I stop on the path. There is no sound but the faint suggestion of a nearby creek and the dance of a wily breeze in the tree tops. Before me stands a yellow cedar. It is her presence that bids me to pause. She asks me to quiet my soul and feel into the silence; to listen. When I do the words that come forth are those that only my heart can hear. I want to record them, to somehow chronicle this moment but I haven’t the skill. How can I write what is not of this world?
Regardless, later that day I sit at my desk, a blank piece of paper before me. No words come forth, just nuances of what was and what could be. The fullness I felt surrounded by trees and moss, stone and water―one of connection and interdependence― eludes me now that I sit between four walls. Let me amend that: I can invoke the feelings, I just cannot write them down; I have not the language.
How can one translate unworldly messages?
I imagine it’s a similar dilemma to those writers who translate the classics. I have a Russian friend who extols the works of Pushkin. When she first told me of this famed muse, I wanted to feel what she did―and continues to feel― from his words. I wanted to dance to his poetry, to revel in his verse. I read one translation and then another and was left flat. Not knowing Russian, I gave up. How can one translate beauty?
That said, I know it’s been done. From Homer to Goethe, the Vedas to Rumi, beauty has been passed down the ages through multiple hands. What magic must a writer weave to capture what truly cannot be possessed?
It is said that Milton had a muse that visited him each night. Come morning he would recite new verses of Paradise Lost to his scribe having lost his own sight some time before. When I am in the forest, my muse is present and lyrical but resents the intrusion of pen and paper. He demands my absolute adherence to the present moment. As a result I have stopped trying to write out-of-doors. But that doesn’t quite explain why I cannot write of my experiences at home.
I look at this unblemished page of white that lies before me―this thin layer of fibre that once was tree, a being born of the earth, blessed by the sky. I believe that all that was once alive retains a memory of their ancestry―the wooden table, hardwood floor and the walls of our houses remember how once they towered above and kept community with other trees. Why not paper? Does this scrap of white, torn and bleached from the core of what once was phloem and xylem, bark and leaf—reaching down to the earth’s core and upwards towards the light—remember from whence she came? So easily I move to a gendered pronoun, so soon, I give it back to life, yet, what life do I give it? Is this paper, née tree, waiting for my stillness in order to open herself up to my pen, to fill what once was flowing with sap―her life blood―with my blood? For is that not what I want to write? The blood of my beingness? My truth?
And how can I write my truth about my connection to nature without considering our shared past? My settler ancestors came in with saws and shovels, violence and dynamite. My grandfather was a logger; my father a blaster. They did not log the slopes I now transverse but countless others did and now I have paper. At what price? Have I paid it? And if not, does this piece of paper await redemption for being torn out of the earth―out of her home, her life―before granting me the permission to write such interpersonal prose?
What can I, a writer, offer this page of white? If this piece of fibre remembers her roots as a once formidable tree, bared to the elements of sun, rain, wind and … destruction, what words can I write that would make up for all she once was? Her kin in the forest speak words that I can only feel and not write. Is it me that resists writing her story or is it her? Is this revenge or a pull on me to go deeper?
When I walk in the forest I prefer the early morning when there is only myself and the breaking dawn. Even the birds are quiet, waiting for the first hint of light to awaken their lyricism. I place my feet with care, avoiding roots and rocks while I slowly empty my mind. From past experience I know if I walk with intent, with the soul quest of connecting―becoming one with the forest― I fail. I must let go of my agendas, let previous conversations, happenings and happenstance wind through and out of me. When I do that―when I let go―the world opens up and, ironically, I connect. All it takes is an inner stillness: no itinerary, no enquiring mind, just a passive willingness to receive.
Sitting at my de facto desk in the local coffee shop I go inward. As I exhale I allow my breath to sink deep into the earth. With each breath I release there is an inexorable downward pull. I feel the stool beneath me and the floor beneath that as my imagined roots travel down my legs and into the ground below. Calm comes over me as I empty out but still the words don’t appear.
It is not so easy to let go of an agenda when writing is involved.
The thing is, I do write. For seven years I have written a weekly blog. I’ve written numerous articles and have even been published but never have I found the formula for easing (squeezing?) words out of my muse. What I have discovered is my muse doesn’t like pressure, although will perform under such when needed, and doesn’t like expectations nor equations. My muse is his own person. That said, my muse likes to be acknowledged for who he is, a young lad full of creativity, spark, generosity and, ironically, hope.
My creative muse is my uncle Fred. He died many years ago, 1932, in fact—death by drowning. He was only eleven. I know very little about him but what I do comes from letters my Nana wrote to my Grandpa while he was away in the logging camps: Uncle Fred wore glasses, went to school, needed clothes―Nana wasn’t a big writer. But from newspaper clippings I also know that one day in late June he and his friend, Edgar, towed his wagon full of boy stuff down to the beach and didn’t come back. Two other kids drowned that day. Those knowledgeable in the ways and whims of the waterway in which he died speculate it was a riptide. His voice, his youthful expression, cut short by a downward pull of water. What would he be, or say, for that matter, if he was alive today? What words would he have owned as his own before they drifted away towards the ocean? Are my words his? Am I channeling the dead, being presumptuous or just fanciful?
While my limbic system would disagree my neo-cortex suggests the latter. My muse, however I honour and hold court for him, is most likely a metaphor. Much like this piece of paper I write about. In reality I sit at a computer looking for excuses why I sometimes can and sometimes cannot write. But metaphor is a large part of my writing, in fact, my life: reality is a slippery eel on a concrete slope. How’s that for a metaphor? But that is my truth. It has always been my challenge figuring out what is real in a literal world. So, if indeed, this paper/computer screen is awaiting the blood of my beingness I present my sketchy self. Is it enough?
But perhaps that is the wrong question. I began this essay by asking why I couldn’t write of my experiences in the woods. How I felt I had no words for the feelings invoked by the forest and how certain types of beauty cannot be translated… at least by me. I’ve pointed fingers at skill and ancestral guilt, my muse and a tenuous grasp of reality. This morning I woke to a fragment of a poem. It’s a piece that’s been composting in the back of my mind for several weeks. The poem completed itself within hours.
Does one still dream when they are ordinary?
Do the stars still sing in their quietest moments?
Do trees offer poetry and the stones―
words of wisdom?
Can one still believe when they finally understand
they are not special?
It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that one must be gifted to write beauty and that only one of such creative expertise has the right to be acknowledged and appreciated—one must be seen and heard before they count, yes? I fought for years to be seen as someone with that gift only to discover that I am not that special. It was, indeed, quite the downfall until I read the following dialogue between two characters in Erin Morgenstern’s Night Circus.
“But I am not … special … not the way they are. I’m not anyone important.”
“I know … You’re not destined or chosen, I wish I could tell you that you were if that would make it easier, but it’s not true. You’re in the right place at the right time, and you care enough to do what needs to be done. Sometimes that’s enough.”
Despite my pedestrian existence and my inability to express the essence of what I experience in the forest, I care about the trees and stone, the moss and fern. I care about relationship and interdependence, humanity’s hopes and fears. And while I do not always do them justice, I do my best to write of them—to express their essences and their impact upon me, and how my existence impacts them. It may not be Pushkin or Goethe but in the end, perhaps that is enough.
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