“And this also,” said Marlowe suddenly, “has been one of the dark places of the earth.”
~From Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad
Today, for the first time in fifteen months, we are loading up and taking a little trip. We are going to a small state park in the primal forests of southern Ohio. Rugged hills, deep valleys and small lakes, scattered towns and villages decorate the landscape. Roads are filled with constant twists, turns, climbs, and descents. Suddenly you find yourself in the middle of a village, reduced speeds, stop signs, it is no place to be if you’re in a hurry.
Sometime between 8,000 and 500 BC, the climate began to warm as the Ice Age receded and the forests grew thick and almost impenetrable.
We like to take the roads less traveled when we go on these trips. In many places, the trees grow right up to the side of the road. You can see the scars where some monstrous machine comes through and chops and saws and tears the branches away to keep the road clear. Sometimes, in the early spring, the trees start to grow, violently, urgently. As you drive past them you can almost feel the anger, the sense of need. The road is an affront to the forest.
It is a solid wall of green, top to bottom, it reaches over the road, twining and twisting on the power lines that cross overhead. It is relentless. A green monolith, it’s easy to think of it as one thing, a single organism growing across thousands of square miles seeking domination, control. But it isn’t, it’s thousands, millions of things, growing in harmony, feeding off the pollution man creates constantly. Climate change has been a boon for the forest.
Driving through the trees you think about the early inhabitants, the Hopewell Indians, the late prehistoric tribes that followed them, the early European settlers, hacking their way through the forest. What imported demons did they fill the woods with? How many times did somebody trek to find food, firewood, water and never come back? If you were the wagon master for a group of pilgrims and in the morning before breaking camp you discover one hardy soul is missing how long do you look before deciding to leave him? You have responsibilities to everybody, after all.
As they loaded the wagons the people would make the sign of the cross, look, fearfully at the forest and move on. A slight tremor would run through the consciousness of the travelers as they tried to move in a little closer to each other.
Even today, when you set in front of your cabin, steaks sizzling on the grill, a plastic tumbler of wine in the pocket of your folding chair, with night closing in you can sense something. Darkness grows from the tree lines on both sides of the cabin. Shadow crawlS across the clearing, inching closer, a noose tightening around your little pocket of civilization, and you hear the rustle of something, it sounds big, or maybe it sounds like a lot of small somethings coming from the blackness of the forest. You cling tightly to the belief that nothing is there and move closer to the light from the red-hot charcoal.
As the dark becomes complete the sound of the forest increases. Every insect, reptile, rodent, and bird adds to the chorus. Even the trees seem to be screaming. It sounds like the apocalypse.
It’s really hard to imagine anything worse until it stops, everything, all at once. As if someone threw a switch, or something terrible had arrived. The darkness and the noise were bad, the darkness and the silence are awful.
In those moments you sense the power of the unknown. It’s easy to believe everybody who ever got lost Native American and European, is still wandering the woods, looking for their fellow travelers. Doomed, for eternity, to seek friendship, solace, the warmth of shared humanity.
In the morning everything looks different, normal, rabbits feed on the clover in the lawns between the cabins. In the distance, a hundred yards or so, in a place where there are no cabins and the forest creeps almost to the edge of the road, a deer crosses from left to right. Everything seems benign. Except the trees. They still glower down at you.
Nature is amazing, the trees and forest will be here long after we’ve gone. They will reclaim the roads and the area where the cabins are. Inexorably, they will break down everything we built, pushing up through the asphalt, clinging to the walls of all the buildings until they crumble under the weight.
Every time we make one of these trips, I take a few minutes and thank the natural world for sharing the planet with me. You never know when you might be stuck wandering through the darkness looking for your tribe.
This post is republished on Medium.
Photo credit: Shutterstock