I'm in the woods typing with acorns on birch-bark manuscripts right now, but faithful calendar-breathing Googlian robots are ever on duty, ready to fling hot helpings of fiction fresh off the frier, for you, the busy Web reader, on my ad-based behalf. If you are reading this now it worked.
And now for some rampant abuse of the second person narrative voice:
SLOW MOTION STAMPEDE
by Cheeseburger Brown
(This story originally appeared in the summer 2012 issue of 'footprints' magazine, and is reproduced here courtesy of Diann Gaston and the Innisfil Scope.)
There are men and women alive who have never walked in a forest. But you have. That's why I know you'll understand. Because anyone who's ever walked in a forest has experienced it, even if only once or twice. Forest walkers know how it is when you step forward into a wooded spot that feels oddly different. Special, perhaps.
Maybe it's a gorgeous wee glade, tucked away and so seeming spatially special. Maybe it's a suddenly sunny spot beneath a hole in the canopy, and so seeming temporally special. Or maybe it's something you can't quite put your finger on, but for whatever combination of small reasons it amounts to a distinct aftertaste of something unearthly, and you feel lucky to have come upon such a sacred moment on your walk.
It could be one of those moments where you notice and appreciate the motes suspended in a sunbeam, or drink in the emerald translucence of a fern, or grok fully the complex web of connectivity from worm to root to leaf to nest -- or any other of those cheap natural epiphanies the world hands out like business cards at a salesman convention, if you bother to look.
You pause, you move on.
I've asked people what they think these moments of natural awe mean. I know a girl who swears it's the feeling you get when unseen animals are watching you. And, sure, I'll grant that's probably the case from time to time. I know a boy convinced it's an afterimage of death -- not the tormented stain of murder but rather the accumulated mumble of a million noble insect sacrifices, or of the blameless intimacy between owl and mouse, fox and vole, snake and egg, blood and hunger...
But that's not it at all.
The truth is weirder, but you know it's right. I won't have to persuade you. You've felt it yourself.
It's the same feeling a room has the moment after everyone's walked out. How do you know? Is it eddies in the settling air? Is it dying echoes of sounds too faint to hear? Is it the ineffably tiny drop in temperature when living organisms take their leave? However you know, you know. Everyone knows that airy stillness of a recently vacated space. You think to yourself, "Hey, did I just miss everyone?"
But it wasn't your friends. Nor your enemies, really -- just a population distinctly separated and mostly indifferent to yours. Every culture has dozens of words for them. I don't really know which are more accurate and which less. You could clap if you believe in faeries, I guess. Call them dryads, brownies, lutins, kami, djinn. I don't care. These taxonomies are fanciful and arbitrary. There's no Linnaeus of their world.
But yes, they flee the scene before you arrive. Squirrels stand stock still and ants march on, and the unseen kinds simply remove themselves to elsewhere, using methods elsehow and for reasons elsewhy.
There's very little that we really know we know. But among humanity's few facts agreed upon by all the least self-embarrassing proponents of such theories is that this phenomenon -- when people come upon a forest spot just quit by mysterious things -- is on a dramatic increase.
People who walk in forests today are virtually inundated with such experiences in a way that would be unsettling for someone alive a hundred years ago. To the point where they become habituated to it, inured in the silent panic, imagining perhaps that this edge of holy stillness in flight is simply the way that forests are supposed to feel: punctuated by islands of strange beauty that seem abandoned by everyone except yourself.
You probably don't even think there's anything wrong with that. Maybe that's the very reason why you do walk in forests from time to time, to get a taste of it. That's nothing but me appreciating nature, you figure.
A study of the literature, however, reveals a marked change in humanity's experience with deep forest throughout history. In the past the relationship was characterized by man's anxiety traveling through a realm governed by darkness and beasts, and as time progressed that relationship became increasingly coloured by a sense of awe in creation's manifold delights and a misguided poetic love of nature's artificial serenities -- serenities we mistook as intrinsic.
Very reasonably you ask, "Why? Why would these moments be more common now than in the past?"
It's because we're chasing their kind, of course. We're shrinking the forests, concentrating all those who live there and all those whose ways to our world come through there into smaller and smaller parcels of sub-segmented land. Ahead of the growing, gnawing edge of human construction they flee in waves of emigration accelerating over the centuries in a slow motion stampede. Today more and more bears end up in our garbage dumps. And more and more elsethings end up cheek by jowl in slivers of glen jammed between SmartCentres and highway ramps.
In North America this exodus is four hundred years old. The direction of migration is predominantly northward -- so much so, in fact, that large swaths of the Arctic and sub-Arctic are today overrun with hidden entities. The people who live up there know this better than any of us. They know because the density of elsething affairs that go on there sometimes drives some of them to lose their minds. This is especially true in the long grip of winter's dark when hidden populations can go about their business with impunity, and so have become cavalier in their dealings with human beings.
That being said, the principal complication is not social but climatological. All the best experts on this subject who aren't charlatans agree that elsewhere is substantially warmer than the world in which we live, and that the growing geographical concentration of incursions and excursions from a parallel place into ours is having a cumulative effect on the northern climate. Even very conservative non-charlatan studies conclude that this temperature forcing is responsible for more Arctic melting than Al Gore and cow farts combined.
Sensibly you say, "So what? Is there anything that can be done about it?"
This is where leaders in the field disagree.
There's a website in Alaska that offers special boots they claim are engineered for stepping on pixies. Swedish researchers say they are close to perfecting a non-lethal Sasquatch trap, and in Russia several grey market devices are already appearing in shops (despite very valid concerns about operator safety). I've seen a TED talk about a degremlinification ray being developed by a think tank seeded from DARPA and NASA, and this autumn Dr. Stephen Hawking of the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Ontario is expected to make an announcement concerning the worrying connection between the Higgs boson and trolls.
So go ahead and enjoy your nature walks. I'm not going to talk you out of it. But do realize that those moments of magic you experience padding across the carpet of needles in a fir grove or exulting in the sun-dappled surface of a chuckling brook are a form of pollution, the result of a dangerous concentration of natural spirits into a limited area that threatens to irrevocably unbalance our world.
And if you do come across a pixie, step on it.