever animal wisdom she may gain from wandering the woods without ten fingers, two palms, she is no elk. We are not elk, nor lion, nor horse. We are human, which means we are handed, which means we are full of story. At our best, we temper ourselves, our hands, in service to the balance of the greater ecosystem. At our worst, we are capable of destroying every living thing in our path, as if every being save ourselves (and much of our own kind to boot) were the same as an object we might take or throw away indiscriminately.

A lot of attention has been paid The Handless Maiden story in Jungian circles for the past several decades. Like I said, there’s no doubt about it — The Handless Maiden certainly has a lot of psychological resonance to it, a wonderfully feral example of the female ‘Hero’s Journey’ cycle. But I wonder if it’s still with us (certainly stories hang around for a reason) because it is also about our relationships outside of ourselves, with the more-than-human, with the wren, the orange poppy, the elk, the polluted creek and the warming air. Maybe nothing can really and fully be resolved or healed inside, until the way we handle the wild world in which we live is healed first. ‘To many indigenous people, there is not an ‘inner’ that does not include starlings, tundra and antelope—[…] intellectual retreat is part of the problem. It is making us crazy,’ (vi) writes myth-teller Martin Shaw. Our psyche lives not inside of us but inside the psyche of the whole land. And if our hands somehow have something to do with the shaping of these minds of ours, wherever they dwell, what does it mean (in this culture) that their repertoire of uses is rapidly narrowing around the screen and the keyboard, as machines of all varieties increasingly replace human hands in other endeavors? What stories are we absorbing, and patterning inside of ourselves, this way?

What would happen, on the other hand (pun entirely unavoidable), if we touched the tracks of animals, the petals of poppies, the bark of trees, every day, just for a moment? What would happen if, no matter your day-job, you kept your fingers busy with poems, with sketches, with the strings of instruments and the handles of garden spades? Even though we don’t ‘need’ to weave our own baskets, spin our own yarn, sew our own pants, whittle our own spoons, tan our own buckskins, string our own bows (well, we may very well need to know of all this, and soon, depending on your faith in the current model…) maybe our minds desperately do need us to carry on with the physical tasks that shaped them anyway, for our own sanity, for the sanity of the land wherein our psyches dwell. And so long as those spinning, carving, story-telling fingers pause every day to reach out in the act of caressing and holding something wild — fir bark, rain, earth worm, thistle-down, otter-track, Beloved — maybe we can begin to regrow our hands. Maybe they will come back full of a new story about what it means to be human in a world that is not, and never was, ours to grasp.
It is ours, however, to story, to sing, to praise, palms ocher-red with longing on the cave-walls where wild horses run.

coyote and fingers

(i) Jay Griffiths, A Sideways Look at Time (New York: Penguin, 2004),34.
(ii) 
Frank R. Wilson, The Hand (New York: Pantheon Books, 1998),169.
(iii) Wilson, The Hand, 195.
(iv) 
Ami Ronnberg, ed., The Book of Symbols, (Cologne, Germany: TASCHEN, 2010), 380.
(v) 
Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women Who Run with the Wolves, (New York: Ballatine Books, 1992), 427.
(vi) 
Martin Shaw, Snowy Tower: Parzival and the Wet, Black Branch of Language (Ashland, Oregon: White Cloud Press, 2014), 34.

 

Deep Time: Finding Old Tjikko

We care about trees. A few years ago there was some controversy about the decision to cut down a 600-year-old oak in central Stockholm. Vigils were held, demonstrations organised and the tree became quite the news item. It helped, of course, that it was located just outside the headquarters of Swedish Broadcasting. Protests were to little avail however and the oak was cut down and hauled off an early November morning. In the local newspaper today there is another tree that has stirred up emotions — a black poplar wedged between a public school and a 19th-century army building converted into daycare and high-end design studio. I go and have a look at the tree and run into two officials from the real-estate company that owns the lot the tree sits on. Curious fourth-graders peer out their classroom window, and presently we are joined by a small entourage of children, whose first words to us adults are: Don’t cut down our tree!

Trees evoke an emotional response in us city-dwellers, particularly when they are being threatened. A lot of this has to do with a perception of time and permanence. Most trees in the domesticated context of a city tend to outlive the human inhabitants; thus providing a physical point of reference which not only bears witness to changing seasons, but also at the same time stands for something fixed and stable in a dynamic environment. But there is something else at work here, something that goes beyond notions of sentiment and nostalgia, a more deeply rooted yearning which feels violated when a certain familiar tree is cut down. The reaction of the fourth-graders suggests as much when they perceived a threat to ‘their’ tree.

I got interested in the longevity of certain trees, and decided to embark on a project with the aim of finding out what made them and their contexts so special. The perspective on time and change provided by the 600-year old oak made me look at extremely long-lived trees; some of them several thousands of years old and still counting. Few living things, or for that matter artefacts, have survived that long. How have these trees endured throughout the ages, and how could they inform a discussion about sustainability and resilience?

