This piece was published April 24, 2021
I’ve been remembering a special moment back near the end of my first decade of living on the side of a forest-covered mountain on the western flank of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, back in the 1990s:
It was as I sat on a somewhat flat area of my roof that I saw it. Looking out across our valley — though I was alone — I gave out an audible, and involuntary, “WOW!”
Our place sits just below the top of a ridge looking west across a trough of forested land leading up to the next ridge, which is high enough to be called Great North Mountain (though it runs mostly north and south). The land on the mountain is National Forest, and some time in the recent past, patches of those woods had been harvested for lumber.
Although farming is almost wholly gone from ridge-land like ours (while farms persist still in those broader and more fertile valleys that made this area the breadbasket of the Confederacy), on our side of this forested trough you can find old evidence of homesteads and overgrown fields where people tried to grow a living off these steep and vulnerable slopes.
Like the rest of the great eastern woodlands of America, the virgin forests that once covered these mountains lost their virginity long ago to humans bearing axes. (Photos from the mid-19th-century – in Virginia and elsewhere – often show treeless landscapes, vivid evidence of how people then thought of forests as something in the way, something to be eradicated.)
The imprint of humanity on these woods has also been made less directly.
A century ago, magnificent American chestnuts were a major component of these forests. But they were struck down by a fungus inadvertently introduced to North America by people wanting to add the Chinese chestnut to their landscaping.
And then there’s the gypsy moth, an alien species accidentally let loose in New England generations ago. Perhaps it was the gypsy moths, which were plentiful and voracious here the first couple of years after we moved here, that helped obscure the reality I now saw.
Then also, that spring, starting cold, was slow in coming. But when it warmed, the sudden new burst of green came rising up strongly out of the earth and through the wood. And as I sat on my roof, watching the trees coming into leaf, I discovered the secret they contained.
“The forest is coming!” That’s what I said to myself after that initial “Wow!”
What was visible to me was that something powerful was emerging from the earth—not just emerging during that burgeoning spring, but gathering strength and gaining ground over the years since we’d moved here.
It was as if my mind were now able to play out a years-long time-elapsed film, and could discern in that mental reel what it is that the earth is up to.
What the earth wants to create here is a great forest, and laid out before me was the evidence of how substantially the earth had progressed in this vital endeavor.
The previously bare patches on Great North Mountain, as my time-elapsed memory movie now revealed, were being nibbled away by the spreading green of trees, as what recently had been shrub-sized dots had swelled into identifiable trees rising skyward.
And the tops of the row of trees that grow a couple hundred feet downhill from us, just below our clearing, now stretched up a good six or eight feet above where they’d been last time I’d noticed.
In the flush of the spring, I could see –I could feel– the forest growing toward us, rising around us.
What a beautiful and mighty living thing I saw, reclaiming its domain.
“This is what happens on this part of our earth,” I said to myself, “when we get out of the way.”
(A couple of weeks ago, I announced here that I was taking off on a “new mission”—i.e. that I was turning away from my years-long confrontation with the darkness of our times toward things that feed my spirit.
(What is important to me about this piece is that it is my best effort to give expression to that “Wow!” It was out of that moment of recognizing the power of life-on-earth around me that the essay itself was born.
(And the crafting of that essay is an expression of my “new mission,” which I said is “to work to create illustrations of “the sacred” that can nourish also the spirits of readers here.
(Perhaps this time transcending our dreadful divisions.
(Can we get together on our marveling at the profundity of the Creation alive around us?
(Can we translate that marveling into a recognition of the importance of finding a way to live in harmony with the rest of life-on-earth, as we build what we need for ourselves?)