"Vigorously told deceptions and battle scenes." ~Publishers Weekly review of Eolyn

"The characters are at their best when the events engulfing them are at their worst." ~Publishers Weekly review of High Maga

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Old Growth Forest

In my first fantasy fiction publication, the short story ‘Turning Point’ ( Zahir, Issue 17), two women struggle to understand the highland forests of Costa Rica, one from a scientific perspective, the other as an artist in the making. Their passionate focus on distinct modes of inquiry generates tension – each comes to resent the other, and neither is capable of seeing the forest through her companion’s eyes. The story ends in separation; one woman abandons her present life to disappear inside a fairy ring; the other remains faithful to her career as a scientist, yet loses herself in the endless task of cataloguing the forest’s smallest creatures.

While this denouement may seem kind of depressing, in truth both women are satisfied with their choices; both will come to know the forest in a way few others have had the privilege to experience. The real tragedy, I suppose, is that no one else will ever learn of the wonderful secrets they discover.

As we hiked through the primary forest of the Cascade Range, I was reminded of this story, and I realized that whether I enter the forest as a biologist or as an author, the challenge remains the same: How can I hope to capture this world and communicate its magnificence and complexity to others?

This is the first time I’ve been asked – formally – to study the forest from a writer's perspective, and I’ve found that my approach in the first moments of the encounter is the same:

I stop.

And then I ‘listen’. With all my senses.

From the sequel to EOLYN (currently in progress):  She pressed her hands against the rough bark, closed her eyes and heard the pulse of the tree, solid and slow, a steady current that stretched toward the sky and descended into the deepest places of the earth, a quiet murmur of indomitable strength.

It is not an easy task to listen, and it is especially difficult to listen to creatures who speak in ways completely foreign to our experience. In the world of Eolyn, Mages and Magas must learn to understand the plants, animals and rocks before they can hope to master any other form of magic. Nor do I – as the author -- make their task made simple by introducing animals that speak English; rather, the maga must come to understand each animal (or plant, or mineral) on its own terms, through its own language and behavioral patterns. This is, in essence, the same task of any modern-day biologist. What we are really trying to do, with all those instruments, data points and statistics, is translate the language of ecosystems into something that can be communicated in meaningful ways to other members of our own species.

Jewels of the forest:  rain water caught by a Trilium plant.
When I ‘listen’ to the forest, the first things I tend to ‘hear’ are the familiar – a plant that belongs to a family I recognize, for example. The way the moss hangs from the branches or covers the logs. The chill of the air. The shape of the fungi. The quiet – which, as I should point out, is not the same as silence. In a forest, sound is ever-present, yet understated. The flow of the river, the hushed sway of the canopy in response to a breeze. The rhythmic chirp of a small bird, like the intermittent squeak of a tiny gate, interrupted by the sudden chatter of another. The distant monotone trill of the varied thrush. The scratch of my pen on paper, the plasticky crunkle of my rain coat.

Now there’s a phrase: ‘plasticky crunkle’. Neither word can be found in the dictionary, but then again, much of what I would like to describe about the experience of old growth forest cannot be found in a dictionary. Imagine if we had a word for every mood, texture, sound, sensation that one experiences in the old growth forests of the Pacific Northwest. What a rich language ours would be.

Walking the trails through Andrews Forest sometimes leaves me at a loss for words – a terrible feeling for a writer – and my immediate response is an intense desire to create new words, new ways of saying things, so that I might capture and communicate the experience.  I will, for example, study the bark of the Douglas-fir for several minutes at a time trying to decide how best to describe it.  This inner tension between a loss for words and the need for words left me wondering today to what extent wilderness has given us our language.

How many times in our long history, has someone walked into a new territory and been compelled to invent novel words or phrases because nothing he or she had handy was sufficient to describe the plants, the animals, the personality of that particular place which had been woven by nature in all its complexity?

And if we destroy old growth forest, leaving behind only the barren earth, or monotonous stands of young plantations, do we not also obliterate the potential for new ways of communication that verdant maze might have inspired?

I don’t have answers to these questions at the moment, but I believe they are worth thinking about. 

This is the second installment of a week-long series of reflections on my writer's residency at Andrews Experimental Forest in Oregon.

Many thanks to Rafael Aguilar Chaves for the photos.