My first stop is Old Tjikko, held to be the oldest living individual clonal tree in the world. There is plenty of information on the internet about the specimen. It was discovered in 2004 by Leif Kullman and Lisa Öberg. They were conducting a study of the effects of climate change on alpine and subalpine areas in northern Sweden when they identified Old Tjikko and Old Rasmus, two spruces well above the visible tree line on the Fulufjället mountain in Dalarna. The trunks of these trees have emerged from a shrub-like existence sometime during the 20th century as a response to warmer conditions, but the roots of the specimens have been found to be some 9,500 years old, using radiocarbon dating. On a geological time scale, this means that Old Tjikko has been around since the end of the last ice age, setting up shop as soon as the ice sheet disappeared.

When I start calling around to make practical arrangements I am not exactly stonewalled, but certainly given a lot of vague answers with regards to the exact location of Old Tjikko. An official at the local County Administrative Board tells me that yes, I can go and see the tree, but I should not take any photos that would reveal the exact location and not disclose how to get there. I explain that I am an artist, that I am doing this as an art project with an environmental slant, and that I have no intention to harm the tree, but that I need to find out more specifics about the route in order to plan my excursion. She concedes, and gives me a contact at the Fulufjället National Park. All trees are protected in a national park but it seems that this particular specimen is something extra. An image search on the web yields numerous pictures of Old Tjikko, and it does not look like much. A scrawny spruce in an otherwise treeless landscape. But it is extremely old, and a friend I run into a few days after starting to make my research tells me the location is kept more or less secret to avoid massive hordes of tourists, particularly those that would be wont to take parts of the tree and boil them into extracts that would give… potency? Longevity? Something like that.

A few days later I get a hold of Eduardo Zuniga, who manages the national parks, at Naturum, the visitors centre at the foot of the mountain. Eduardo says sure, he can take me there. Before I have a chance to ask him if it would be possible to stay at the site for a while (I need time to set up my cameras and equipment), he tells me that now is perhaps not a good time. The tree might not even be visible — there has been a lot of snow this year, and chances are that only a few twigs would be sticking up. He then says that he’ll be going up the mountain the following day, and will scout the area to see what it looks like. Will I need skies?, I ask. Most definitely, he replies. Or snowshoes. No other way to get up there. And he is not even sure that the shorter route is passable on account of all the snow. But he promises he’ll get back to me tomorrow, and we hang up.

I go back to look at the pictures posted of the tree. It looks scrawny and not that impressive, but I thought it would be a bit taller than the 2-3 metres Eduardo claims it to be. Even so, 2-3 metres of snow sounds implausible. Maybe he does not really want me there. Perhaps he has more pressing matters at hand than escorting an artist up the mountain. Maybe I have been a bit too enthusiastic about the prospect of visiting the world’s oldest tree. I recall a passage from Leif Kullman’s webpage: ‘With no exceptions, the exact position of these trees are not revealed to the public, since extensive trampling around the spruces would certainly risk their continued existence.’

The extreme conditions on top of the mountain have contributed to the tree’s longevity, and it would make sense to get a winter view of the site, to be counterposed with a future summer shot. Dilemma. I see myself hiking up there with several cameras and tripods, only to arrive at a scrawny twig sticking up out of the snow. Not much of an image, be it an ancient twig or not.

Next day I call Eduardo again. I suggest a date a few weeks ahead, having realised that maybe it’s too short a notice for a guided tour. He hesitates, and says there have been some complaints, that the guided tours provided by Naturum were cancelled last year due to damage on the site. He suggests I get in touch with some entrepreneurs in a nearby village, a Dutch couple who might be able to help me out. He adds that he will have to get in touch with his supervisor, and promises to get back to me when a heads up for my modest expedition.

At this point I am thinking why not just go up there, rent a cabin or check into a hotel, rent some skies and just extrapolate the position of the tree from the many photos posted online — or talk to the locals and get someone to show me. It can’t be that hard. Then I look at the topographical map again. The park spans some 38,000 hectares, and landmarks are most likely under a deep cover of snow. Maybe I will find the tree. Maybe not.

On my way up to Dalarna, I make a mental arrival form: ‘The purpose of the trip is: Business/Pleasure/Other’ and make a check at ‘Other’. Reluctant to call myself a tourist and almost certain that the trip is a not-for-profit undertaking, I opt for the alternative of ‘Other’, which seldom, if ever, is available on official immigration forms. However, I am fully aware that I am about to do a good deal of sightseeing, which would qualify me as a tourist. The multitude of cameras I’m carrying for one thing. The artist as a tourist; a sightseer, or — in the words of Robert Smithson — ‘a great artist can make art simply by casting a glance.’ And since my profession is that of image-making I could conceivably also claim the ‘Business’ option. I am hoping that I am entering a slightly more reciprocal relationship to the vistas and trees than the ordinary tourist, although I suspect I’ll be doing a bit more than casting a glance while on site.

‘This,’ my guide says, ‘is how long it takes.’

