On New Year’s Day, my wife and I, with a friend, took a trip out to Belcarra. It is an area in Greater Vancouver which is rich with provincial parkland and is a place where, I joke to my friends from England, we keep every foreigner’s idea of Canada. This means lots of woods. It means babbling brooks and mountain vistas. When you’re out that way, you think that someone somewhere is really trying to impress you. But, our trips there mean more than drinking in the beauty of God’s landscape painting. It’s not just the thing itself. It is what being in the forest reminds us of. When I say “us”, perhaps I should say specifically my wife and I, who as children enjoyed romping through woods, being under a roof of branches and leaves. Being there brings us back to a mindset, when imagination was the guiding light, the thing that allowed us to wander about in worlds of our own making.
When I was young, there was an expanse of forest where the outside world could just as well have passed away entirely while I played there. It was the Trails. The boundry of this primeval world was located behind General Wolfe High School, bound by Sheridan College to the East and Upper Middle Road to the North. I supppose the area itself is not very large, but at the time it seem to be the size of Sherwood Forest. Much like the Creek (or “Creekway”, as I’ve been reminded) which I’ve talked about in another column, The Trails were a wild place. Eventually, we kids had explored every inch of it, playing at guerilla warfare, building forts out of found materials and picking wild raspberries (no food tastes better for a kid than the food he finds in the wild places), but no matter how many times we went there, how many days stretching from morning to dusk, it seemed to be as mysterious and exciting as the first time. We would crash through the trees, following the narrow dirt spines of the trails themselves, which were veined with the gnarled roots of the trees. We walked in single file, sometimes laughing, sometimes in silence, and always on some kind of adventure under the canopy of shade spotted with warm, off-yellow sunlight. We’d come home at the end of the day, covered in dirt and red clay caked on our shoes, smelling of the green creeks which fed the woods themselves. We would be completely exhausted and happy, with dinner and hot baths waiting for us in the real world. The magic of the day would fade into a sort of sleepy contentment, and we didn’t give a second thought to the woods, which continued to grow far away from our beds, our orderly homes which existed on another planet to our arboreal playground.
Perhaps my first hint of political outrage happened when I discovered that more houses were needed in our town. Oakville had been growing since we moved there in 1975. Since that time, it had become known as one of the most affluent places to live in Canada, being as it was a prime location for commuters who took the train into Toronto on weekdays. The construction started on one of the easterly parts of the Trails, and one day I rode my red Raleigh bicycle up one of the high trails, along the lip of the ravine where most of the trails wound their way into the foliage, following the hidden creek. That day, I realised the trail was different. It was thinner, the trees looking almost anaemic. My bike threw up a red cloud of dust as I rounded a corner and there I was confronted by the reality of a lawn, a house, windows, a front door, the early makings of a patio. World’s had collided. It wasn’t the end of the Trails, and there were still many hours and days of pleasure, of make-believe there afterwards, but I realised at that moment that I couldn’t stop things from changing. I knew then that just because something was in place that made me happy, it didn’t mean that it always would be. It didn’t mean that I had any sort of control. I remember railing against the new houses being built, not just there, but also in the tangled wilderness behind our school as well, at the end of McCraney Street where the only sign of civilisation was the triangular, flying saucer-like structure across the Sixteen Mile Creek at Glen Abbey Golf Course (and the Abbey itself – a gothic wonder I may write about later which I also didn’t entirely associate as being a part of civilisation). The world of commerce seemed to be unstoppable, and the Wild World seemed to be something which was entirely helpless to its demands for space, for resources.
One of my favourite poems is “Sir Gawain & The Green Knight”, particularly the part where the Green Knight rides his equally green steed into the banquet hall of Camelot, the very seat of civilisation in that ancient world. I’ve always been fascinated by that contrast; the silks and finery of Arthur and his knights versus the bearded, weather beaten giant, intruding upon the solemnity of the Christmas meal, offering his violent challenge. It reverses the roles which civilisation has constructed; it meets the world of order, of commerce and common sense, and demands that the virtues upon which civilisation is meant to be based be tested to make sure that it has not slid into laxity and corruption. The presence of the Green Knight, the embodiment of nature and of things beyonf our understanding, commands attention and strikes fear into the hearts of the complacent. I think that is another reasonI love the woods so much; it gives me perspective, that no matter what I achieve and what shape my world will take, I am still subject to the humility that the beauty and the power of nature brings to me. It reminds me that I am a part of it, vulnerable and as full of that sense of wonder as I was when I rode my red Raleigh bicycle, surrounded by friends, into the embrace of the trees.