Section D, Day 2: Climate Grief and the Lesson of Water
Updated: Aug 7, 2019
I woke up to the same sun I had watched wink out on the highest peaks of the East side of the valley, just kissing the peaks on the West. The sunlight spread down them like warm honey as I packed up camp, hitting the treetops, and then the back of my neck as I hoisted my pack on.
As I hiked up Amiskwi pass, an old friend showed up: Cedar! I've been in forests of spruce, fir, tamarack, and hemlock since I started this hike, but I don't recall seeing any cedars. Even though this isn't the Western Red Cedar of the coast, it always makes me feel at home, and I exclaimed with delight when I saw it.
I've been learning more about cedar lately though, since I've been noticing it dying off this year, along with the salal. The bigger, older trees seem to be doing fine with deep enough roots to scrounge more moisture (thought they are producing way too many cones this year - a sign of stress), but all the smaller ones are dying. It's shocking and terrifying to see. Cedar is an incredibly slow grower, and its seeds are notoriously inviable. It takes forever to get big, waiting for decades in a small state until there is a break in the canopy for it to slowly, summer by summer, grow its way up to the canopy. These cedars too are showing signs of stress, some of them a third dead and brown. I go down the pass, thinking of cedar. There is the sound of a stream rushing through a ravine on my left. I think of the preciousness of this, of a clear stream giving of itself so freely to the trees and the birds and the moss and to the sweaty hikers, asking nothing in return. And there, bathed in the sound of rushing water, the floodgates finally open, and I start to cry. I stand there, head in my hands, tears dripping onto my glasses. Then I cry-hike for a while.
Cry hiking is really a fantastic way to process grief. A lot of other thru-hikers tell me they do the same. In the spaciousness of day-after-day of movement, alone, in the cupped hands of the forest, we are able to feel the grief we hold at bay in our everyday lives. The grief that is too big, or to impractical to feel. Here there is space for the soft little needles of our pain to fall to the ground.
I'm thinking of cedar, and how we will probably lose it in our lifetimes. I remember one summer in my childhood spent on the banks of Kootenay Lake. How the winter winds had downed a big red cedar and we sawed it up for firewood. Almost a caricature of a boy on a lake in the summer, with something of a Davey Crockett identity complex, I had dedicated myself that August to learning how to chop firewood perfectly. With ax, hatchet, and knife, I methodically turned that big log into perfectly split logs, long rods of kindling, and a fluff of tinder.
I remember the pop sound as two straight grained boards sprung apart, as if concealing an invisible spring, the curl of thin shavings, and the tacky feeling on my fingers as I peeled the stringy bark into long thin strips. Most of all I remember the smell. I even remember chewing on the wood so I could taste it. I recall also the adults amusement with my absorption in this task. I believe it was my first time I ever fell in love with a plant. If you can call a tree of such majesty a plant.
If I feel such grief from this loss, what of the Salish peoples of the coast for whom it has been everything: Shelter, clothing, chord, transportation, beam, craft, wealth for time immemorial. Who knew how to harvest boards from a living tree without damaging it, because the life of cedar was/is inextricably linked to theirs. I cannot imagine.
I'm crying also for salal. I have walked on and off trail in the coast mountains this year and seed the devastation of salal. I remember when I was young thinking these leathery leaves must be the toughest, most indestructible plants imaginable. I have always been amazed by how it could bide its time in the understory for years, with nearly no sun, and then with the falling of a tree and new light, could explode to 6 feet tall almost suddenly. I never thought I would see whole understories of it brown and dead.
Some years ago, I was hiking on the East coast of the Haida Gwaii and for no other reason but my foolishness and distraction, ended up getting trapped on a finger of sand in the incoming tide. I had to swim to shore with my heavy pack on, battling a terrifying undertow that for minutes I thought would take me under. After finally dragging myself to shore, shakey and in shock, it was the sweet and earthy taste of salal berries which grounded me. A stand of them appeared, not long after I had dried off and gathered myself together, so laden with fruit that their branches bowed. I filled my mouth gratefully, feeling warmth and presence flowing back into my distant limbs, adrenaline seeping away. Later that day, I gathered some of these berries and offered them to the water, a thanks for sending me back to shore, and with a promise to respect the ocean from then on.
I think that we are all diminished deeply when the plants that we have loved, and have loved us in return suffer and die off. It's not how it should be. We are supposed to pass on in the knowledge that the forest will continue in our absence. Deep and green and persistent. I feel hollowed out with the pain of knowing that it may not. But it is better, I think, to feel this crumbling ache in us, than the cleaving of psyche and spirit it requires to know it, but not feel it.
As I walk and cry, I reach another small creek, glistening and laughing down the rocks. I kneel and place my hands in the clear pool of it. It is cold and clean and I wash my face, feeling hollowed out, but honest and clear. The lesson of water, I think, is to be whole. Water will always flow down to join itself. You cannot cleave water in two, and it does not want us to split ourselves on its behalf. It wants us to cry, and grieve, and be whole, so that we can fight for it, and everyone who drinks.