Encounter with an ancient woodland

Spending a long time alone in a Canadian forest helped Patrick McCusker understand it

Some years ago, I worked as a naturalist in Ontario, Canada. One of the tasks I was asked to provide was to undertake a survey of plants and animals in a particular woodland. The purpose of this survey was that Ontario Parks needed a clearer understanding of the potential of the entire area for development into a provincial park.

I collected together mist-nets, small-animal traps; butterfly nets, collecting jars and reference books. And a map to locate the place.

It was an old-growth forest with several small streams cutting through it. On one side, the forest gave way to an extensive area of wetland that, in turn, drained into a large river in the distance. A scattering of the older trees had toppled over years before and were now mouldering back into soil. Nevertheless, they had kept their shapes on the forest floor and had formed long ridges of decay where they had fallen. Upon a number of these mounds a new generation of trees had taken root on what once may have been the bodies of their parents. Some of these youngsters stood over thirty feet tall.

On my arrival I discovered a make-do wooden hut. No need to unfurl the tent. This hut would be my shelter. It was nothing fancy, but it had a sound roof, which, in its entirety, as though to demonstrate its longevity, was covered in a thick layer of cushion moss. The hut was no more than a small square room that boasted a tiny window, webbed and re-webbed, from the industry of generations of spiders. A jumble of planks of wood, a table, and two chairs fought for space. And, for some reason, a large unopened tin of paint, rusted through on one side, stood on one of the chairs. This hut would be my home for the length of the survey.  A layer of mud and fallen branches, that had accumulated over the years, had the door stuck at open. It took me the best part of an hour to clear away enough of the mud to get the thing to finally shut.

The survey work was immensely enjoyable. So, too, was the solitude it offered. Within days I had organized myself into a ritual of rising with the dawn to attend to my traps to see what the night before had to offer. A telescopic butterfly net and field binoculars were constant companions during the day.

A forest is not just a collection of trees sprawled across hills and valleys. It contains an undergrowth that is influenced by the conditions dictated by the canopy above. And the trees, some standing for hundreds of years, are the guardians and protectors of all within their shade. Together, these trees, and the shrub layer below them, generate a presence and an atmosphere that pervades all.

I knew something of the trees that were to be found in this forest, so I was comfortable in their identification. But the shrubs and ground flora were another matter. The reference books I had brought with me would be invaluable in identifying many of these. For the rarer ones I would need the help of experts back in the office: people with remarkable botanical knowledge.

On the second night I had a visitor. A repeated banging on the door had me out of my sleeping-bag; flashlight in hand. I peered out into the darkness – and down. A large porcupine presented himself at the door and waited to be let in. Clearly, by his insistence, it was his hut before mine. Well, maybe it was, but I had seen dogs, their faces covered in porcupine quills from having been struck by the tails of these animals. So, I had to firmly tell my visitor that he could not come in. With numerous prods from a plank of wood he was persuaded to go away. The going-away, however, wasn’t very far. He took up residence in a hole under the hut: no doubt waiting for the pest who had taken over his home to go on his way.

But there was one adjustment, that I was forced to make, that was far worse than dealing with an insistent porcupine – snakes. There is a misconception that all naturalists, and rangers, are fearless rugged types who would think nothing of calling the bluff of a charging bear by standing their ground. Maybe that is true for some. But, never having been put to the test, I am not sure what my reaction might be. On the quiet I had been advised that a tall tree would be a sensible second option. But, for me, snakes were the big-bear-rush. Whether they were poisonous or not made little difference. Coming to Canada from Ireland, where there are no snakes, had a lot to do with this attitude.

The problem I found with snakes is that they are suddenly there. They make no sound to warn of their coming. If they would only make some kind of noise, I might hold a different attitude. But, unfathomable black eyes, suddenly staring at me at close range, was, to say the least, unsettling. To this day I am uncomfortable with snakes about the place. They seemed to carry a cold wisdom from the time of dinosaurs.

But, in fairness to the snakes in this particular forest, I had to recognize that I was in their territory. This was their home. The whole purpose of the survey was to map out the distribution of species so that their habitats would be protected in any subsequent developments into a provincial park. All of that is fine, but I hadn’t expected some of them – snakes – to be living right inside the hut.

On the first day, when I was cleaning clutter out of the place, I discovered three black rat snakes in residence. Each was about four feet long. One was on a shelf, high up. I discovered this when I foolishly tried to remove a flat board above my head. The snake had been coiled up on the board. When I tilted his shelf, he slid downwards and went right over my head. With an experience like that, the work of tidying up went a lot slower. Every board and every plank of wood was treated with keen suspicion.

