There is a patch of forest that stays with me. It wafts, it waits, it lingers, it lurks somewhere in my mind, behind my eyes, in my nostrils, under my fingertips—in my soul. A place I can always come back to, unchanged. The gate is always open. Whenever I enter it gathers me up, suffuses and pervades my senses. Restores.
What on Earth is this place? I don’t know if it still exists. And I never want to physically revisit it. I prefer to leave it as it is—where it was, when it was, perfect and unblemished.
It was more than ten years ago, when my mother was still alive and I was still a college student. She used to live in a rural part of Washington state, near a saltwater inlet. Although I had moved out shortly after college, I often visited her. It was in late summer during one of those visits that I went on a morning walk with my little brother and the family dog.
I often liked to go for long walks in the mornings because it was when I felt the most optimistic. The sun would not yet begin to scorch and the threat of darkness was still far away. Night would not yet fall to extinguish hope completely and scatter its ashes, as I knew it would. This was how I felt, so heavy-hearted at the time. An echo of it still lingers, as if each morning contains every great possibility for the day, golden and bright, to eventually dull and fade with each passing minute.
That particular morning, it was my idea to take a different path. Instead of going towards the briny waters of the rocky beach with its wide views of the peninsula, we walked in the opposite direction, towards what looked to be an enormous overgrown patch of blackberry bushes. Blackberries in Washington state are not to be underestimated. As Tom Robbins so eloquently describes in his novel, Still Life with Woodpecker:
To the King, during tea, Bernard had advocated the planting of blackberries on every building top in Seattle. They would require no care, aside from encouraging them, arborlike, to crisscross the streets, roof to roof; to arch, forming canopies, natural arcades, as it were. In no time at all, people could walk through the city in the downpouringest of winter and feel not a splat. Every shopper, every theatre-goer, every cop on the beat, every snoozing bum would be snug and dry. The pale green illumination that filtered down through the dome of vines could inspire a whole new school of painting: centuries from now, art critics might speak, as of chiaroscuro, of “blackberry light” (…) In late summer, when the brambles were proliferating madly, growing faster than the human eye can see, the energy of their furious growth could be hooked up to generators that, spinning with blackberry power, could supply electrical current for the entire metropolis. A vegetative utopia (…).
As we neared the entrance of the forest, we began to feel overwhelmingly anxious, the wild blackberries had grown in two huge masses on either side of us, higher than our heads. They nearly hid the path itself, a simple dirt trail, that had become so narrow, you had to walk sideways in some areas. Getting scratched by the numerous thorns on both sides was unavoidable. The place had surely been neglected by the Parks Department. Did they even know it existed? Were we even allowed there? It seemed a likely possibility. That and real physical danger.
The place was frightening. As if a predator could be lurking anywhere, at any moment, perhaps just around the corner, hiding in the thick bushes or dense undergrowth. Perhaps a wild bear or wolf would come rushing at us, foaming mad and snarling. There would be no warning, just a furious rustling of blackberry vines, then it would be over. Sharp vines, sharp teeth and we should have known better—those would be our last thoughts. Yet, despite these primal fears, we continued. We were not alone, the dog was not frightened, and we were so curious, all of this spurred us to go further.
The vines had grown so dense in some parts that they formed a solid green wall. Looming in the background were large pine trees and delicate birch saplings. Those peaceful hues of familiar northern forests were all there, but there was a different dominant color. Bright, sparkling, emerald green—the vivid color of uncontrolled new growth, now uncontrollable. It was tender new life in profusion. A green explosion captured, not in pixels or in paint—but in lines, in millions of vines. We were Moses parting the green sea, the rushing waters captured in stills of countless swirls and gurgles, mid-wave, blown back by our presence.
It had rained the night before, making the ground dark and soft. Now the heat, which seemed to radiate from under our feet as well as the sky, was evaporating the water rapidly. Sheer mists were rising-up from the ground, as slow and penitent as ghosts. The sun glowing paler above us. If this green place was a cathedral, the floating wisps would be our prayers, as light and hopeful as candle-smoke.
As the hike became more arduous and we breathed more deeply—the forest did the same. It was inhaling and exhaling with us. Altogether. As one. An uncanny feeling, only furthered by the subtle movements of the innumerable vines as we made our way through. Surely we had been among them long enough to absorb their exuberance. Those energetic green shoots and eager tendrils, twisting, turning, reaching up, wherever they could, up towards the light.
Breathing in and out, we were growing with this forest. Time seemed to lengthen and to still. Everything took on a glow, a green glow of life. Even the sunlight sparkled through the thin leaves and translucent vines. Even our skin tingled like spearmint. Even our eyes shone like emeralds.
The end of the trail was both sudden and unwelcome, a bit lackluster in comparison. It was a plain concrete platform, long abandoned. Perhaps a bunker or a military building had once been there. Now only the bones remained. Just a foundation, too high for a bench, too low for a tower. But you could climb up and take in the sight. Of the magical, wild, green labyrinth you came out of.
Many years have passed since then. I’ve gone far, far away, across the world, never to come back. Nearly nothing is as it was. My mother is gone and the house with her. The dog too. My brother and I may never be close again. And I too will fade. But before then, I will hold on to this bright piece of life and cherish it. Green. Vivid. Exuberant.
Text and images by M.P. Baecker