The Forest on the Mountain and the Valley Far Below

A Short Story

The Forests on the Mountain and the Valley Far Below

Part One. Abridged. Icel Jane Dobell


One day in a forest, in an area traveled by locals, and like the underworld other-worldly caves of the north island, guarded by an unspoken covenant, trails left unmarked, appearing on no map, suddenly, as if by way of a visitation in the night, there appeared the prophetic flags of demarcation, fluorescent orange, inscribing in letters of black the imminent fate of this forest.

On the day they are discovered, plastic markers are found wrapped around the trees, tagged, corralled, rooted in the wind. The tallest of the canopy sway and groan as if in the impenetrable language of trees, as if in warning of the end:

Arbutus—massive, contorted, (“pests to be controlled,” with pesticides say signs);

Coastal Fir—multi-limbed to the ground, (too many knots for timbers, say some loggers); Maples crowning the forest.

The ribbons follow fragile, tree-less moss beds, like rivers running down the mountain—(not a penny worth of twigs);

They appear like banners knotted around trees, small, struggling—(second-growth, barely a mouthful for a saw)—growing on a stoney hill.

Formed in the beginnings of time, as though a line of defense, a warning that not in all places will a forest re-root and re-cover in such a way as to justify its removal, the peninsula rises from sea to distant cliffs—glacial mounted, an enigma of rock formations and tree contortions.  As is the affect of growing in and around rock, trunks spiral and branches zigzag. In defiance of gravity, the mind, (and the saw), roots of trees cling to lichen murals on rock faces. Giant composites of granite and sandstone balance on fulcrums and float in the air. Planetary bodies emerge in moonlight. Boulders big as ships sit anchored in the emerald understory.

In this beautiful world, there are visionaries who may, by way of an extraordinary legacy, set a purposeful, potential course for generations. It is the way many of the great parks and public places have come into being.

In a little valley set apart from the outer world, as if nature had conceived the perfect distance and multi-faceted veils to protect one of the last enclaves of paradise on earth from the irrevocable encroachment of civilization, such a story begins.

It begins, not so long ago, in a land sheltered within encircling forested mountains, on an island, with a backdrop of more forests on more mountains rising out of an archipelago, a subterfuge, a maze of islands.

It begins in isolation:

To the East, the straits, a barricade between the mainland—enshrouded in fog and mist, spreading, separating, rising through valleys cut off by great turbulent rivers racing from out of mountain range after mountain range, and finally the rock-peaked glacial divide.

To the South, a border, a foreign land.

To the North, the great ice fields.

To the West, the open Pacific.

It begins, this coastal isolation hardly to be imagined today, with the rains—encircling and yet remaining at the periphery of the valley—and with the towering black clouds of the rainforests enveloping the coast—so dark, encircling and yet remaining at the periphery of the valley—so dark, so impenetrable, so wet, that the civilized folk on the other side of the divide visiting, (until recently, until the great change—the heat, melt, and dry), would feel the reproductive spores of life embed themselves in crevices, between fingers and toes, and bones aching with damp, would beat a hasty retreat from nature.

In the beginning, there were trees, ancient and massive, and the people of the valley saw the trees and said they were good.

Then came people from across the sea who cut down all the trees on the mountains, saw the money they made, and said it was good.

Time passed. Fortunes were made and fortunes were lost. The Great Depression came and went. The land was passed from hand to hand. And then there was the war.

By 1946, a quarter of the land of the district had reverted to the public domain and in that year there came a group of people possessed of foresight who saw into the future, saw the forests growing anew, saw it was good, and they did not divide the land. And they did create a forest reserve of rare value, owned not by the province, nor the crown, nor any private company, as almost every other forest on the continent, but owned by the people of the valley: six forests on six mountains, never to be sold, always to be managed and maintained for the good of the people, now and forever more.

The years passed. Foresters, people of the silence and solace of solitude, came and went, and in realizing the growing value of the forests and the responsibility for their protection, set forth the enduring principles of a true democracy, including transparency and consultation with the citizens who owned the forests, not for themselves but for all in perpetuity.

Their names long forgotten, whom among the foresters, the defenders of the legacy, were visionaries?

Whom among them had listened and learned in no classroom but from nature that no tree stands alone in proximity with another in a forest, never solitary, nor disconnected, but nurturing, warning, sharing, through the wordless language of trees?

Whom among them understood that as above, through stump-fists joined, so below, by root and fungal networks, all of the one living being. And as in nature, so in humankind, beneath the surface, beyond dissonance and discord, the continents and divides, all connected, one body, one foot rooted in the earth, one floating in space.

