Weep for the Forests of Death

A trail in the forest deep in the mountains of Birkenhead Lake

My gods are the powerful spirits of the wild, horned and antlered, of sharp tooth and claw. They are the wolf in the field of grain, the shark in the blue sea, the ancient tree in the wood, and the mother and father of all spirits walking this earth. They are so ancient they have no names for we did not yet exist to name them. To name a thing makes it feel safe and knowable – they are neither. I simply call them Old Man and Old Woman.

I made an oath to these great spirits two years ago. I made it under duress while violently ill during a powerful lightning storm. As great snakes made of fire and light struck away at the ground, I thought I was going to die or pass out, but instead words tumbled from my lips like water from a fountain and made the promise,”I will not let them forget you”.  I did not realize all that simple oath entailed when I made it. It seemed easy enough, but from it came the podcast, cosmological writings, the urges to write books and continue with my woodwork, as well as my work with the local forest.

In our modern times of concrete cities and sanitized environments we have forgotten the wild gods, the hunter’s gods, the green gods. The city dwellers see nature as perfect, beautiful, and friendly when they hang out in their postage-stamp yards or visit park lands laid out by the government. All the spirits of a city park know is of the city, mowed grass, friendly dogs, and playing children. They are not the wild. City dwellers hiking in the deep woods don’t stop and feel the eyes watching them wishing them harm. It is easy to forget the dangers of the wild wood –the destructive powers of the animals, plants, and trees– the poisons, the thorns, the teeth, and the claws.

I’m going to be completely honest with you city dwellers, the forest is not friendly and it doesn’t like you. No, it doesn’t want you to harvest its plants or wood from its trees – haven’t you taken enough over the centuries? Did you think they would forget the clear cuts, the scorched earth, the slaughter of its wildlife, and the polluted waters? Did you think they only had the five-minute memory of your lap dog? Trees live for centuries to millennia after all. We are but fleas and ticks to some of them — fleas and ticks that killed almost ALL of their elders. Did you think they wouldn’t associate what was done with the whole human race? They are angry and pissed off and they’ll put the blame on any mortal who dares enter their territory without awareness and remorse.

I see the body count continue to rise each year as hapless students fall down ravines and off the cliffs of my mountain. I see the helicopters circle and circle looking for lost hikers and mountain bikers in the forest reserve, giving up after a few days. I hear dark tales of rivers and lakes snatching canoers and kayakers who are said to just disappear, never to return home again. Long ago we stopped offering our sacrifices to the Forest for all we took. We took so much it would make our animistic ancestors weep in horror at what we had done. Whole stretches of forest cut down to build forts and ships of trade and war. Whole species of animals gone extinct from over-hunting, over-fishing, and trapping for hides and body parts.

We no longer saw the Forest as a provider of the food and materials for living. We took that for granted. We forgot about balance and leaving enough to provide for future generations. Instead, we saw all the Forest’s resources in dollar signs and that they were free and endless. We are caught in the vicious cycle of progress built on a foundation of sand called greed.  As locally-born David Suzuki says, it is already too late. We are living beyond the means of our natural resources. We can’t blame our abuse of the earth on religion as our Pagan ancestors are also responsible for its destruction. The massive old growth forests the Norse cut down for their longships have never grown back. Our generation and many generations after us will never ever see the forests of giant trees that once existed all over our world. Only echoes remain like the Redwoods in California or the ancient Cedars of the Haida Gwaii.

Nothing will change until our governments and big business stop thinking in terms of money. Until my government stops giving away my province’s lumber to the US and our water to China. Until local small farmers can legally sell their eggs, meat, and produce to their own local people without having to legally go through incredibly expensive federal inspection only designed for large industry and not them.  Until we stop farming salmon that are meant to be wild. Until we stop thinking we can do it better than nature can. Until we stop thinking of only ourselves. Until we stop believing we are at the top of the food chain and the world is our oyster (that we mostly can blame on the Book of Genesis in the Bible but also our insatiable greed).

