Reporting on the spiritual ecology of any given arena of nature becomes a fairly daunting ambition. Consider, for example, the starscape of a boreal night, or the endless conifer forest, or the billions of songbirds celebrating residence through the light-steeped boreal summer. Any of these aspects, while enticing on a journalistic level, wordlessly fill the soul with an experience that transcends estimation.
And the depth and intricacy of nature reflects the nature-human interweave.
Boreal terrain typically has acidic, shallow soil over rocky shield, interspersed with rich peat bogs and permafrost - a landscape that underlies a high level of genetic diversity. Lichens, labrador tea, fireweed, lupines, mosses, kinnickinnick, cranberry, blueberry, and soapberry are predominant over 90% of the non-arboreal ground cover. Thus, the rich genetic diversity is counter-pointed by a small array of species.
Within the human profile, experience of the land reveals co-relations - counterpoints and minimalism, optimal diversity and verdant subsistence-survivors.
When Winter rules. . .
Creative streaming surges beneath Corona borealis and Polaris and Sirius. In the far north, one’s soul wakes starkly in the winter, more vividly than in southern locales, to counterpoint the prolonged darkness. Conversely, through the long sun-steeped summer, the sail of soul retreats deeper into reverie.
During the long winter that compels this inner wakefulness, much of nature’s physical community is in a somatic state - including plant life, and hibernators like the bear, chipmunk, and ground squirrel. Some residents - beaver, muskrat, and fish - are subdued beneath their icy ceiling. And subnivean beings eke out a living, with fungi, small plant life, insects, and tiny mammals coexisting under an insulating layer of snow.
Grouse, and even, on occasion, chickadees, during severe temperature declines, burrow into the snow, risking themselves even while seeking safety. And the doorway of death waits on either side - either by freezing or predation.
Within lake and river, oxygen arrangements under the ice present an interesting contemplation. Muskrats, beavers and otters exhale air at strategic spots in the plutonian under-ice realm, maintaining a “breathing account” - a caching of air bubbles, to provide a backup should they need it, numerous little pockets of oxygen against the icy ceiling (CO2 exits by osmosis due to the water’s draw, as lakeweed creates a CO2 “deficit”).
I watch the raven, lofting with ease over great spans of imposing forest, finding sustenance in diverse sources, defying the wind, playing in the face of its icy gust. Calling across the frozen lake, it voices both mischief and mystery, in a tone not unlike a place within that proclaims a hold on sky and crown of tree, an un-cage-able force unfolding its own bold pinions.
Back from the lake’s edge, where a steep rocky grade rises, there is a bright tree growing where little else takes hold. Here, where not even Tolkien’s Ent would choose to prevail, the birch thrives, flourishes, offers up sweet nectar, will not be subdued. And my own paper-bark rooting takes hold on the stony cliff-edge of an interior reach.
When I was in the jungle adjacent to Tikal, Guatemala - one could say the anti-thesis of the boreal realm - I was surprised to see 4 or 5 red squirrels in tandem, running as a pack. The tropical ecosystem, in contrast to the north, tends to go for larger communities of species. Here, in the boreal lands, one finds always a lone squirrel.
A solitary woodpecker drills. A solitary chickadee flits over, not stopping to eat, calling from tree to tree, separated from its merry band of cohorts.
I encounter other solitary beings - snowshoe hare, wolf, moose, marten, owl, grouse, raven, others.
Concurrently, a loneliness begins to pervade my experience. Within this solitude at every turn, an existential pain wells, and persists its way into the kind of force that can lead many to try anything to escape - substances, social conformity, or self-denigration - options chosen prematurely to bypass the silence and stillness in which the pain waits to be met.
In my case, I at first attribute the loneliness to my own issues, but then begin wondering how much of it is about me, and how much about this northern terrain? The boreal wilderness is certainly one of the key regions on Earth wherein profound solitude can be experienced. And, as the border between subjective and objective worlds gives way, all the solitary animals I’ve been encountering are beginning to feel like an auspicious communication.
I find the tracks of a ghostly being who has been nipping birch tips from a fallen tree - a snowshoe hare trail that winds its way through my underbrush yearning, sampling birch-like sweetness and frozen remnant rosehip. With the white-coated hare’s traits of near-invisibility and buoyancy across deep snow-pack, even the darkest winter can be endured.
The long-legged step of my winter’s end moose-roving finds me bedding every second mile to catch my ungulate wind. Watched closely by a keen-eyed interior wolf, yet holding strong of limb and antler against all manner of opportunism, I make my way toward newly budding browse. Powerful digestion forces to assimilate highly lignified browse, such as willow and alder tips, cause my ponderous thought life to re-order its conceptual browsing.
A luxurious-maned marten tracks my squirrel complacency, preying unrelenting upon all my rodent manner, upending the stock-pile of small account, an endless spruce-seed consumption. And all my clippings of needle and cone, scattered at the base of my conifer conquest, amass as so much backlog, of provision, of warding off existential hunger, of squirreling away an account of sustenance.
Spring wrests away the hold of Winter. . . .