 That black rat snakes are non-poisonous was not much of  comfort. I had been bitten by one before, and it hadn’t been pleasant. So, like the porcupine, the three of them had to go. But how to get rid of them? Holding my fear under tight control, I grabbed them, in turn, by their tails, and running to the door, flung them away and off into the long grass before they had time to react. That was fine, except that all three of them had a shared attitude towards ownership. This point of view was strengthened that night by a violent thunderstorm, and torrential rain. The rain drops, the size of the droppings of crows, drenched down onto the forest with unbelievable ferocity, and depth-charged every puddle and pond to frighten the tadpoles below. In its fury, it roared against the moss roof and streamed down the tiny window, seeking for places of entry. And all three snakes appeared back in the hut by crawling through several holes in the walls. They were back home, and there would be no more of this throwing-out business, especially with such a storm hammering down outside.

The dread I had was that I would find them in my sleeping-bag when going to bed, or later, in the dark, that they would crawl in beside me for the little heat and comfort I might generate. Searching desperately for a remedy to solve the problem, I noted that the hut had one solution to offer – the large table. The sleeping-bag went onto the table with me inside it.

On the first night, an unsettling thought came to me and nestled, with great insistence, in my head – did snakes climb table legs? I didn’t know. Anyway, any bits of sleep I had hoped to gain, collapsed away when the sleeping-bag fell off the table. Where were the snakes? Where was the flashlight? Clearly, it was essential that we have a truce, each party keeping their distance. And, in truth, the three of them kept to their side of the bargain and never bothered me from then on. They were content to occupy the planks of wood at the back of the hut. Each slept in a different area, the locations of which were never far from my mind. I was the lodger in their hut and I had to respect that.

Days passed into weeks. The notebooks grew thick with observations. Using a relascope I took numerous heights of trees, and an increment borer gave me their age. The ease by which some species mixed, or stood aloof, was noted. Hemlocks and white cedars seemed to delight in  each other’s company. Sugar maple and red maple had more need of light. Yellow birches preferred to stand alone, or to form themselves into exclusive clumps. Red oaks grew in drifts and bands throughout the forest. Speckled alder insisted that their feet be in water, and fought for space in the wet places among giant bur-reeds and blue flag iris.

One of the delights that I looked forward to each morning was the identification of bird species. Birds have personalities: I am convinced of that. Grackles, by the racket they make, travelling around in gregarious gangs, saw to it that they would not be over-looked in any diary entries I would care to make. They are mischievous birds brimming indeed with personality – and devilment. Black-capped chickadees are different. They know to be quiet and to keep their distance. But, for all that, they were numerous, friendly and inquisitive. For the entire time I was there, one group of chickadees stayed in a clump of white pine next to the hut. Among other birds: bitterns; bobolinks; ovenbirds; red-winged blackbirds and downy woodpeckers were all recorded.    

Herons have always been a favourite of mine. Other than an occasional ‘crake’, they keep their silence. But, by their size, they would not be easily missed as they carefully pulse past on slow wing-beats, as if they had not entirely mastered the skills of flight. But to see them, through binoculars, dropping down to land with one foot carefully testing the ground before the full commitment, is pure beauty.

Deer were present, but other than tracks, I never caught sight of them. Lynx, too, ghost walkers in the evening, left not a trace of their movements except for small tuffs of hair on thorns. Raccoons were the jazz band of the forest. They saw to it that they made a great din outside the hut every night; exploring for what they might find through the bits of equipment I had left outside.

Ever conscious of my sharing the hut with the three rightful owners, I made it my particular purpose to carefully map out the strong-holds of snakes throughout the forest so that any developments in the proposed park would not harm their holdings.

Wild strawberries grew in profusion. Foam flowers; Joe Pye Weeds; beebalm and black chokeberry were there. In open spaces, meadow grasses, sedges and Black-eyed Susans competed for space and for the nourishment that the  deep loamy soil had to offer.  

But, in spite of the growing inventory of things that I was steadily accumulating, there was something that I was missing; something that I could not pull into focus. Whatever it was, it seemed to conceal itself behind a fog that I could not penetrate. In my several weeks of living in solitude, this important absence continued to elude me. Yet, it was there, stretching over the entire forest, I  was sure of that, but I still could not see it. Through all my observations, and through the growing mound of pressed plants, for later identification back in the office, there was something about that forest that I had not captured.