Nothing you can do can make it better. No apology is good enough for all we have done to the earth and to the wild wood we once worshipped and feared as God above all others. Recycling does not make you an environmentalist. Choosing the beef jerky that wasn’t made from cows herded in clearings that were once part the Amazon rainforest does not make you an environmentalist. Having a garden does not make you an environmentalist. Do you want to help? Do you want to apologize? For real? Collect garbage from your local green spaces and clear out invasive species. Join a committee or board of a local park or area.  Plant trees after first learning how to do it properly. Donate money to conservation efforts or volunteer to help. Volunteer at wild animal rescues. Vote for laws in your municipality to protect trees from being cut down and to protect parks and green spaces from development.

As spirit workers it is no longer socially acceptable to leave civilization behind and go wild as the shamans, seers, and sorcerers of old once did for long periods of time to undergo initiation. It is also no longer logical – how many of us have the knowledge and skills to survive for years in the wild with no pre-built shelter, no pre-made tools, and no food to purchase? The answer is only a small handful of us who are bushcraft hobbyists. Most people dropped in the wilderness with no supplies would die of starvation and exposure within weeks. Let us be honest about our detachment from the wild and our ancient skills of survival. We are not one with nature, we are separated from it by our choices and actions.

Open your eyes and truly see the nature around you. Learn as much as you can about your native plant species and how they can be used for food and medicine. Teach yourself the lost skills of the wild – hunting, foraging, tool-making, and survival to connect with our prehistoric animistic ancestors. Teach yourself respect and manners. Don’t take anything without asking and don’t take anything without leaving something in return. If you will not use all you take, leave it behind where you found it. This doesn’t mean leave an offering for every single plant you harvest from. Animistic tribes all over the world have a common practice of leaving one big offering monthly or yearly for all they take to propitiate the wild spirits. That is what your manners and offerings are for; to propitiate, to calm, and to make agreeable. A partner in trade is not resentful, but the victim of outright thievery will be livid. It is time to stop being thieves and start being partners with the earth. It is time to weep for green blood as much as we weep for red.

This is not my rant, this is theirs. Do not forget them. Do not forget the greenmantle and the animals are sentient. They are the eyes and ears of the gods and spirits watching and judging you. Be honest with yourself, be honest with them, and you can start to repair the damage done and rediscover the skills and knowledge they gifted us with that we so carelessly forgot.

A giant ancient Cedar cut down long ago

“The Old Ones” by Gaia Consort
(click to play song)

You who have lived out your life and it’s changes
Save a place in heaven for me
I was like you once, I walked in the deep shade
But I can’t see the forest or the trees

From sea blooms in ocean to cloud misted hillsides
Gaia, She makes a good rain
The forest at climax was pointing toward heaven
Eons before Jesus came

And who will remember to speak of the old ones?
Who will remember when the old ones are gone?
I was like you once, I walked in the deep shade
But all the old ones are gone

The sweatshops and chain gangs that made up the old life
Have all become high tech arcades
Armored in business, far from the source point
They say to the forest “spread your legs”

And who will remember to speak of the old ones?
Who will remember when the old ones are gone?
I was like you once, I walked in the deep shade
But all the old ones are gone

You who have lived out your life and it’s changes
Forget that place in heaven for me
I’ve seen too many clearcuts, too many landslides
To lay on my hands and heal…

And who will remember to speak of the old ones?
Who will remember when the old ones are gone?
I was like you once, I walked in the deep shade
But all the old ones are gone

Copyright Christopher Bingham, January, 15, 1997

Author Sarah

Illustrator and weaver of words. Witch. Forest siren with talons, succubic tendencies, a love of otherworldly beauty, poisonous plants, wild places and dead things.

More posts by Sarah

Join the discussion 32 Comments

  • Pixie says:

    7 years ago, I became the humble steward of a forest interface area. I have devoted so much of my energies to making a difference. Restoring the native vegetation, clearing away invasive species, pinching up thousands of unwanted seedlings that would strangle the trees, clearing the garbage, allowing the light and warmth to enter and creating spaces for dark mystery. My tears and blood and sweat are part of the nourishment on the forest floor now. The energy from my hands, and feet, from the life I have encouraged and the new life I have offered have been accepted – and still I feel the eyes watching. I am humbled and thankful for being allowed to continue in safety as the forest’s ally and partner.

    Thank you for a timely reminder of our collective responsibilities, and the respect we owe those ancestral spirits.

