Learning from the Forest

by Christopher Nyerges


Nyerges is the author of "Enter the Forest," "Urban Wilderness," "Guide to Wild Foods," and other books. He is the former editor of Lament, the magazine of Greater L.A. Area Mensa. He has been teaching outdoor classes since 1974. Together with his wife Dolores, they operate the School of Self-Reliance. For information on his classes and books, contact School of Self-Reliance at Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041 or http://www.self-reliance.net.


It was cold, raining, and quiet as I walked up the hill towards the forest north of Los Angeles. There was no one around. I began to ask myself why I wasn't inside sitting by a warm fire. It was very cold, and even my raincoat did not keep the out the cold. But I felt the desire to soak in the quietude, to be here for awhile in the midst of the tall stark trees reaching heavenward on this cold and quiet day.

The tall, white-barked trees even seemed cold themselves. I hiked to a higher location to look at this forest of trees from another vantage point. I found only slight shelter from the rain and wind as I sat on large stones which arose from the hillside like giant stepping stones. I felt cold, but not wet, so I relaxed, crossed my legs, and enjoyed the gentle raindrops on my hat and coat.

Before me was a thick line of towering alders, white-barked telephone pole-trees, following the line of the stream. Without their leaves, they were stark sentinels, standing guard, ever-watchful with their vascular bundle "eyes."

What do they tell me about human life, I wondered. After all, all of nature seems to contain lessons if we but take the time to find it. And trees present one of the best analogies possible.

I recalled a lesson in analogy I'd learned after doing tree pruning. I was asked how I determined which branches to cut, and which to leave. My mind had quickly gone to analogy and I explained that it is the same as the human social organization. First, you remove that which is dead, for it serves no one, and is a burden on the tree. Then you look for those thicket clusters where all the branches are rubbing together due to their closeness and none are growing well. One by one, you remove the branches that are growing downward, or contrary to the overall shape of the tree. You remove all diseased branches too. As you remove them, you step back, look at the tree, and continue based upon what is obviously best for the tree.

You cut out those long spindly branches that grow way out beyond the natural shape of the tree. They would not support fruit, and would threaten the balance of the tree. Likewise, spindly growth from the base of the tree -- the suckers -- are always cut back since they are rarely productive.

Each one of these choices benefits the larger organism, the tree, and each has a direct correspondence to some aspect of human life, whether the family, the business, the city, the community.

But I was not pruning today. Before me I saw towering statuesque individuals, powerful trees, who collectively made a small forest. What can you teach me, I asked.

Each individual was tall, upward-seeking, strong. Each stood there along the river, accepting the heat and the cold of the seasons. Of course, they did not move. Each knew his or her place, and made their roots in that specific spot. Once there, those roots went deep. They did not have a sense of doubt or concern about whether or not that was the exact spot where they should be.

As I looked upon a single beautiful towering tree, I asked myself what principle does it represent. In its singularity, yet part of the whole forest, the answer was "unity." Unity. Each individual, strong and whole unto itself, was nevertheless a part of a larger "family." Each tree expressed unity.

I let my eyes now take in the totality of the forest before me. In the cold drizzle of the quiet Sunday morning, these were the warriors of the plains, these were the guard of the outback, the all-seeing who no one sees.

I asked myself, what principle does the totality represent. The answer was "harmony." Harmony. Though some trees were thinner, some thicker, some taller, there was no sense of better or worse. There was the sense that everyone's strength was due to being a part of the greater collective. Sure, there were differences, and there were distinctions among trees the closer and longer you looked. One tree was riddled with holes and many animals lived there. Another tree at the bend of the stream did extra work holding the soil together at that point. In on spot, a fallen tree had provided for the soil to build up so that the trees immediately upstream could be stronger and live. Each did its job, and yet you could feel the natural harmony.

It was a harmony that we often lack in our wild cacophony of daily scurrying that we call normal life in the city. We each declare that we want freedom and independence, often at the expense of the other guy who also declares he wants freedom and independence. As I pondered what the forest could tell me about the people of the city, I realized that myth of absolute freedom.

The most just governments on earth only function optimally when the individuals choose self-government, a point that is all but lost on most of today's "I want it now" mentality. The people of the city have lost the concept of how to be a forest.

When the individual trees see only their own pleasure and desires as the greatest of endeavors, they cannot help but threaten all those trees around them. In time, the entire forest is threatened as the soils no longer hold together the land and protect against the ravages of floods and mudslides.

Today, we the people of the city are being buffeted about wildly by the mudslides of our own making. We must learn the lesson of the forest before we are washed downstream.

In the rain I sat
on stone steps
high on the path
up on the hill
I was in the forest
still able to view it
a cold and quiet day
with the wind blowing through it
tall tree sentinels
standing starkly
in the white cold wintry skies
Living beings standing still
silently speaking volumes
about us,
and our lives

Copyright © 2001 by Christopher Nyerges.
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