I’m looking at a smooth grey tree; a dead pine worn silvery by the seasons. My guide, Dick, is the entrepreneur that Eduardo recommended to me, and all of a sudden I am grateful not only to have a guide to show me the tree , but also to learn something along the way. Dick is a passionate guide, outspokenly dedicated about keeping the touris footprint in the park to a minimum. He shows me black enclaves of charred wood on the trunk, remnants from a wildfire
some 150 years ago. The coal is soft to the touch and leaves a faint smudge on my fingertips. Nestled in a fold of burnt wood, a small tuft of yellowish-green lichen the size of a golfball. This is wolf lichen, an endangered and protected species that will take hold on dead wood, provided that the circumstances are just right. Lichens are particularly fussy when it comes to air quality, temperature ranges and precipitation, and this particular specimen bided its time for over a hundred years before making a home here. Extremely poisonous, the lichen has been used for killing off wolves by grinding up the plant with crushed glass, a method devised to make sure that the active agent in the lichen enters the bloodstream rapidly.

Fear of the wolf is a deeply entrenched cultural trait in Sweden. Yesterday, upon arriving in Särna, the small village at the foot of the mountain where I am staying, I see a group of teenagers by the gas station. They are hanging out on their snowmobiles; Thursday night in Särna and not a hell of a lot else going on. One of them wears a hoodie that reads ‘våga vägra varg i Sverige’ on the back — ‘just say no to wolves in Sweden’. A few days later I’m told that wolves have been found mauled by snowmobiles; perhaps by accident, but just as likely a purposeful roadkill. The trick is to throw the dead wolf onto a passing log truck in for a long haul away from the scene of the crime.

The area surrounding the National Park is basically all pine and spruce forest. Most of it is planted, harvested and processed by big timber corporations. The two main economies in this part of Sweden (and indeed in large parts of the country) are forestry and tourism. As the two tend to overlap in the great outdoors, there is an inherent conflict of interest here — the scenery of any given landscape very much coloured by the lenses of the beholder. Even the great naturalist Linnaeus saw the landscape in primarily economic terms, and his notes from a journey through the area in 1734 reveal as much. His comments on agriculture, forest management, minerals and available game in the area read like an instructive manual for exploitation and many of his suggestions were put into practice, notably the use of rivers for transportation of timber.

If unsightly in the winter I can only imagine what the clearcut patches look like come spring and summer when the full extent of the wreckage is laid bare. I have always been fascinated by landscapes of this kind — rendered apocalypticall empty but for a few remaining deadwoods, and often, as is the practice in much of Sweden, thinly veiled behind a curtain of trees along the highways. The mire at the entrance to the National Park offers a different view — a veritable time field with spruce and pine in different stages of growth. Nutrition and minerals are scant in the mire and the rate of growth is slow and arduous, judging from the twisted, gnarled features of a 500-year-old pine. Bent and twisted branches start pointing downward as centuries wear on as if they are drawn back into the soil from whence they sprang. The industrially cultivated forests nearby have none of this variety, which also means that they are poorer in terms of suitable habitats for other species — and infinitely more vulnerable to pests and natural disasters. The gnarly trees in the mire are perhaps less useful for our purposes, but they have mastered the art of resilience. The presence of wolf lichen is but one example of the benefits of allowing a forest to take its time.

Stewart Brand, of Whole Earth Review fame, has written an excellent book called The Clock of the Long Now, where he puts forth arguments for a perspective on time that relates to an ongoing, long-term chronos rather than the more immediate and short-lived kairos; an argument which feels particularly pertinent when looking at the trees in this mire. Trees like these manifest that which lasts, endures and somehow manages to cope with changes over time. My daily life is very much along the kairos timescale, with time neatly divided into allotted segments for work, family and ‘other’; usually meaning eating and resting. That there is a lack of superstructural flow in some segments becomes painfully evident when we’re running late for daycare in the mornings: my five-year-old and his little sister deep in their game give me blank stares when I say that we must go because it’s getting late. They simply don’t get it: the abstract concept of time as denoted by the clock. Their time is the ongoing kind, same as it is for a tree.

The snowshoes on my feet feel awkward at first and only permit forward motion. Walking up the mountain is part of what I think my guide Dick means by sustainable tourism. In order to get to the tree, we have to climb up the side of the mountain, and there is no other viable way with snow that is at times soft and very deep and sometimes encrusted with an crispy sheet of ice. Snowmobiles are off limits in the park with the exception for a designated route some kilometres away. In the silence that is the absence of anything motorised, I become more keenly aware of my breathing, and, as the ascent gets steeper, of my panting. After a while I get better at negotiating the tricky parts, and follow Dick’s example of leaning onto the face of the mountain, carefully lifting one spiked snowshoe at a time with the other one firmly inserted into the icy snow. We stop to rest every 20-25 metres of altitude gained, catch our breath, and arrive at the crest with a sense of accomplishment — on my part mixed with a great deal of excitement about being here and not having lost any of my jerry-rigged equipment along the way.