    • I’ve seen your wild space and all the hard work you did. It is beautiful and looks just like any spot in the woods of a forest reserve. The greenspaces between the co-ops and townhouses where I live are much bigger, but I still plan on eventually getting rid of all the english ivy, himalayan blackberry, and archangel…

      It is so hard and the constant garbage everywhere from the residents is so frustrating, but if only one person starts others will follow. Last spring a Native woman who saw me thanked me for pulling up english ivy around a spot where rare enchanter’s nightshade grew. It was so unexpected I almost cried.

  • Elizabeth K says:

    A very timely reminder indeed. Thank you for this post.
    The Prayer of the Woods is beautiful – who is the author?

  • Valerianna says:

    A good rant from the spirits of the wild wood, I’m listening, I’m listening! I think I might copy that prayer of the woods and leave some copies around at trailheads now and again…. what a great way to remind how to “enter” through the gates in the forest realm. Is there a credit on that?

    I was just on Etsy, looking at your shop… I finally opened an Etsy store myself. I’m enjoying rooting around and finding all these folks I know on there. I have some magical crafting to do this weekend – instructions from the forest spirits this morning in meditation. Watching snow fall and mists rise…. blessings from the eastern forests.

  • @ Elizabeth & Valerianna – the author of the “Prayer of the Woods” is unknown. Signs like the ones pictured are found in state and provincial parks all over N. America formatted in all different ways. It’s beautiful isn’t it?

  • Sarah, our local forest is Linslade Woods, which is administered by a body which has charity status. This is very unusual for Britain – the short story is that the person who owned the old bluebell woods died in the 70’s and his son wanted to sell the woods for housing. Local people got together and persuaded him to sell them the woods.

    If you go into the old woods, you can feel very much what you are writing. But the new woods (planted on fields which were around the old woods) are quite different, possibly because they have been planted by people who didn’t just want them for their wood.

    I was there last weekend with volunteers learning the ancient skill of coppicing – and the not-so ancient skill of weaving baskets to go around the coppiced stools, otherwise the damn muntjac deer (invasive species in Britain) will eat the coppiced stools.

    My tribal tree is there, I gave offerings of sloe gin to the guardian tree of the forest and my tribal tree last winter solstice. I must be doing something right because it keeps giving me nice bits of wood, some of them so straight I could use them as a ruler.

  • Nikkie says:

    Hauntingly beautiful reminder!

  • Nikkie says:

    Just listened to the song by Gaia Consort…I teared up and swallowed hard. Tomorrow,my hubby is taking me to an amazingly magical place called Hogsback. It is atop a mountain with ancient forest all around. Massive Yellowwoods stood the test of time and the place has such an amazing and humbling energy, it is hard to explain. This message is very timeous indeed. I would like to copy the Prayer of the Woods and take it with me next time I go there….I’m going to live there…I know it. It’s been calling me for a while now! Thank you Sarah xxxx

  • Angelina says:

    Though i dedicate time to taking care of a small patch of forest down here in the Seattle area, i notice that every day someone comes in and undoes what I’ve been trying to do. I plant native plants to supplement all the areas in which transients and teenagers have trotted, burned and damaged the plants and habitats. I find the bodies of squirrels, robins, field mice and rabbits mutilated by bikers or bashed up against fences. It seems like its just never e-freaking-nough. The little patch of St Johnswort i planted to help populate barren, dug up areas was torn out and now there’s only a pile of garbage- cans, condoms, clothes, fast food bags. It’s a never ending cesspool. I’ll keep on planting and seeding and digging bulbs around, even though it’s frowned upon to do so, even though all the garbage i collect and offerings i leave mean nothing to the people in this urban area, it means everything to my conscience. Not because i’m some rebel… but i’m a green path witch, a lover of the stag-horned one and a land walker. My gods teach to go forth and make things beautiful by aiding the lives around me in their growth and respecting their natural deaths. I hope to teach my future children to do the same. My goal is to populate the world around me with living things whether its noticed or respected or not. Gods only know what will be left for my children to tend to…

    Thank you Sarah, this entry was moving…. and so sad for us all.

  • Nicole says:

    You’ve been on a roll this week. I keep repeating bits and pieces of your entries to myself.