It brought to mind the discipline of Japanese painters, centuries before, who would go into wild places to paint. But they would not pick up their brushes until several weeks had passed. This would allow them time to absorb an understanding of what they were to capture with their pallet knives and brushes and paint. It was only then that they would set up their easels: the time being right.

   On the last morning of my stay, when I emerged from my make-do hut, the forest immediately seemed different. It was as though it had decided that now was the time to show itself to me as it really was. This revelation came slowly: nothing rushed. It built upon itself until it was suddenly there in all its clarity. On that last morning, the forest presented itself to me in its indescribable completeness, no part separated from any other. No tree or chipmunk or frog less important, or more important, than anything else. All in their place, none out of place. All were an integral part of the one.

From out of this astonishing insight, the work I had been engaged in over those past weeks seemed trite and meaningless. It came as a shock to realized that what I had been doing was fragmenting the indivisible forest into separate pieces as though that would give me an understanding of its nature. I had been completely wrong. What I had been doing was confronting a great poem – and hadn’t realised it. In its entirety, the forest, that morning, displayed for me its true nature: a nature beyond any measurements that I might attempt to make. For the first time, what I was seeing was indeed a poem, and I had been butchering it into pieces in trying to gain an understand of what it was. A great painting, when viewed close-up, is a meaningless jumble of brush strokes. But when we draw back from it by some distance, we can at last see the unified statement that makes up the whole. It was that profound reality that the forest was displaying for me on my last day there.

I took a long walk, on a now familiar track through it all. I carried neither notebook nor binoculars. To do otherwise would have seemed improper and tasteless. I just walked, and walked. Never did pine pollen, that rimmed every puddle that morning, seem to shine with such unusual brightness. It was as though it, too, was revealing something about the forest that was beyond the need of any inventory in any notebook. 

The realisation of what I was seeing, really seeing, left me with an over-whelming feeling of bewilderment. In merely accumulating lists of names, I had entirely missed the fundamental presence and the essence of the forest in all its completeness. And what was it that I had been missing?

It was the gallimaufry of a multitude of things intensely woven together to make the totality of it all. It was the  bark of a fox; the call of a goose over frosted ground; the snoring of owls; the haunting cries of loons, like the wavering calls of the long-dead, that they might still be remembered. All of these sounds were part of that. So too, was the warm breath of deer drifting in the cold air among the trees; the constant choir of frog-song at evening time; the sway of Blue Joint grass; the flit of Meadow Jumping Mice; and the murmuring together of forest flies in flight, in numbers beyond comprehension. Something else as well. The silent breathing of leaves in summer time throughout the entire forest. Then, the spiralling-down of prodigious clouds of them, their job done: so many leaves, in preparation for winter, to make mulch that others might grow. The spin of whirligigs and the ballet-dancing of water striders on every pond was also part of it all. And, just as important, if more diaphanous, the caress of the morning mist against the trunks of trees. Drifting too, like the soft kiss of snowflakes over each dying petal, giving it an assurance of a job well done. Whispering through the grey-white whiskers of mice, and over the thin sheen of ice starting to form on small streams, it gave an affirmation that everything was as it should be. And, above all else, an enigmatic and unseen presence, that understands all and that holds all of it together in its completeness.

In one fleeting moment all of this came together for me on that morning. And it was a feeling that all of this is what we should know if we are ever to properly understand wild places.

When I packed my things that day and got ready to return home, the last thing I did was to replace the mud around the hut door to leave it open for the porcupine.

In writing my report back in the office, I felt like a traitor. I was not setting down the sense of that forest at all. How could I? It was beyond the ability of words to capture what it was that I had experienced in that beautiful place. My report, among others, would be used to evaluate the potential of that unforgettable forest.

Those Japanese painters were right. To understand a place, you must first spend time there. Modern technologies drive our minds to be functional. They remove a sense of reverence and strip away time: time that is needed to give space for our abilities to wonder. This quickening pace, that no one questions, takes from us the silence, the solitude and the slowing-down of time that is essential to fully understand what can be found in wild places.

I carried out surveys in other forests, but I never again experienced the closeness to nature that I encountered, on my last day, in that ancient woodland all those years ago.

Patrick is a full-time writer and has two thrillers out on Amazon. FEAR is a medical thriller. THE BRONOSKI TEMPTATION is an archaeological story based on a discovery in Glendalough.