The big white plateau of Fulufjället stretches out before me. It is overcast, and the light reflected in the snow erases the line where earth and sky meet. This is an indeterminate landscape, a place that seems to be expanding in all directions at once. The wind has free reign in the flat topography of the mountaintop, but despite the gusts that rip at my clothes and take my breath away, I sense a great tranquility here. I am reminded of the deserts I have seen in South West Texas — a reduction of stimuli that seems to free up space for a more face-value experience of the elements and landscape I am in. The pull of an absent horizon. I have an impulse to start walking and get lost, adrift and vanish into the threshold of land and sky; this is the scene where I walk off into the far and simultaneously see myself getting smaller and smaller… I am momentarily lost in reveries. A delicious derailing of the train of thought, attractive, perhaps, primarily for its manifest lack of utility. Timelessness.

‘There’s the tree,’ says Dick, and points at a tiny black speck across the frozen mountaintop. Halfway there, I see another spruce, its top half broken off in the wind. Judging from the direction of the break and the way all the remaining branches seem to point one way, I guess the prevailing wind comes from the Norwegian side. The broken tree is a good landmark, and I will use it as a means of orientation on my next trip up the mountain.

I set up my cameras. Old Tjikko stands all by itself on the frozen tundra and looks every bit the ancient being it is. Dick has made sure that the coordinates match with his preprogrammed GPS so that I get the right tree: a few other spruces are scattered over this end of the plateau, each one keeping a respectful distance to its relatives. Chances are that they are just as old as Old Tjikko, perhaps even older, but the radiocarbon dating has yet to prove that. I pry rocks loose from the ice a  bit further up and carry them back to the tripods for weights. One of my cameras is a home-made pinhole camera the size of a large shoe box, and I need it to stay immobile for the 24-hour exposure. A small wide angle digital camera of the kind used in action sports sits atop the other tripod. I have programmed it to take a frame every minute, hoping the battery will last long enough to give me an overnight sequence. After making sure that everything is up and running, I take a few more pictures, gather my stuff and head on back down the mountain again with considerably less gear to carry.

The hike up the mountain feels shorter the next day. There has been a shift in the weather from yesterday’s mildness, and as I make it over the ridge onto the plateau I see rapidly approaching clouds with an ominous look. The weather can change in an instant here, and I just hope I won’t have to navigate through a snowstorm on the exposed tundra. By the time I get to the tree it clears up again, and I find all my equipment where I left it. It is such a small fraction of this tree’s life I have come to witness. A few hours altogether. My cameras have hopefully seen it through the night and early morning. My impulse is to stay, to linger, to become a human bonsai next to the tree, to slow up and take root in a field of lichen and moss slowly revealed, to start casting glances that span the millenia; but it is snowing now and getting colder by the minute so I head back across the plateau. Halfway down, circling above the Njupeskär waterfall which is Sweden´s highest fall, I make out a Gyrfalcon. I turn back a take a last look — casting a glance as it were — in the direction of Old Tjikko, but the tree has been lost in a flurry of swirling crystals of snow blowing in from the west.

DCIM100GOPRO

Postscript

After visiting Old Tjikko in late March, I spent the following month testing different constructions for extremely large-format pinhole cameras. A tree that old deserved a longer look, and I started experimenting with cameras that would yield an image in scale 1:1, and yet somehow be portable. I kept on building models for this in my studio, using a dead oak in a field nearby as a model, writing this text and getting further into the general idea of organic life with long life spans. In preparation for a trip to NYC, I Googled New York’s oldest tree and came across another artist who had been working with old trees and plants for a good while. I got curious and looked her up: Rachel Sussman, artist and author of the beautiful and tremendously well researched book The Oldest Living Things in the World (University of Chicago Press) released on April 2nd 2014, a few days after I got back from the mountain… a summer view of Old Tjikko is on the cover. So here was someone who had been working with the theme of resilience, longevity and continuity as exemplified by extremely old trees and other living things for over a decade, just when I had gotten started… I still feel that old trees have a lot to teach, but I will take this as a cue to reformulate my project and find another approach. In the meantime, I warmly recommend Sussman’s book on the subject — a good read with images that evoke a sense of deep time in all its resilient glory!

Black Spider

It’s mid-afternoon Sunday on a high 30s day in February, the country is as dry as a goog and there’s a steady wind blowing out of the north. That’s the way the weather patterns go, the high-pressure system will sit right over us. Steady days of bright sunshine and clear blue sky, the long slow dry, the heat, the gas of condensed eucalyptus and the crunch of dry beneath my feet. And then from the south, every five or six days a frontal system will sweep up into South Eastern Australia, a cool cloudy change and the pressure is off as the temperature drops by 15 degrees or so. But before she sweeps in with her promise of cool and rain the departing high-pressure system will suck even drier and hotter air down from the interior, the desert red country. Those are the fire danger days, 40 plus degrees and a gusty dry hot wind.

