Seeking Shelter in the Trees

Seeking Shelter in the Trees


by Catherine Harper

I have always been fascinated by the forests and mountains–the architecture, it seemed, of the earth itself, which rose around me and held up the heavens. From the house I grew up in, I could see the peaks over the lake, and I watched the sun rise first behind one, then another, through the progression of the year. Those mornings, it looked as if someone had ripped away darkness from the sky, making way for dawn but leaving a ragged edge of night–the mountains–clinging to the land.

When I was a child and dreamed, as children do, of running away, I dreamed of running to the Cascades, and of living in the woods by myself. The details of the story I would tell myself changed; one time I might do so as a child, another as an adult. Sometimes I would imagine myself in a tiny cabin, with a woodstove against the cold, other times living in a burrow camouflaged by trees and bushes.

While my fascination with the idea of living off the land has not changed, my ideas regarding its practicality certainly have. I couldn’t fit all of my books into the tiny cabin, and Internet connectivity would be chancy. Living at higher elevation shortens the growing season, lengthens the commute and leaves one far from the urban centers of liberal culture… I won’t even go into the logistical problems of living in a burrow. I haven’t entirely given up on the idea of a cabin in the woods, but if I ever achieve it, I suspect it will be a tamer and less permanent retreat.

But the seed of my childhood stories is still with me. As long as I can remember them, mountains and forests, in my mind and heart, have been a place of refuge.

When I was in college, I studied Kazakh language and culture and ran into a similar theme of mountains as places of safety. “My heart to the mountains…” went the saying, as I remember it. The Kazakhs were a nomadic people who did not shelter behind walls or fortresses other than those that nature had provided.

There is a story of a tribe that was being chased by enemies intent on killing them who fled–families, herds and all–into the Altai Mountains. On they went for days, but still their pursuers came behind them. Finally, they saw before them a she-wolf, and perhaps in memory of the long stories of friendship between wolves and their people, or perhaps just out of desperation, they followed her.

She led them into what seemed a narrow cleft, but on entering it they found a sizable cave, stretching back deep into the bowels of the mountain. Quickly, before their foes could catch up enough to see them, they and their animals all followed as the wolf led them deep inside.

On and on the cave went, and so they continued for days in the dark except for the small lights they could carry with them, straining always to see the sliver glints off the coat of the wolf ahead of them. In the darkness the children cried and the parents comforted them, but in the quiet of their own hearts they despaired of ever seeing the day again. And yet, what could they do but go forward, when behind them was certain death?

But at last the darkness of the long cave began to fade, imperceptibly at first, like the sky lightens before dawn. By stages they walked into dusk and then twilight, and then into dawn as they could see ahead of them an opening filled with daylight. When at last they emerged, they found that they had come to a long valley around a lake, lush with thick grass and sheltered on all sides by the mountains, a place where they and their children and their children’s children could live.

My mountains are not the rocky faces of the Altai range above the steppe, but always-green places, netted with rivers and frosted with snow, roofed with the green canopy of cedar boughs held aloft on their straight and sturdy pillars. Almost instinctively, now that I am grown and can drive myself, I go to them when I am troubled and the human world around me seems too turbulent.

There is a point, whether I am in a car or on foot, where I stop and look back behind me and see mountains there, too–mountains on all sides. And at such times it is as though I can cease to strain to hold a great weight, because I have no fear of falling with the mountains around me to hold me up. The very ground cradles my feet. The mountains are ancient and vast. Bigger than me, older than me, they were born of fire and molten rock and survived the advance and retreat of glaciers. There is nothing they do not know about enduring.

Compared to the bony ridges of the earth (if not to me) the trees are more fragile, and yet more brightly alive. They have sunk their roots into the land and know always which way to grow–dancing, sometimes, in the wind and singing their long, slow songs. Trees live a span that is closer to that of human years, and yet how differently they use space, how differently they consume and grow.

And so I come, one afternoon, to an impromptu hike in the sleet. There is symmetry in walking up toward a waterfall that is coming down toward you. Where the sun reaches the ground, the Siberian miner’s lettuce (a wonderful salad green, and good source of vitamin C) is leafing out, and the salmon berries are opening their early magenta flowers.

Before me, behind me and all around are the mountains, though the trail I’m hiking is relatively low and free of snow even this early in the year. In the thick woods there is less ground-level greenery. This is old growth. About me there are wooden columns that three of me could not reach around. They stretch toward the heavens, and fallen trees draw diagonal lines, caught by their living neighbors in their fall.

On the ground is a thick carpet of dead, gray fallen needles and branches, and the contours of trees that have completed their journey to the ground, some adorned now with saplings that draw nourishment from the rotting wood. A forest that is at once imperceptibly but inexorably springing into life and collapsing back into decay.

When I was a child, I imagined the forest to be a place of physical refuge that would hide me, feed me, supply my needs and protect me from the outside world. As I have grown, my relationship with that outside world has changed, so perhaps it is only expected that the nature of the refuge I seek has changed as well.

When I go to the mountains and into the forest, I am setting aside for a while the mental structure of all the things in the world to which I am tied; giving up for a space my name, my calendar, my shopping list and due dates, my friends, family and acquaintances, the model in my head of all the places that are part of my world and that I return to so often that they are mapped into my mind. I am not seeking to cut myself free from this web, but to step aside from it and its demands and see it from another place. In the forest, I am confronted with places where the touch of human hands and feet has been slight, where the cycles are not set by our minds. Not my project, or process, but the fundamental reality of rock, twig, puddle and tree.


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