  • Marlene Munro says:

    This post brought so many thoughts and pictures to my mind , how the farmer across from my house had such a wonderful apple orchard (snow apples) and he had cattle over on that land too. I use to go over and collect the apple and make apple butter and apple sauce I had already asked his permission to be on his property ..then one day there he was cutting it all down said he didn!t want the cattle eating them..Oh it was such a horrible feeling to watch this orchard destroyed and after that he never let his cattle on that land so there it sits bush hogged . I also have wild grape vines on my property and they are my hedge I just keep them trimmed back and the birds like to sit inside them , some people say I should get rid of them I just look at them and ask why? I live in the country I love the flowing river beside me and watch the Canadian geese come and go I have watched how trees have been rooted out as I am planting trees on my property such as Black locus they grow fast and so beautiful and another favourite the Maple tree. I came across the Cree Indian Prophecy just resently on someones wall it is so true. We need to wake up to the distruction we are doing to Mother Earth..

    • greycatsidhe says:

      Oh gosh, I would have cried… I always hate it when trees are needlessly cut down… And get rid of your vines? What?!

      I’m interested in the Cree prophesy you spoke of. I have a minuscule amount of Cree in my ancestry and would love to see it.


  • greycatsidhe says:

    Very inspirational. I always try to bring offerings to the forest and speak aloud my intentions of learning and peace. I’ve noticed a lot of trash since the snow melted and I want to bring a bag with me next time.

    Although much of the forest is very wild and has a dangerous feel to it, there are some places that seem more inviting. Do you experience these places? Do you think it has more to do with our own love of the forest that we feel inner peace there, or do you think there are some spirits who are genuinely interested in forging alliances with honest, caring humans? I do think there are some that would desire more of a balance and strong allies.

  • Skybrighte says:

    I’ve found that the forest tends to produce what is put into it. If you put in love, you will get love back. The first time I went up to Clear Lake in Mt. Hood NF I had nightmares the first night of a great horned demon rising out of the fire pit. The next day I cleaned up a good amount of trash along the lake and in the campsites and that night the woods felt much calmer. Now whenever I go up there I make sure to bring trash bags and dedicate at least one afternoon to walking up and down the lake picking up trash. The forest has been much friendlier there since then!

    Mt. Tabor is also another place where nature is quite agreeable, though there are a couple of very unfriendly spirits up there that make me avoid certain parts of the park at night, namely the northern slopes where the blackberries grow…

    • greycatsidhe says:

      Yes, this is compatible with my experience. Granted, not all creatures or spirits will be welcoming. There are plenty of thorns, wild dogs, bears, and unseen forces that keep me on my toes, but it’s not all unfriendly. Some spirits are downright begging to be interacted with such as the wild edible berries or the birds who get close to learn something about you as you stare back. It is the same with the ocean – full of danger and yet there are always curious fish or stories of helpful dolphins willing to rescue humans.

      But I do agree with Sarah about needing to give back. We shouldn’t just expect the forest to be welcoming with open arms.

  • greycatsidhe says:

    I need to say more. Sarah, this post is really wonderful and I very much agree with you and feel your passion. That said, I do think we should be careful not to trivialize the efforts of some environmentalists. There are a lot of people trying very hard to live in better harmony with nature and some of those changes, such as growing more of their own food or eating local, are incredibly environmental and are a huge deal. I agree that those of us who go beyond (educating ourselves about and working to protect the wild lands) are arguably “bigger” environmentalists, but it takes a lot to go cold turkey and change everything about our lives in one day. We should applaud everyone’s efforts to walk in better harmony with the spirits of land, sea, and sky. If we are more encouraging of their baby steps, they will be less turned off to getting to the more intimate, reciprocal relationship many of us have with the Earth. I hope you understand what I mean and that you know I say it to you with respect and in sympathy with your fierce passion.

    • I wasn’t trying to say some people are bigger environmentalists than others, I was trying to show the difference between environmentalism and and just “living green”. My main goal was to state that it doesn’t matter what any of us do on any level as it’s too late, but that knowledge shouldn’t stop us from acting regardless.

