My Country – Excerpt

The Homeland

It’s been a long, cold winter and a long, cold, rainy spring. Now, near the end of May, the warm sunny weather has finally arrived. There’s much catching up to do: in the garden, the orchard… and the heart. While my days now will be filled with managing my little corner of nature, there is more yet to be done under the sun: but this in the shelter of wild trees. I am struck this morning, as I walk in the sun-salved forest, with a sense of homecoming.

forestI was raised in such a forest. Oh, not me, personally; and not exactly this type of forest. But over the long term of millions of years of evolution, humans developed in such an environment—warm, shady, filled with other living things, and a sense of presence: them in me and me in them, all part of a living fabric. The whole brain and body there (here) is awake, aware, alert to the presence of all life. Today we call this unity an ecosystem.

All seems possible now, as I walk gently, quietly here under shade as tranquil as a cathedral. It even seems plausible, when it’s warm and dry and comfortable as this, to “make a living” in a harmonious manner here, with those other living things. This is a northern mixed forest, predominantly fir and pine, cedar and hemlock, vine maple and birch. There are, on this outing, no deer to be seen. Maybe, finally, they have taken their climatic cue to move up to the high country. Small animals are few: the odd squirrel; the sound of birds. Inevitably some ants; no mosquitoes, yet. The plant cover on the forest floor is behind schedule, with the bracken and thimbleberries not really opened up yet to spread thickly everywhere, as they will after a spell of hot weather. There is not, in other words, a lot to eat in this forest. Still, I have a positive feeling about the prospect of spending the time here to seek out food, or to prepare shelter, if needed. I’m not going to freeze to death at night. With a little more practice in snares and tracking, cordage and firekeeping, I think it could be done.

A light breeze riffles the treetops.

I reflect further that, to really do the job right—the job of primary production and survival—would take a full-time commitment, and cooperation with others at the same task, over the course of the good growing weather. The native tribes of the BC interior possessed the necessary skills, and worked like mad in the summer to put away forest foods for the long winter. And it worked: they were successful in making a living from their natural homeland.

I don’t plan to stay, of course, to do all that, but will continue down the trail toward my house and computer to write about it instead. Am I just another intellectual copout in a human world, doing head work, abstract work for a living? How can I claim to be truly at home here? From the perspective of the forest, or its indigenous inhabitants, no doubt I’m just a tourist, passing through. Or worse, a colonizer here only to extract value on my terms.

path.jpgThat’s a fair enough critique. Given such limitations, I still find a valid sense of rootedness here: a connection that is deeper than culture or level of technology. I come home by noticing, by appreciating, by paying homage to that thrill in the heart that comes from being here—under the canopy of branches, standing on living soil, amid the stirrings of fellow life—in the ancient homeland. Even if just for a period of years, or months, or one day, or during one morning walk down a forest trail, I can share in a more universal human homecoming: the warmth of recognizing the ancestral house and family; of joyfully stretching limbs and lungs in that soothing, familiar element.

The high drone of a plane enters without knocking.
My reverie is broken and I lope down the trail towards home, leaving the forest behind. I have words that must be written there; and seeds to plant in the garden, and an orchard to water.

> My Country: Essays and Stories from the Edge of Wilderness


“Ultimately, the sheer variety amid the collection in My Country proves not dissimilar to a hike in the forest, where a slow meander reveals fresh originality at nearly every turn. And while nature provides the cohesive theme, what is refreshing is Gray’s honest portrayal of our interaction with it—the reader is treated to a view of life in the wilderness without either melodrama or whitewashed sentimentality. That, and the close observation of detail, commend repeated readings of this book.” – AJ Sirlin

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