Flashes of the forest behind me flit in electric bursts: a shadowed stump, the wet fragrance of worm on leaf, the falling echo of a thrush mixed with a sensation of moss pressed to palm. All converge in an instant, part of an escalating call (from whom? for what?) to do… what? I’m really not sure. All that’s clear is this forest has asked something of me, planted its seed in my subconscious weeks ago while I trundled through the woods, looking for a way out. And for all I still don’t understand, I do feel certain that when a forest extends an invitation, you take it. So I close my eyes and take a breath.
To my right, the west, is our house where my toddler is napping, making this task all the more urgent to complete while I have the uninterrupted time; to my left, the east, our patch of vegetable garden and plots of native plants overtaken by bittersweet and mugwort; in front of me, the south, a neglected green lawn I envision as a bee’s paradise in years to come, cauterised at its base by a busy road; and at my back, the north, acres and acres of the forest.
A subtle magnetism pricks my skin. Maybe I should strip down completely to get even closer, prove I’m serious, shed the garments of my destructive species altogether? But just as my fingers start to peel off my final sweaty layer, social norms win out – I crack an easterly eyelid and notice the distant figure of our neighbour, Steve, tinkering with a leaf blower in his front yard.
Suddenly my knees buckle as if clotheslined by some invisible force, and my face is inches from my own hands, pressing into the mix of grass, leaves, clover and Japanese honeysuckle that stretches out from the perimeter of the woods. I notice my large, green veins, reaching like roots, the dirty moons of my fingernails and cuts on my knuckles, sustained while clambering through the vines and trees to my back.
And then I notice my rings, now awkward covering this skin – both the wedding band made from melted-down jewellery given to David and me by our mothers, and the pretty engagement ring bought on consignment, engraved with the name ‘Alfred’. Does it matter that we repurposed resources? Kneeling before the forest the rings become ridiculous, violent even. What mining, belching and shipping had to occur for our mothers to look beautiful, for Alfred to get down on one knee? I pull them off decisively and stack them on a nearby mound of dirt.
I refocus my now naked hands and begin to grab handfuls of grass, slow at first, pulling it out and tossing it around with increasing urgency. A clearing of the space suddenly seems imperative, a sacrifice of the manicured grass to feed the soil at the forest’s border. The energy from this effort bubbles into the tops of my feet and shins, and slowly I fold my toes down into the earth, widen my stance and imagine my legs as trunks, a duo sprouting up from a mass of roots roiling beneath the surface.
I’ve never attempted anything like this before. I was raised without ritual, or rather a winking kind of ritual, Christmases on one side of the family reduced to a pile of presents; Passover Haggadahs on the other side rushed through to get to the food. Our pride lay in our rootlessness, as though connection to culture and the non-human world were a step away from science, from seriousness, from achievement and credibility. Rituals and rites of passage were taught as relics of a simpler time, the talismans unknowing people needed to survive an unknowable world.
But this kind of condescension has led only to a life untethered. What I was raised to dismiss as good luck charms have recently awakened in my deep consciousness, as though in the depths of some forgotten dream a shadowed ancestor whispered an ancient language in my ear. And suddenly the landscape to my back pulses with secrets that wash around me in a wild language I have no tools to access.
What I’m banking on today is those woods and I can connect through the loss of connection. If not a history, we do share this – a very present shifting of ground. On this hot September day I try to communicate at least this one commonality; I try to create a simple offering in a language that might be recognised, if not fully understood.
A few days earlier I had hiked to a small pond hidden in the woods, not far from the forest’s edge. I welcomed the familiar mud on the cuffs of my pants and lifted my face to the shadows rippling on branches over the water. Circling a mirror of the clouds above, my steps became a straddling of two worlds, understory thickets on one side, tranquil spaciousness on the other.
I walked slowly, eyes on the ground, scanning the familiar path for sticks and branches I could bring home to burn at the hour of the fall equinox. This was an activity suggested by a community of artists and writers I’d been meeting with online, brought together by a shared wish to find a new language and way forward through the future we face. At the suggestion of the stick-gathering journey, old skepticisms and barriers bubbled up. (Looking for sticks that speak to me? Burning them at a prescribed hour for some kind of magical purpose?) I managed to push those voices aside and venture in; at the very least I’d get a nice hike out of it.
But padding carefully around the pond, I saw my surroundings with new attention, a heightened care. There were branches that spoke to me – mottled, thick ones shedding their histories on the forest floor; flimsy, bowed ones springing up from dense piles of brush. I retrieved them cautiously, with the same gentleness I used to lift my daughter from her crib.
It wasn’t a snake, but a branch in snake form, a shape-shifting messenger from the forest world.
Suddenly I stopped short, instinctively thrusting the bundle of sticks ahead of me. There, emerging from the thistles a few feet ahead, was a taut brown snake, arching her head toward my boots. I froze. She froze. I waited. She waited. I took a slow step forward. She stayed still. I took another step. And another. The snake remained, immobile, unblinking. I leaned in, trembling like a Butoh dancer making a day-long journey across a small room. And then I gasped and burst out laughing – it wasn’t a snake, but a branch in snake form, a shape-shifting messenger from the forest world.
