The disrespect towards our seas, oceans and our planet in general encouraged a desire to spend time in nature. I would cycle on a dirt road, deep into the forest, every second day or so, and sit on a rock or tree stump, where I would become almost hypnotised by the peace and harmony enveloping me.
Sometimes I spoke aloud, as though to the forest’s spirit or Mother Nature. I talked about the human race, as though we were the children of the spirit I addressed, who had embarked upon a journey without the spirit’s guidance. I apologised for the harm humans wreak upon the Earth. Occasionally, I sensed something, or perhaps everything, listened.
Whenever I left this tranquility, I would feel an increasing sense of reluctance and anxiety as I neared home. Although I realised it would be impractical, especially in Winter, I wished I had the courage to abandon everything and live in the forest. To live as animals do. To sense gratitude and respect towards the forces that would allow me to survive; to live.
I began a short story to express this desire, which grew until it formed a novella entitled The Forest.
Chapter One of The Forest
His wheezing lungs pump plumes of misty breath, which drift off to caress the trees he strides past, and the sporadic slip of his footing throws an unwelcome dance into his gait. He sweeps beneath living branches reaching for his face, and tries to maintain tension in his ankles so they don’t twist on the undulating ground.
He pauses, from time to time – to rest against a tree and squint through a maze of tree trunks receding into a grey distance – until the pauses reach a climax, when he flops, spread-eagled, onto a mossy clearing on the forest floor.
His line of vision climbs trees to points that seem to puncture the sky and release a cooling mist, which lands upon his hot face, while clouds of breath rise like wordless speech bubbles, before being dissected by the branches of tall, straight pine trees, as though the trees are trying to find a message hidden in their silence. He senses perfection in the interactions and smiles.
He ran towards the forest that morning because he felt his head was about to explode. It was full to the brim with bills, debt, politics, war, the demands of his children and nagging of his wife, clean socks and dirty dishes! He knew one more thought would not have found space within it, so he ran towards the forest in a desperate attempt to escape the torment.
He thinks about his head, and senses he may have spilled some of its contents en route, for he is enveloped within a novel sense of calm. He thinks about his head until the contemplation fractures the hypnotic peace, and he begins to feel restless, when he twists to one side and reaches into a hip pocket of his jacket for his cigarettes and lighter.
He takes a cigarette from the box, slips it into a corner of his mouth, and cups the lighter with his left hand while spinning its wheel with the thumb of his right. He observes the flame being drawn towards the tip of the cigarette with narrowed eyes, before his cool, cowboy-like routine is interrupted by a sudden coughing fit.
He hacks and coughs and hacks until he has recovered, when he pulls a successful draught of smoke deep into his lungs, while exploring the contours of the cigarette box in his pocket with his fingertips. He is embraced by a nicotine-induced sense of tranquility as he exhales, slowly and audibly, and watches the blue column of smoke rise towards a tree and curl around its trunk.
The cigarette burns and his head begins to fill up, as though the thoughts he spilled as he made his way through the forest have managed to catch up with him. The cigarette box’s shape reminds him of cupboards and houses, rooms, blocks of flats and shopping centres and ovens and he shakes his head and slaps it as though to displace them
Once he has regained a degree of calm, he contemplates the peace he experienced before he thought of having a cigarette, and realises he could smoke a thousand and not enjoy such tranquillity with any one of them. He knows he must search for that untainted quiescence, since he will have to stop smoking, and wishes he would have thought of buying cigarettes before he ran to the forest.
He realises such thoughts are filling his mind with worry and confusion but he can’t stop thinking them. He shakes and slaps his head and shouts in anguish. He is overwhelmed by a desire to throw the cigarettes and lighter away – to take off his clothes and start running again, so he will not have anything to remind him of that which he had felt the need to escape from, but reasoning suggests he should keep the clothes to stay warm, and the lighter to light fires.
When the cigarette has burnt to the filter, he takes another and lights it from the glowing butt. He counts those remaining; there are twelve. Months of the year. And pay cheques and bank statements. Electric bills and rent payments and phone bills and installments for the car and he slaps and shakes his head and shouts – “NO!” – like he has never said the word before – with complete negation; with absolute certainty and finality. He shouts again and again and again;
He crushes the pack within his hand, throws it into the distance and shouts;
He frowns at the cigarette between his fingertips, raises it to his lips, pulls upon it, and blows a cloud of smoke towards where he threw the pack. When he considers it will be his last, a sense of fear washes through his mind and body, which attracts the fear of death and disease and the Third World War, and such a myriad of anxiety-inducing concerns that they form a well of angst in the pit of his stomach. He pulls on the cigarette again and again, to soothe his anguish, until it’s finished, at which point he stands and heads off in the direction in which he threw the carton.
He finds it, carefully manipulates the crooked contours into a shape resembling its original form, pushes the lid open, and wriggles a cigarette from the box – it’s crumpled but unbroken. He lays upon the forest floor, slips the cigarette into a corner of his mouth, and cups the lighter with his left hand while spinning its wheel with the thumb of his right. He observes the flame being drawn towards the tip of the cigarette with narrowed eyes, and exhales a cloud of smoke, which rises, for a moment, before being pulled into the surrounding trees as though the forest were inhaling it.