On a day like this it is inevitable that at some time fire will start. It’s just the where and the when. Later it’s the how and the why. Maybe a dry lightning strike, one of those fronts from the south teasing with her dark clouds but carrying nothing but thunder and forked tongues of lightning. Maybe a spark from heavy machinery, a steel blade dragged across rock, maybe a hot exhaust on dry grass, a careless camper ignoring the fire bans and cooking billy tea mid-morning, or an arc from a welder or a spark from an angle grinder. Fires happen here, it’s part of the cycle, part of the circle. Sometimes it feels as if the country wants to burn, all that combustible material leaning in, leaning close, the wave of tall dry kangaroo grass and the ribbons of candle bark. In 40 degrees it all wants to burn and as the day heats up the trees will shed more leaves and more bark. The air heavy with eucalyptus oil, all waiting so patiently.

They say that this country, like everywhere else, will heat up, that there will be more and more days over 40 degrees, that there will be less rain, stronger winds, it will all dry out quicker. Doesn’t take much to realise that we will get a fair few more bushfires.

Every small community has a fire brigade, a fire truck or maybe two, the whole village fights a fire. We have modern equipment, pagers, fireproof gear, four-wheel drive, 3,000 litres of water, retardant foam, huge Psi, multiple hoses, all to throw at the fire.

The pager goes off mid afternoon, buzzing and whistling, and I don’t even stop to look at the details, just grab the bag with my boots and helmet and overalls. It’s breakneck speed for the two miles down to the fire shed, who ever turns up at the fire shed will crew the tanker. You don’t choose the crew, time and space, fate dictates. If you get on to the tanker, you work together. In some way we are lucky to have a common cause, a common enemy to fight, it’s one of those rare things in life that brings us together, asks us to work as one.

And when the extent of the fire is seen, tankers are called from all the communities in a great broad circle around the fire. From Boho and Creightons Creek, Marraweeny, Ruffy, Tatong, Violet Town, Caniambo. They come out of the hills and the flat country heeding the call, all manner of people, dropping whatever they were doing to fight fire. When I first saw this, all the willingness to come and fight, it blew me away. This unwritten law of aid, we all fight the dragon together, stand side by side, as one day it will roar over the back fence of our homes. It is well into the night before we rest up.

So the fire has burned 1,200 hectares of forest and scrub and high grazing country, no lives lost, no houses or sheds destroyed, the edges are contained and now the crews must go back over the country and black everything out, extinguish burning stumps and fenceposts, fires still funnelling up through hollow eucalypts. This can take days, and it must be done. Save the next day into the 40s with a high wind, could pick up a spark or ember and carry her glowing five kilometres and here we have another fire. I guess it’s a thankless task , but it is a more relaxed and stress-free task than facing a fire head on.

We meet down at the fire staging area at 7.30, there are 24 tankers going over the country. I am a crew leader, means I control the tanker with a crew of four. It’s my job to make the calls, the risk assessment, to look after the wellbeing of my crew, hydration, safety, protection. I take my orders from the strike team leader. The strike team is made up of six tankers.

At the briefing I’m handed the maps, our sector of patrol, and briefed on the task ahead. The community has come together to feed and refresh all of the firefighters, and we are fed a good cooked breakfast. Then it’s out to the fire ground there to drag fire hoses up the sides of rocky hills and down through dry creek beds.

So just before hopping on the tanker, I stop to take a piss. Here in the urinal by the football club oval is a large black house spider. She is soaked and drowning, drowning in our collective piss. And brave me stands above her, me the big fireman, the hero of the day, and I can’t for the life of me summon the courage to rescue her, to hook her out of the piss trough. Because something in me can’t stand to raise the jeers of my fellow firefighters, those big burly blokes in yellow. What if they caught me bending over the pisser, hooking out a little bloody black spider, something that most of the world would be happy to screw into the ground with the heel of their boot. So I leave her there in the urinal with the vague hope that she will crawl out. And I carry her around all day.

I’m thinking of the parts in the old stories where the mouse is asked to remove the splinter from the lion’s paw, where the hero is asked to step aside from his quest and rescue the drowning bird, to guide the beached pike back into deeper water and to give his last meal to the hungry wolf, that place where we are asked to wonder from our tracks and projections, to help, to perform a small task to maintain the fabric of nature. And I’m not thinking of these tasks as a way to some unseen reward, to the hand in marriage of the lovely princess, to the holy grail. I’m thinking of these tasks as an absolute responsibility to the world that we live in.

I’m wondering how much louder that lovely spider could call to me. That maybe if she were to cast her golden web about my head and to scream in my ears, oh, then I’d rescue her. No I’m afraid not, I’m still stuck in the world of appearances and I’m bloody sick of it. When my shift that day was over I returned with my tanker and crew intact to the staging ground, filthy and exhausted. I went back to the urinal and there she was, that lovely black spider, as I expected, dead. Drowned in our piss.