I bent down slowly and opened my left hand, still believing the snake might come to life and strike. But she didn’t. I wrapped my palm around her Earth-warmed body and added her to the bundle. Hand electrified, body buzzing, I lifted my eyes to the treetops and started home.
I’d made this short hike many times before. This part of the woods bordered an outcropping of houses, so a few visible trails forged by dirt bikes and hikers over the years made it easy to make my way. But this time, I somehow lost track of the trails and found myself in wholly unfamiliar territory – a wood I’d never seen before.
Sticks still clutched in hand, I turned around and retraced my steps back to the pond to reset and start this journey over. But the same thing happened again. And again. And again. I simply could not find my way back, as though the energy that charged my right arm were a repulsing magnet, shuttling me back and forth, any way but out of these woods.
Soon I lost track not only of the trails, but the pond as well. I was lost, in a familiar wood that suddenly looked so foreign, led by a magic bundle of sticks. I felt an opposing pull within myself – one half that wanted to panic as the sun above me dipped west, and the other that wanted to give in and wander. In the shadowed distance I saw a large animal poised under the waves of a tulip tree’s branches. Clutching my sticks, I crept toward it for a better look, only to realise it was another trick of the eye – just a cluster of giant stumps that had pulled me even further from the trail. A flock of robins alighted from a tree behind me, simultaneously agreeing it was time to fly. With any option feeling as smart as another, I walked in the direction of their calls and disappearing silhouettes.
I walked until I couldn’t walk anymore, until the forest spat me out on top of a steep drop-off above the highway. Defeated, I shuffled down the embankment, put foot to pavement and walked home, which turned out to be only a half-mile away. I had to hop into the ditch every few minutes to make way for speeding cars.
Days later I remained haunted by the oddness of the experience. The woods had felt so different that day – so animated and full of volition, as though I had stumbled through some unseen barrier and become the observed. And now, rooting my body in the earth, in full view of the forest but still on cultivated turf, I’m trying to prove I heard the call. I’ll come to you but won’t tread too far. I’ll stay over here where you can assess my efforts. I’ll await further instruction.
I try to clear my head, bend my knees deeply and close my eyes, drift my naked arms and fingers skyward and move by the force of the breeze alone. I try to find motion in stillness. I silently invite birds to roost on my boughs and prepare myself for 200 years of patient observation.
And then, a sputter from the baby monitor; the distinctive, mournful call for ‘mommy.’ Abruptly and very clearly not a tree, I turn my body, flesh and bone, toward the house.
I spend the next hour or so changing Iris’s diaper, fixing her a snack, reading a story or two. Stupid human and my anthropomorphic fantasies. I glance out the window a few times, and the place I tried to root looks utterly unmagical – an unkempt stretch of lawn with a pile of dirty clothes shoved to one side by a splintered wooden fence. I don’t think much about the fact that my wedding rings are also out there, sitting on a mound of unprotected dirt. But when David comes home, I’m suddenly self-conscious and sneak back out to get them.
The patch of grass is small and square, hemmed in by the path to the house, the fence of an old dog pen, our garage and the forest. I distinctly see the matted circle where I’d stood. To the other side, my shorts and T-shirt, and a few inches away, the small clearing of dirt.
I shake out the clothes and put them back on, then bend down for my rings. But they’re not there. Surely this is another trick of the eye. I look again; no rings. There’s nowhere they could have gone. I bend down to scan the grass around the mound, but still, no rings. I step back and scan a wider circumference, looking for what would surely be a distinctive glint of metal on this sunny day. Nothing. I get down on my knees and run my fingers across the ground, but come back with dead grass and acorn bits.
The front door bangs and Iris’s little voice calls out from the path. She and David have come out to join me on this beautiful September evening. I wrestle with the option of hiding my predicament; what hours ago seemed imperative for completing a very serious task now seems childish, foolish, selfish even. But when they reach me, I tell them what’s up.
Now searching for the rings is a family affair. Iris wobbles in widening circles while David joins me on his knees, graciously setting aside whatever annoyance he must be feeling to meet the urgency of the task. We bend under the forest’s gaze, close enough to the ground to see the striated fibres on each blade of grass and the tiny gaps between them, the dandelion dust and clover petals littering the dirt that connects it all.
The final glow of dusk dims on the patch where I’d tried to turn myself into a tree.
But we find nothing, and soon it’s time for dinner, diapers, bedtime rituals. The search comes to an end. From Iris’s room I watch the sun fully sink beneath the horizon, resigned as the final glow of dusk dims on the patch where I’d tried to turn myself into a tree.
I walk outside for one last look, one last taste of air thinning to autumn. I face the forest and open my arms to feel its power, to feel defeat, but also gratitude and awe for the living entity before me, whose spirit precedes me and will no doubt continue after I’m gone. I look down one more time without bending, a conciliatory dip of my head, and there are the rings. They’re sitting right there, neatly in a row as I’d left them, unhidden, visible, glistening in the softening light.
And just as I’d approached the snake in the woods days before, I bend with reverence and care, a slight apprehension, and place the rings on my fingers with the solemnity of a wedding ritual, ready for whatever transformation must now occur.
Original dance by Samantha Harvey
Creating ritual before a forest: all beings still share an ancient language; we just have to re-learn how to listen. Here, Samantha Harvey makes an attempt.