I think of Thomas from time to time . . my image of him is walking on the trail in front of me, his battered bean bucket hanging down from the back of his pack, swinging back and forth in cadence to his stride. Thomas went and died when a freak mudslide swept him off a mountain. Sometimes, I wonder if he planned it that way, wandering around alone in the wild and then . . . boom, in the warm and dark embrace. He was a solitary man, and it was just a bit of luck that I was able to hang out with him for the short time I did. He was my friend and mentor – another from my father’s generation – and I tagged along with him as he explored the remote forests way up in the northern end of British Columbia.
A little previously, I had been spending time alone in the Appalachian mountains – it was winter and I was learning how to sleep with my boots in my sleeping bag to keep them from freezing. But my solitude was for no better reason than to recover from a relationship gone sour. Somehow it seemed appropriate to be surrounded by ice and a biting, clarifying wind. But it also seemed appropriate that I was learning, in the midst of this apparent desolateness, that I could be warm and safe. One cold, winter's night, on the top of Mt LeConte in Tennessee, thanks to a cool poster I had seen in town (or possibly hypothermia?), I suddenly decided to go to Santa Cruz, CA. A long story short, within a month I had met Thomas and was packing my backpack for the long trek north with him – along with a half dozen other nature junkies interested in his naturalist teachings.
Always careful about pack weight, I cut my toothbrush in half and calculated the lightest trail mix. Thomas watched my obsessiveness from the corner of his eye while he piled – old school style – a stack of books, a sack of beans and a couple bottles of whiskey into his pack. Every day, we hiked with the rhythm of the sun and somehow I ended up carrying his books. I’m not sure how this came about – he was part naturalist, part trickster – but I’m glad for it, for it was a tactful introduction to Muir and Emerson and those who were looking deep into the hidden heart of nature, those who seemed to share my long-standing bewilderment and disorientation with things as they seemed. At dark, with an exhilarating tiredness and a slow fire that competed with the canopy of stars for my gaze, Thomas would casually mention some topic he had been pondering on his day’s walk and informally jump-start that evening’s class. I benefited so much from this time shared with like minds, I still remember the effect those nightly readings from ‘Pilgrim at Tinker Creek’ had on me. Our discussions would bubble along for hours, but it was always the silences between that carried the most substance. When I asked Thomas about this, slightly vexed, he asked me back, ‘how can you understand words, if you can’t understand silence?’
It was in this contemplative, questioning frame of mind, that I walked into the virgin Cedar Grove.
For a couple of weeks, we had threaded so deep into the woods that either you watched carefully for the trail or you lost it. But now that I had entered this Cedar Grove, the path was unmistakable, it was as if I had crossed some mythical threshold. This was the deep forest of fairy tales, a dark and powerful presence, where an ancient canopy of braided branches shaded huge swells of gnarled roots that cradled lichens and mushrooms the size of my head; and everywhere, the air was heavy and moist with the dense smell of cedar. Here and there frisbee-sized shafts of sunlight would penetrate the shadows and light up the thick, velvety carpet of green moss like a spotlight . . . infusing these luminous beams was an abundance of swirling pollen and flying sparkly things. The atmosphere was thick with an otherworldly fusion of magic and menace; I was in the place of faerie and wolves; I thought Oz’s monkeys would live here. A virgin Cedar Grove . . . never seen the saw, probably filled with druid bones and little whispering voices that would get you lost for a century or two. I had entered a primordial cathedral that demanded some form of reverence but at the same time the hairs on my arms were at full alert. One whispered here.
A few years later the Grove was leveled – cut down to the ground. Death is no stranger to me, but this hit me hard – I felt some deep part of me torn out by the sinews. I actually believe that everyone of us died a little that day. And like my bond to Thomas, I think of this grove from time to time . . . and I have a question. Undeniably, I had had a transforming experience, one that planted a seed of respect and kinship within me, but close to this was a shadow of remembered fear. I had felt it in the depths of this dark, dense, cedar forest. It wasn’t my individual fear, my personal phobias; it was deeper than that. This was deep-rooted . . . an ancient-dread-in-the-very-flesh-of-humanity fear. How did I get this fear? Where did it come from? Was it passed at the cellular level from my ancestors – so sorely troubled with matters of safety and survival? Does it keep us from remembering our connection with the many different beings in this life? Did this old fear blanket the heart of the chain-saw crew so that they wouldn’t fall to their knees weeping?
But these issues are too big for me, too disappointing, for my understanding is so inadequate. I do what I can, in little ways, and make efforts to wrench this blanket from my own bruised and sleeping heart. So I have become friends with Cedar. I have burned her during sweats and I used to put little bags of chips in my children’s crib. I brush a Cedar concoction into my cat’s fur and make Cedar oil for a medicine-man friend of mine. I once made a flute from a straight Cedar branch. And of course, I use her in a few Grateful Body products. We use both the oil and hydrosol of Cedar – which can be found in Midnight Oil and in the ClearSkin Toner. I’m partial to the oil from the Lebanon Cedars (Cedrus atlantica) – this is sustainably harvested from the very old cedar groves of Morocco. Sometimes, we use oil from the Himalayan Cedar (Cedrus deodora) which has a wonderful amber color and deep resonant scent. An oil from the Alaskan Cedar (Thuja plicata) is available but since I don’t how they harvest it, we don’t use it.
There is another thing I learned on my walks with Thomas. In a rather shocking moment, I found out that the top of my head is about level with the shoulder of a moose!
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