There has come a point in my life where the old tales and passed-down stories, they have begun to seep in, where mythology so hems its way into nature, where its every word is so intricately woven into the fabric of time and space, its delicate golden threads skate precariously through the unseen and just for the briefest of moments flit into the seen. There are kings and heroes, brave knights and scaly dragons to fell, there are lovely eight-legged damsons to rescue and possibly a princess is bound and trapped at the top of a doorless tower.

Our ancestors asked us to listen and to look, to pay attention to the details, the inlaid filigree of minute details that we are faced with moment by moment. And if chance and circumstance should have it we can for a moment shake our clumsy learned habits of looking good and saving face and shake off the caked-on layers of shame, then perhaps there is a possibility that we can actually meet this world full in its beaming face. You see to listen and to watch, to truly inhabit our common senses, is to begin to speak the secret language of the world, the language that we two-leggeds have forgotten. The language of creation.

I’m one of those lucky people that gets to live and work in part of the world that is still filled with birdsong. There are still chance meetings with the otherness of the world, with ringtail possums and wombats and sugar gliders. I can still gaze up into the sky and see a wedgetail eagle floating at an impossible height, the yellow-tail black cockatoo still brings news of coming rain and in late winter unruly mobs of firetail finches dance through my garden. I guess there was a time when we all spoke this broader language, when our meetings were part of a much more intricate speech, and our here and now was a far, far wider plane.

I have to tell you now how that spider entered me, how she crept inside, whilst I was busy fighting fires, how she has built the most intricate web deep within my consciousness, in a corner unhurried by breeze and human movement somewhere deep in the centre, between potential and regret. Here she waits, with all her lovely patience, waiting for the minute vibrations, the frightened beating wings and heart beats of tiny insects. And when she moves, when those long black limbs and knees begin their deliberate path to the kill. When her skinny spider shins and fingers tickle some part deep within, then this is when I’m alerted to the world around me, to move out of my mind and into the greater sphere of being.

Tears still well up all these months later.

However there is a kind of postscript to the story. The next time I was out on the fire truck was in late winter. We were burning some piles of brush on a road that heads into town, there’s four of us, burning of these piles. And on the side of the road there is a dead tawny frogmouth owl, she has been hit by a car, maybe the night before, her eyes are still bright. She is beautiful, her feathers and plumage the softest shades of grey. Those eyes, that depth of night pools, that doorway into another world. I’m holding her cradled in my palms, wishing her back to life. I’m squatted down by the side of the road, a rake in one hand and a dead owl in the other. And I’m suddenly brought back to the world around me by my fellow crew members standing in a circle around me. ‘What are you doing with that dead bird, Simmo?’ And I’m so happy to be holding this, this lovely otherness in my hands, there is no embarrassed or ashamed. And I hold her up and point out the miracle of her feathers, the curve of her beak and the depth of her eyes, I uncurl her claws and the conversation turns to being a vole and the surprising hurry of death as the owl attacks and night vision and the calls of nightbirds. And why plovers make their nests out in the open. And I’m not surprised that my fellow firefighters are intrigued and enchanted by the otherness of nature. And here I am standing with the last tawny frogmouth in the world, and by the way gentlemen if nobody here minds she will be riding in state in the front of the fire truck, and of course nobody does mind. So she comes home with me, and she’s buried out by one of the big peppermint gums by the gate.

And deep inside, a black house spider returns to her place in this vast web to watch the world.

Swansong for an Old Forest

 

Conservation by neglect enables a forest without predators to flourish — as has happened on land owned by temples in Tamil Nadu for centuries.

Gopika is employed as forest watchman but I’ve only seen him in the old forest a few times in all these years. The forest does not inspire him; he’s just the watchman. Before big festivals he repairs the thorn barricades surrounding it: this is his duty. His cows graze in here: one of his perks. Most of most days he sits on a cement bench in the roadside shrine area nearby, from where plastic bags blow in to the forest. He sits waiting for ears to hear his problems – convinced that he is a victim of black magic.

People rarely go inside the forest because wilderness is frightening to the modern man. Ghosts inhabit forests. Occasional suicides find consolation preparatory to hanging themselves from obliging trees. Occasional drinkers brave it and leave little messes. Desperate ladies are also sometimes encountered but they only take old wood furtively for their kitchen fires. Except for my grandson Prabhu, who still begins to whisper upon entering, I’ve never seen a child in here.

On one of my first walks around Arunachala Mountain many years ago I stepped impulsively from the circuit road into the forest and only after several hours did I return. From then on I went frequently for many years. Sometimes I’d sleep there in a bed of leaves in the place that became my place to die.

Noticing the barrenness of the surrounding area it occurred to me that it was a miracle that this old forest survived. As far as I know there is no old growth forest like this for a radius of 30 kilometres of conspicuously barren plain surrounding the sacred mountain, and rare trees flourish here even now. Years ago the locals told me that we could attribute this miracle to the little Ambal — the goddess in the shrine next to the frog pond. It is she who protects the forest. Although a community that regards trees as firewood standing up has worshiped Arunachala for millennia, this solitary old forest could very well be virgin. The surrounding community is exploding monumentally now in the age of progress and we are just beginning to wake up to the fact that trees are our lifeline, although the mountain still burns every summer.