      • greycatsidhe says:

        I didn’t think that’s what you were *really* saying. I am very passionate about the Earth too and I sometimes say things that other people misunderstand to be belittling or what have you. I just thought of some people I know reading your post and felt they’d probably think their efforts were being diminished. I totally agree that there is a difference between the green fad and true commitment to the Earth.

        I’m still unsure if I think it’s too late or not, but the more I read and hear the more pessimistic I get… I do so agree with you though. We need to keep trying.

      • The bees and the frogs are the canary in the coal mine, so is the wildlife of the Artic. So much is disappearing…

  • elizabeth says:

    Indeed, there have been occasions where I have sensed malevolence while out in the woods. Was that slip and fall followed by a perceived titter of laughter actually a shove from an unseen hand? What is that watched feeling coming from behind me just over my left shoulder? Undoubtedly, those forces are not to be taunted or provoked.
    On the other hand, I have had experiences of serenity, joy, healing, and, well, intimacy. I have felt welcomed and blessed. I figure like any other place in the world you’re gonna run into your share of motherf—ers and decent folk.
    Stewardship is key. Whether you’re planting, helping to manage land, collecting waste, donating for conservancy-it is our responsibility in any era.
    Have we taken Earth to the brink? Oh, yes. But was the earthquake and tsunami in Japan a “get back” as some (not you, Sarah) have suggested? That’s a stretch for me. Heed the lessons though. Earth can create tremendous chaos, slap us down in a flash, and there’s no technology to save us from that.

    • Alchemyguy says:

      I grew up in the woods adjacent my parent’s ranch and ‘graduated’ to backpacking in the mountains. I’ve spent beautiful days basking in the glory, a hellish night wondering if we were going to need one of those helicopters to get back out and known the predator’s eyes on me in the shadows while I walked alone. I can say with certainty that nature is worse than malevolent; it is completely and utterly uncaring. Our expectations, goals and desires are entirely irrelevant to It. It does not demand respect any more than a automobile demands anything of animals on the highway; you fail to respect at your own peril and It goes about It’s business.

      I get terrible rashes when people idealize nature, like it’s some kind of loving mother waiting to draw us to it’s busom. Invariably these are people who have never actually spent honest time in wild places or never experienced a tornado, earthquake or other natural disaster.

      I don’t think It wants or cares for our apologies, but we can work to undo the damage so our children feel the wild might less acutely.

      That’s my rant. 😀

    • I’ve experienced hostility, indifference, and benevolence in my woods. It too all depends on the place. I tend to stay on the trails and only go off them when I know where I’m going. I’ve learned plants gossip as much as birds do. If you ask a plant to tell its friends and relatives about its experience with you, they usually will, and it’s a pretty animistic thing to do. I seem to get more berries this way and less thorns when picking.

      I am not one of the people saying Japan’s misfortune and all the other natural disasters around the world are the Earth’s conscious efforts to get back at us. Earth could snuff us out like fleas if it really wanted to. But no, it acts without considering us at all. It’s just climate change. We’ve been so lucky in the past centuries to have stable weather. Scientists have shown climate change was a normal part of our Earth’s history – volcanoes, earthquakes, ice ages, ice meltings, floods, droughts, desertification, continents sinking and others rising… it’s normal for the Earth but not for us as our life span is so tiny in comparison. Our pollution has only sped up what was a natural process to begin with. Natural, but not good for us. It’s going to get much much worse before it gets better. I live on a major fault line that is overdue (I’m in the Ring of Fire) and its part of the reason I’m staying on this mountain to avoid the floodwaters.

      • greycatsidhe says:

        “I’ve experienced hostility, indifference, and benevolence in my woods. It too all depends on the place. I tend to stay on the trails and only go off them when I know where I’m going.”

        Exactly how I feel, Sarah.

        As much as I love the Earth, I agree that she is largely indifferent. She does what she does. It’s a power that must be respected. I laugh to myself when people even think of trying to control it…

      • Alchemyguy says:

        Exactly! I love the wilds and find myself to be replenished and comforted by them. Some of my best experiences are with the wilderness and the more in tune I am with my surroundings the better my experience.