Whom among them had traveled far and wide, had visited the deserts where forests used to stand, witnessed the waters retreat, the forests fall before the heat of the sun, and foresaw the migration of humans back to the final forest stands?

Was there one visionary among them who returned to the valley and saw on the mountains not saws and stacks of the diminishing diameter of the forest—match-stick replicas of former giants entangled in vines and blood-letting thorns of invaders from other lands—and said nothing, but saw another way?—For the nature of a true legacy is that it be bestowed not with rules and warning but rather with faith in the wisdom of the ones who receive.

Human nature is such that the greatest legacies, those which appear to be our inherent rights, the immutable rights of man—water, clean air, a forest; in short nature—we are likely to take for granted and thus forfeit. So it happened in the valley.

Like a fog that settles slowly, a creeping blandness that rises unnoticed, encroaching, enveloping the powers of perception, the amnesia of unconsciousness set in.

After its creation, with the passage of time most people forgot about the legacy, did not teach their children, did not remember that no commercial enterprise (requiring immediate short-term profit), and no other government (with conflicting interests) owned the land, but they themselves, the people. Forgetting their ownership, they forgot their responsibility, even to their children, and did not consider or imagine the possible good and profit of a greater vision than its systematic removal in sections of ever-decreasing value.

Behind a yellow gate, down an old dirt road, a country road, what was once a logging road—and, it turns out, still is—locals first discover the ribbons. They are tied to the perimeter and lead through the trails, local trails, secret trails, peaceful trails, those trails that some would guard over like sentries, like gargoyles, like bears; and above all, rising far above the rest, the trail of ascendance, never to be visited by the uninitiated, (for of course nature would obscure the way).

Would that one could hide behind the impersonal one, we, they, and even thou; for I am a local; I am a wanderer of the forests, a traveler of the trail, in dark, in light, in green, in silence, in the peace that is rooted deep within the earth and in and of every rock and stone.

On the day the alarm sounds and the warning goes out in the forest, I am trying to mind my own business. I am human, so I am torn—I love and I fear. I stop my ears. But the words begin on the inside.

If I write the words, I will break the covenant. Will they blame me?

If I write the words and the way becomes crowded with voices and signs, “No dogs off leash,” and I counter with my own, “No walking on the moss,” will I blame myself?

Once upon a time, it was simple. I saw fluorescent ribbons coiled like serpents around the beckoning, nest-embracing, uplifting limbs of the greatest friends of my youth, those generous giants who would let down their ladders for me to climb to the heights, who talked to me, sang to me, nurtured and carried me beyond the pain of living in an incomprehensible world. I climbed into the branches and before my God that is nature, ready to face the consequences, to die for what I loved, buried the ribbons in a trunk, and when discovered was sent to bed without dinner.

I am no longer a child. I am a grandmother confronted with the destruction of the most beautiful, life-sustaining, beneficent place in the world to me. I am not alone. We are not alone.

They arrive from distant lands. They cannot believe how beautiful. They tell others and others come.

The less we build the more they come. They write stories in newspapers across the continent and across the seas. They come to spend a moment in paradise. They come in peace. On the trails, we meet. They tell us how blessed we are. They are the witness, the reminder of the legacy that they were not born to. What if they saw the ribbons? What would they do? What can any of us do? What can I do?

Now that I am no longer a child, I do not perceive enemies—I do not rip serpents from trees—I unstop my ears. The voice breaks through. There are visions in the voice. It  shows that there is not one way but many. The ways are good and the good is for all, and the way is in every one of us; for we are all of the trees in the forests. They are our lifeline. As they breathe, we breathe. As they die, we die.

Nothing about the way of the forest can be taught. Logic produces facts and figures but the way is beyond the mind whose facts are never, in retrospect, enlightened. The way is beyond numbers and projections—(20,000 cubic metres annual allowable cut? Sometimes less? Could be more? How much more?). The way is greater than our assumptions of where we are headed. (Will there be more drought in future summers? More winters of deluge? Will trees always grow back? In how many years? Amongst invasive species? Without a canopy to hold the moisture? In depleted soil and wind erosion?).

We are not given rules and road maps to follow, but rather the heart that we may feel. When the heart is open, the way is clear. Above all, as below, we must become as the trees, with our roots beneath the surface, within the silence, joined.

They come from across the seas; they come from across the lands, from out of the cities and deserts—the people. For we are all one people of the earth, and in the end, what choice do we have? In the end, what choices do we leave our children? In the end, what choice do I have?

I pick up the pen.

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District of North Cowichan, Vancouver Island BC

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