Mason Voehl is a climber, a writer, a philosopher, and an outdoor educator. He recently completed a graduate degree in environmental philosophy at the University of Montana and lives now in the Black hills of South Dakota. Here he writes about an experience as an instructor on a Wild Rockies Field Institute course when the forest floor suddenly sang. In a time in which despair comes easily, a fellow instructor’s reaction to decay restores his hope.
We are hunting for a suitable bear hang when Mel sees it and pulls up short. I freeze, my ears and eyes suddenly at attention. What has she sensed that I haven’t? Some wild and rare little life? A bird, perhaps, or one of the many species of alpine flowers she knows on sight? I sweep my eyes over my perceptual field again and again, hoping to notice what she has noticed without having to ask. I give up.
“Alright, what is it?” I ask with a self-deprecating little laugh. By my own reckoning, I’m a very poor naturalist, but I’m working to improve. I admire and envy Mel’s ability to walk through the woods and to call its members by name. She takes a few gentle steps forward.
“This is my new favorite tree.”
I look again. From what I can tell, this stretch of woods a few hundred feet from the beach of Sunburst Lake looks like any other stretch: fir, spruce, rocks, bushes, unripe thimbleberries. Then she places a hand on the fallen trunk, dragging it softly over a blanket of verdant mosses. Suddenly the object of her affection springs forward, the hum of color and motion of the surrounding forest fading behind and around it. Now Mel is sitting on it, a fallen fir perhaps three feet wide wrapped in a quilt of sprightly mosses. Infantile firs and spruces sprout from its torso on top. On bottom the trunk has lost all distinctiveness, blurring with the soil in a layer of crumbly detritus. How could I have missed it?
“I’ve always loved nurse logs,” she says, tucking a lank of black hair behind her ear.
“What’s a nurse log?” I ask.
It’s a stupid question. Nurse logs are very well named. But Mel answers with her usual unstrained patience. Sadly, philosophers require no small amount of such grace from their friends.
“When a tree falls and isn’t immediately removed by fire or rushing water, it slowly decomposes returning valuable nutrients to the forest floor. Bugs and mosses are the first to work on it, moistening the wood and breaking it down into a softer growing medium. Eventually seeds fall or are left by birds or squirrels on top and some will germinate. As they grow, they shoot roots straight down through the nurse log. Nurse logs literally grow forests!”
She says all of this in an excited whisper, as though words said too loudly might upset the community of life expressing itself far, far below her fingertips.
“Will these young trees make it, you think?” I ask.
“They should. Look at the size of the nurse log they’re growing from! Think about all the nutrients down there, all the sunlight and water it took for this tree to grow so big. I’d say these young trees are the lucky ones, wouldn’t you?”
I knew while it was happening that this moment with Mel and the nurse log was important. It was such a beautiful image, the evening sun filtering through the trees, the lake shimmering like a field of broken glass beyond, the way Mel’s eyes filled with an almost childlike awe and excitement for this fallen fir. It is the kind of moment that only happens in the field, or secondhand through great cinema or literature, but so very rarely in the classroom. I am grateful for several such moments during the course. But this moment, more than any of the others, struck me profoundly. It unlocked something in me, some unseen constriction around my capacity for wonder, and for hope. It inspired me – literally, breathed into me – a new vision for my life’s work. Let me try to explain.
Death, that old friend with quiet feet, had been whispering on the wind for days. Futility, it hissed. Look at the glaciers as they bleed. Look at the forests as they burn. Look at your fragile youth! Can you not feel it ebb in your knees and in your back? What can you do, you child of twilight, to save a world that knows nothing but to eat? Relent. Take what you can, and bear no sons or daughters if you would call yourself a kind man.
Maybe it was all the talk of prisoner’s dilemmas and the abstract wild that did it. Or perhaps it was the silence and the solitude afforded on this philosophy field course that left space for such thoughts to fester. Wherever they came from, the thoughts were real, and potent. What was I doing out in the woods with a bunch of strangers? I had a wonderful wife and two dogs at home. Moreover, why did I drag us out to Montana to study environmental philosophy at all? I once made good money baking bread. We lived in comfort. We could afford to pay our bills and our debts and still have a little left over for craft beer, burritos and a vacation or two a year. Materially, we live well still, no two ways about it. But where once I lived in a sort of placid naïveté, I now exist in a state of chronic anxiety and justification, constantly convincing myself, my family, and anyone who cares to ask why I’m doing what I’m doing. Most days, the answer is so unspeakably clear: it needs to be done and I need to do it. But to see the white barks, the glaciers, the worry lines on the faces of those who have spent the currency of their lives to slow down the machine…it rattled me, badly. The world eats, time steals, and beauty hangs somewhere in the balance.
And yet, here we are. All of these women and men on this course, and all those we have met along the way see enough hope on the horizon to continue working, learning, pushing, and even smiling. I couldn’t make sense of it, not before, not in those late days by the lake. Then that moment came, that beautiful moment with Mel and the nurse log, and I felt hope rise. The problem remained, and with it the terrible stakes, but for the first time in a long time a real and beautiful vision for the future swam before me, and I chased it. I’m still chasing.
Mossy log by David via Flickr Students at lake by Mason Voehl