The thrush is early to return from its southern home, ahead of everyone else, even before any overt sign of spring. On a March morning, its high reedy song - seeming delicate, but actually quite resolute - sounds its debut. A resonation rises within, as though a magical being was always there, biding its time, waiting to thrust its genesis into the midst of cold and oblivion.
Gradually the land thaws, the river opens, the snow becomes patchy. The sun warms its beam, and the magpie and junco find handier sustenance. Thick shards of ice lie stranded on gravel banks - and the slow thaw of a long-held winter-memory tableau within my contemplation is released. Riverine flow holds converse with the returning loon and merganser, divers familiar with deeper strata, fishers of newly-freed sub-aquatic consciousness.
Here in the north, the Earth opens an energetic flow in her intercourse with the Sun, as reflected in the light paintings of Aurora borealis. In resonation, through my own gateway, etheric pulsation choreographs itself, and for a few moments the dance of the auroral color seems to quicken, as if the Sun-Earth duo has become a trio.
The vast inner forest, full of expanse and mystery and wildling beings, is pervaded by a conversation of the trees, rising on the gusting of wind. And by rock and sway, and the song in bough, there sounds a pure and holy music.
Different moods of trees indicate individualities within each arboreal species.
Take the willow, for instance. The water-drinking willow, the salycin-rich, pain-numbing willow, the moose-feeding willow. Willow of slender trunk, willow of pliable limb. Red willow, white willow, willow lining the creeks that flow through our exposed soul-stream.
And consider the white spruce, how there are years when these trees produce a profusion of cones. One spring, you find them piled thickly by their trunks. There are rhythms in the soul when flourishing takes place, when creative aspects rise and play out.
And there are contrasts that nudge open the dossier of understanding. Like the blue-green spruce versus the yellow-green pine. How the spruce likes water more than the pine, how saturation serves in a resonant part of the soul. And how the dry, light-drinking aspect within comes to hold sway in pine-tree moments.
And when Summer comes to prevail. . .
Moisture is flowing slowly here, in this boreal land. Intermittent precipitation and slow evaporative forces, plus sluggish nutrient cycling, are the ways and means of its ecological account. Despite the near-arid conditions, a high incidence of moisture occurs - lakes, ponds, rivers, swamps, muskeg.
Here, the water, plants, and animals are all optimizing production in the face of austerity - an alchemy that turns meager resources into sufficient provision.
Many of the beings who dwell in the boreal realm find themselves always moving on, traversing wide reaches to fulfill their quest. Here a little sustenance, there some cover to bed down in, further down shelter from the weather. Now the berry and cone seed feed the rodent appetite, now the white agaricus mushroom adds savor to the stew of a forager’s yearning. And the swift grayling ranges upstream, following a long-ancient water-path.
Here and there lie heaps of red squirrel middens - oh, what a great mattress stuffing those spruce shells make! A base upon which one can dream treetop reveries through the night, woven with clean-air winds and forest floor rooting.
Among ways of getting to know oneself further, relating to others is primary. But so, also, is spending time in nature in solitude. Nuances of one’s individuality become starkly exposed. How do I experience solitude over a duration? What issues arise? What fears are met and what are my individual “edges” therein? There can arise concerns related to loneliness, or provision (as one’s food stock depletes), or the darkness (what shapes form in the dark out of fear?), or mid-life issues can erupt.
Central to this line of exploration: how do I prevail in the face of prolonged silence and stillness, those great levelers of humankind and aspiration. In what way does this sabbatical from my life cause me to reflect on my incarnation? What things to strengthen? Or to change? Or to come to terms with? Or seek more understanding about? How do the animals, plants, and landforms I encounter resonate with various parts of my being?
The gray jay stores wholesome sustenance in the branches of my thought life. The tamarack stands goldenly as a doorway to spirit land, death and rebirth. When lightning visits the land with gifts of ember, fire lends life-renewing forces, sweetening the soil and releasing a treasure-hold of nutrients. Boreas, god of the north wind, assails, but the needles of the trees endure, resisting cold and wind. Sphagnum moss insulates, cushions my wakening to the bracing light and cooling rigor. Wolves usurp an abandoned fox den. They expand its size to suit their needs.
Nature writing has a lot of spaciousness to it. To bring elements of nature through into one’s writing there has to be an allowance for process. Long stretches of nothing between events. Long percolations of consideration, breathing one’s way into the next thing that rises to the level of language. The boreal lands are most certainly this way. Watch the long glide of a raven across the forest, with only an intermittent vocalization. Or listen to the wind, or even better, the absence of wind, in the conifer boughs.
Revel in the sea of green, comfort for the eyes, or the wide blue, or silver bromide of a clouded sky. Although often a silent stillness predominates, it is a void filled by elusive presence. Sometimes the presence is the song of eternus. Sometimes it’s a golden soul-healing tone. Sometimes a birth-channel. Sometimes a quiet weaving of angelic forces.
Can I evolve to a point where I am capable of listening to all the voices of the boreal forest? All the messages of the eco-community, not just the human voices. Although the human is quite valuable, too.
It’s just that there is no need to be eco-centric here and now.
This article was prepared by Josef Graf of the Earth Vision project
- bringing spiritual ecology to environmental issues.
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