Saturday, February 25, 2017

To Witness and to Act

Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.      
 C. McCarthy, The Road
I walk through the woods in the early morning hours. The forest in which I wander is a small piece of paradise, no more than three acres in size, located in a wealthy residential neighbourhood up the slope from where I live. A narrow path circumnavigates the park. I follow it to my meditation spot. The trail is used by dog walkers and hikers and those just looking for some quiet. But in the silence of the breaking day, I am alone.

In my solitude, I bear witness.

I bear witness to the greens of the ferns, shiny and clean from the melting snow and to the buds so young, so achingly close to opening, so new in their beginning. I bear witness to the cycle of life. 

I bear witness to the drape of cedar fronds and the softness of fir needles, and to the bark that clothes each tree, a language unto its own, rich and varied. I bear witness to the sound of the creek, running strong with the spring melt over rocks, slippery with moss and glistening with wet, and the dew held in suspension from the hemlock, heavy in weight from a multitude of cones.
I bear witness to the squirrel springing from branch to trunk and over to another, and the birds, as if newly awakened, singing in symphonic agreement.

And I bear witness to the silent communication that only a forest can evoke.

This once strong forest, reduced to a small tract of land, also holds signs of our humanness. There is the Tim Horton's cup thrown casually to the side of the trail and the cigarette butts littering the space beneath a sheltering tree. Up ahead, almost hidden behind a log, are several garbage bags laid open by curious predators of the night—empty cans, plastic and tissue, the detritus of modern-day living.

I bear witness to our lack of consciousness.
I pick up the waste. How can I not? It is mine. Not literally, of course. I don’t throw my garbage into the trees but as I am human it is mine to own. And I bear witness.

Cormac McCarthy’s quote, printed above, is important in this context. At first glance it seems to speak to complete and irreversible devastation. But like the book from which it derives, the words, the last in the novel, are infused with hope. We can change things. We are not necessarily headed for utter devastation—we are not doomed.  But to change this current trajectory of self-destructive behaviour, we must seek out the deep glens, listen to the hum of mystery and humble ourselves to that which is older than man.

We are nothing without the earth and yet we do daily violence to it. Whether it’s the simple act of littering or the more complex ones of using throwaway food wrap, driving a car or spraying pesticides: our actions matter; our deeds recorded.

To change this course, to transform this path of self-destruction—and truly, that is what it comes down to: the end of life as we know it—we must return to the earth from which we came. We must reconnect to that which sustains and nurtures us; what gives us shelter and context to our lives. We must return and we must respect.

First we must bear witness. Then we must act.

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