        The same sort of people who idealize nature tend to be the ones that see humanity as somehow separate from nature. They fail to recognize that we are part of the network and that by definition there is nothing that we can do that is ‘unnatural’. Does nature seem to give a whit about Chernobyl? Not at all; the trees and the wolves and the deer thrive because humanity has abandoned the area. Are those creatures affected by what humankind has wrought? Undoubtedly, but empty ecological niches are too valuable to abandon because of cancer/low birth weight/mutation. And so life will go on regardless of what we do; it’s whether life will go on in a manner that is conducive to humanity.

  • Langston says:

    Thanks so much for this post! I’ve been having very similar thoughts lately. The environment is always a concern of mine but lately I have been having very visceral reactions and making trips to my local woods to clean up garbage as a first small step of reciprocation. I’m currently reading Derrick Jensen’s “A Language Older Than Words” (http://www.amazon.com/Language-Older-Than-Words/dp/1931498555/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1301799260&sr=8-2) that looks at our systematic destruction and refusal to hear the language of the world around us from perspectives of science, philosophy, psychology and his own experiences. One quote that stuck with me:

    “Our behavior is a function of our experience. We act according to the way we see things. If our experience is destroyed, our behavior will be destructive. If our experience is destroyed, we have lost our own selves”. – R.D. Laing

    Thanks for continuing to help bring us back to presence and opening us up to our experience.

  • Geetar646 says:

    As the ugly American here I have to give the gentlest critique and hope I’m not pillaged for it. Perhaps en Canada things are different but here in the states one witnesses, the fall of Ted haggerty notwithstanding, a romance with evangelical hypocrisy, and en verite a betrayal of the real things American and revolutionary. All this seems like a waste of space. The comments re: Hello my name is, points to your cognizance of the powerful little voice that’s well listened to. I’d like to hear a Voltairean critique of Christian orthodoxy and a defense of paganism; maybe you can start by taking on your intellectual equal on the dark side — the most sophisticated attacks on our path come from one Malachi Martin, and if you really are a québécoise then let’s f…cking see something.

  • *scratches head* Can you translate that into plain English for me please?

    I’m not Québécoise, my parents were Anglos born in Montreal but whose families moved to Ontario during the quiet revolution. I was born here in BC.

    I am also not a Christian-basher. I am one of the rare Pagans who had good experiences within Christendom. I do worry about Catholicism’s unhealthy impact on the world however… The best arguments I’ve heard against Christiany and monotheism and for Paganism come from A World Full of Gods by John Michael Greer.

  • Kim says:

    I love the woods and feel the safest in the woods. I’ve rarely ever felt frightened in the woods but then again part of that is having a good healthy respect for it too. The few times I’ve ever had the creepy eyes watching me feeling or the distinct feeling of something wishing me ill. Well, I was in a new woods usually. Also near my hometown the woods near the cement factory, the old quarry, and the old nuclear power plant- i wouldn’t go in if I didn’t have to. I don’t think its just because the land there is polluted either. Murders have been committed in those woods long before the factories were ever there. Criminals hid in those woods. Also almost all the so-called alien lights and strange creature tales take place there. The Native Lore has nothing good to say about those places either going back hundreds of years. As a curious youth I’ve been there before and they do indeed feel evil and life-threatening. Yet, it has an easy solution-don’t go there if you don’t have to. Oh, and yes the local police do have to go to those places occasionally because ever since Anton Levey has been around those places attract Satanists every couple of years. It’s almost as if those stretches of land just are non-human friendly. The land had that rep well before even logging was a big deal in our state over a hundred years ago. I have never thought of Nature as anything but an indifferent force that can give at one moment and take away at the next. You don’t take it personal because it is just as it is, plus we are animals, primates, mammals, and part of nature too. Someday, just like the dinosaurs we will be extinct too. It is hard to remember the indifference when you are in places were you can actually feel the dislike and the hatred though. Or if you get lost and it starts to turn night and there are predators like mountain lions about. It is a sobering thought when you realize you are potential prey. I do what I can though.

  • Melanie says:

    Thank you for this post Sarah, you’re words echo in my thoughts and I consider how different the British forests are now, from what they once were.
    The forest at night feels a protective place to me, though I do not take lightly the watchers and my sense of apprehension tells me nature is never benign.

  • Skye says:

    Wow, Sarah, what a powerful and haunting post. You just laid out what I have been thinking over the last few weeks. I really needed to read this. Thank you!