This old forest is a robust seed bank for the diminishing dry deciduous trees of South India. The very beginning of the greening of Arunachala was the pleasure of my young daughter Ambal and I collecting seeds here. Women members of the Arunachala Kattu Siva Plantation continue to collect seeds here now.

Thirty years ago I would climb up one of the big trees to secure a comfortable spot and wait, curious to see who came into the forest. People didn’t come, and the Bonnet monkeys soon revealed themselves to be distinctly different from the urban Bonnets around where I lived four kilometres away. The forest Bonnet monkeys were shy, but they were not hesitant once they became used to me, and it was an honour to witness the integrity of their family life. The old forest still offers a sanctuary for monkeys, although the descendants of the families of those old days are not often seen inside the forest now since there’s a plentitude of fast food available on the roadside.

The langurs come down in summer when their water sources on the mountain are dry; they drink discreetly from the old tanks near the shrines at times of day when the fewest persons are likely to be about. They don’t take fast food, although Hindu humans would be more than happy to feed them with biscuits and buns in honour of Hanuman, Lord of the Ramayana epic. Aristocrats the langurs are; they rely on the nutritious abundance of the forest.

Let’s go in. We can quickly vanish from the road down a path through the thorn barricade festooned with old plastic bags. The sound of the road is not unwelcome once the forest envelops, the pressures from outside don’t dent the rim of this forest at all; the depths of restorative leafy shadow are well protected.

There are a couple of avenues a little way from the shrines that were reinforced at some ancient time by large stones now almost entirely hidden by the rich leaf mould that elevates the forest floor over centuries. A great many smaller winding tracks weave ways connecting all the different areas of the forest; Gopika’s cattle and my dog and I keep these tracks in good condition, although in wet weather many become impossibly boggy since the adjacent seasonal lake on the mountainside leaks in on the forest floor. Later, after the rains, when all the small plants proliferate, these paths are obscured temporarily until the heat sets in and shrivels the leaves of conquistadors.

 

Dignified solitary standing stones command considerable presence in the mysterious green. Occasionally playful rocky outcrops set their own stages for surprising configurations in the botanical kingdom. Depressions in the forest floor fill with water in the rains, providing temporary venues for frog concerts. In dry times these depressions form magical little clearings, then solitary stones impress their individual distinction. A handmade round-rocky water-holding place lies at the flow-entrance of the old water tank behind the Ambal shrine. The very deep old tank bordering the forest next to the little Ganesh temple used also to reveal the handiwork of past centuries in its boulders but they are smothered now by concrete progress.

Huge termite nests are scattered throughout the forest. Years ago little clay oil lamps, flowers and incense left traces of a devoted worshipper who sometimes coated the mud of one termite mound with brilliant yellow turmeric and left juicy half-limes dabbed with blood-red kum kum, and sometimes milk and honey for the cobras who lived in the labyrinthine termite tunnel. The worshipper discontinued her devotional practice many years ago.

Copses of one type of tree or another are here where glades forming sky-wells draw beams of light. Patches of many kinds of grass are flecked with dew in early mornings when the dry season sets the stalks to their golden advantage and lends a softness to the eyes. Keyholes to the vast sacred mountain standing golden behind remind me that the name of the forest is Sonagiri: Gold Mountain. Where the giant ancient trees stand, particularly the illapais – claimed by the District Forest Officer to be four to five hundred years old — the canopy formed by the lianas above is very thick and strong, creating an entirely different atmosphere in the vivifying shade below. In a heaven-pool among the thick lianas, the late afternoon sun will spotlight the arch of smooth light on a graceful tree corpse. The surrounding leafy crown drops lianas swooping and looping, with squirrels descending, others escalating, frolicking.

 

Spiders’ skillful webs spread between the elbows of old tree roots and stumps with sprinkles of fallen leaves suspended in their nets, and soft white webs scatter little misty orbs on the carpet of tiny ground plants flowering stars of blue and white. Porcupine quills are often found here, Prabhu smiles mysteriously when he finds one. Brilliant feathers also provide great occasional finds since we have no predators except the civets with their long tails and possumy faces who rarely venture so near to the roadway, although a mother and three babies did live in my roof until it needed re-thatching, after which they moved under a culvert in the garden; I caught sight of them in the dead of night every few weeks for a long time.

The heavy swooping branches of the giant tamarinds are a favourite langur spot, giving an excellent vantage point on the edge of a series of big old neems, the curvy branches of the graceful soapnut and the tall majestic grandparent illapais. The canopy is so strong here that the huge langur king and company, with their beautiful big behinds and long loping tails, can gallop very fast across from one side of the forest to the other. The langurs have tiny heads, very small black leathery faces and their grey fur is wig-wammed on top. Definitely aristocrats.

On the edge of the series of big trees with the marvelous canopy, voluminous branches encircle a big glade that was once a water-holding tank centuries ago when rains were regular and the water table healthier. Some big old fortifying boulders have been set by human hands to strengthen one side. In the rains it becomes marshy in here; dormant water plants suddenly proliferate and mongoose holes can be seen under the overhang of earth on the sides of the glade. Mongooses can be seen in person especially at dusk and dawn, both the soft ferrety small ones and the bigger bandicooty boys. And a big rat snake lives here also — very long golden yellow in the rainy season. The frog concert held at night can be heard at my house on the other side of the Rain Goddess shrine behind the road.

The weight of the lianas bends smaller trees to join in the riot of festoons with bulbous knobbly trunks. My bones bush lemon, a humble tree, bears a skeleton trunk reaching into the exuberance of fancifully twisted branches. The floor beneath the bush lemon is leafy bare since ground plants don’t grow well here and the fallen leaves are dappled greys to browns to soft pinks, very pretty. After the rains the lush leaf mould on top and the rich earth below will be nosed up by the wild pigs and porcupines, releasing sweet smells from the breathing earth bordered by delicate surface creepers on the edge. At a slanted distance the ground creepers look like moss but closer inspection reveals speckles of yellow fallen leaves in between the strands of tiny fragile creepers.

There’s an ancient stillness here and even in the rustles of summer green can be breathed. The long thin earth roots of one canopy vine fall like a curtain of stalactites through the undulating branches of an old tamarind. The canopy itself dips and rises under its own weight and sunlight streams through open heaven-pools onto a dappled carpet. Old lianas corkscrew into enormous fierce embraces and the liana that makes walking sticks for sadhus will suddenly add its thick spiky protuberances to the forest’s riotous display.

Birdsong is almost constant. An astonishingly big bird lives in this forest – far bigger than a garuda; every now and then for many years it takes off heavily from the canopy when we approach below and I marvel at the size of it. Little honey eaters flit about in multitudes at the time of the bursts of butterflies when flowers are blooming and the hoopoe is often seen too, dapper with its black and white stripes, its cheeky face and little red crest, tapping at the hoary barks. Timid little quails hastily retreat into secluded undergrowth as we approach, and occasionally I’ve seen the male paradise fly-catcher with the immaculate white flowing tail weaving breath-taking trails of glory through those slanting beams of sunlight seeking the forest floor. On the mountain side of the forest — on the other side of the leaky embankment — lucky ducks and other water birds gather after the rains on the seasonal lake there; they don’t come into the forest but pass overhead above the canopy.

For some weeks recently a shawl was lost — a good big bright one; I searched but did not find it at home. However walking one morning on a track seldom used I found it lying where I sat beneath a tree quite some time ago; conspicuous it was lying there, purple in the green. Clearly nobody had ventured by this spot during all this time because in this poor rural community an abandoned shawl is a golden opportunity.

 

All the substantial trees in this forest are numbered in white paint by a recent mobilised bureaucracy; tree number 2040 for example, is quite young, maybe ten years old. Old branches now dead and the corpses of old trees are much respected, they harbour the sprouts of new trees and feed the voracious termites whose labour is essential to the forest. And the old bodies of trees particularly host the bright orange fungi-shelves that evoke the mystery of old tales in whatever culture.

I love the early summer. I love the summer although it’s far too hot because then the dry deciduous forest comes into its own — crackly, crinkly. The percussion of the dry seedpods joins the muted brittleness of the golden grasses, with sunny smells and the austerity of the dormancy required to flow thankfully with the heat, and the fragile textured softness of the season. Many of the trees lose all their leaves. The barebones of the sacred mountain exposed behind is red in the after glow of summer sunset.

In the very middle of the scorching summer the genius of the forest is revealed. Suddenly activity bursts out with unfailing confidence, tiny little buds appear on stark branches, pristine little leaves open slowly, enfolding into shiny new light-catchers to soak up and transform the sun’s radiant energy and spread the green of wellbeing. And then the flowers begin to join in the rejoicing. The indwelling spirit of the forest communicates to us all that this world works.

What will follow in this primeval seed bank are the pods containing the seeds for the future. Women from the Arunachala Katthu Siva Plantation will collect them, clean them, store them and later sprout them in our nursery, fostering and nourishing them for plantation on our still remarkably barren mountain.

 

Throughout these years as a guest of India I have wandered at home in this forest to my heart’s content. At times when it is exceedingly difficult to accept events in turbulent times, to acquiesce another moment in our deceitful fabrication of substance and certainty, or come to terms with the underlying lies that riddle human experience, or talk about the blind eye we turn from our shared emptiness and the great unknown in our faces, from our failure to acknowledge the way we deceive our children or the tenacious denial of our profound kinship with all that is; when these burdens are all tipping, then, every time, this forest has soaked me up – soothed me and rejuvenated my inner silence. It assures me, as I now do you: that if all attempts at ecological restoration are in vain, we can acknowledge with gratitude and dignity that extinction is no disgrace.

Abhithakuchalambal
March 3, 2014