He knows he is trapped by endless habits and customs, as if each is a link of a chain – hooked to a collar fastened around his neck – which leads back through the forest to his point of departure. He reasons that the only thing which will prevent the chain from running to its full length, and jerking him to a halt, is attitude. He realises he is a prisoner of mentality and conditioning, which must be displaced through fresh reasoning, for he is unable to cope with the routines instilled within his mind by the world he ran from.
He considers this as he smokes more cigarettes, by lighting each from the butt of the last. As he smokes, he wonders how to break the chain and remove the collar – to be totally free – and knows stopping smoking is one of the first steps towards freedom. While he is smoking his third last cigarette, he understands he must release fear and embrace courage, for he will need an abundance of the quality to be able to abandon all he has ever known. When he is smoking the second last, he makes a determined effort to overcome the fear of stopping smoking by replacing it with the joy of being free from the habit, and by the time he smokes his last, the joy is overwhelming.
He crushes the cigarette into the forest floor, smiles broadly, sits upright, and swings his legs together to form a cross legged position. He straightens his back, closes his eyes, and sucks the clean, humid forest air through his nostrils and deep into his lungs. He remains in this position for some time, breathing slowly and rhythmically, while attempting to clear his mind of all thoughts.
When he opens his eyes, he notices the light is beginning to fade. He feels a pang of fear, and through force of habit thinks of lighting a cigarette. He feels another pang of fear when he realises he doesn’t have any, which is followed by a hunger pang, and then another pang of fear when he realises he doesn’t have any food. He shouts;
The longer he sits wondering what to do, the darker it becomes and the hungrier he gets. He takes deep breaths, to quell a rising sense of panic, and begins to consider his options. He has no cigarettes. He takes the carton and peers inside, with the hope he may have missed one, but finds it empty. He searches through seemingly endless pockets in search of cigarettes and something to eat, but finds nothing. He stands and walks in circles around his resting place, but it’s already too dark to see if there are any berries or mushrooms. He resumes his seated position, and uses the lighter to set the cigarette carton on fire.
Flames crawl from a corner of the box and spread until they touch his fingertips, when he releases the box to drop on the forest floor, where flames cast a warm glow and flickering shadows until they are extinguished. Orange forms writhe within the ash until they disappear, when it is darker than before. He realises his pupils have contracted in response to the light, and closes his eyes so they will become accustomed to the darkness.
When he opens them, it seems darker than before he had set fire to the box, and assumes the light’s fading fast within the forest’s shade. He yawns and decides to sleep, and consider each new day as it arrives. He zips his ski jacket up – which was the only sensible thing he took before he left, apart from a sturdy pair of walking boots, although he had donned both through luck rather than thoughtfulness – before curling into a foetal position with his hands tucked between his thighs.
When he closes his eyes, he sees his mind is like a fairground attraction, where creatures pop up randomly from holes, which one should beat with a mallet to encourage their retreat back into them. His thoughts are like these creatures, and the mentality he attempts to develop the one standing with the mallet. As he struggles to still his mind, a branch snaps within the peripheral consciousness of his hearing. His eyelids spring open, and he lays perfectly still in the near darkness, breathing as quietly as he is able, while his hearing detects a cacophony of strange noises.
In an effort to dispel the fear of the unknown, he analyses each sound and allocates a reason for its being. The creaking; the sway of young trees in a wandering breeze. The tapping; the branches of trees touching a neighbour. He thinks each seems only harmless, and perhaps even comforting, eventually, once he has grown used to them, as though nature’s lullaby.
He relaxes his body and closes his eyes. A bear wanders through his imagination and scares the creatures of thought away. The bear lowers its great head to smell some flowers, before rising to its hindquarters and speaking of a river where it fishes, which he will meet if he follows the morning sun.
Chapter Two of The Forest
Cold, damp air wakes him. It’s dark. He withdraws his hands from between his thighs, rolls onto his back, and elbows his way up into a sitting position. The craving for a cigarette is displaced by the fruitlessness of the thought, and replaced by a desire for food.
He sits in the cool stillness of the forest, watching silhouettes of trees breaking through the misty gloom as though they are advancing towards him. At first, he thinks his eyes are growing accustomed to the darkness, until their increasing numbers and definition suggests morning has broken.
He stands slowly, sensing stiffness in his entire body, stretches his hands above his head, arches backwards, smiles, and lets a great roar escape, as though it had been trapped within him for decades.
His stomach muscles tighten when he laughs at his morning’s antics; pulling his arch in the opposite direction, where his hands fall upon his knees as he begins to hack a non-smokers’ smokers’ cough. He feels uneasy when he hears the wheezing of his lungs – a sound unheard in the noisy mornings of his past. He draws a deep breath, hacks deliberately and spits a ball of phlegm, which lands on the tip of a tree’s branch, as if the tree caught it to prevent it from landing on the forest’s pristine mossy carpet.
Through a sense of subconscious primordial respect, rather than conscious thought, he takes a tissue from a pocket and wipes it from the branch. He considers his action, senses the reason, and wraps his arms around the tree and closes his eyes. He stands for some time, in the peace of the young morning, holding the tree as though embracing a long-lost member of his family. His mind is blank. He only cradles the stillness of the tree’s enormous life.
His arms drop to his sides, and he looks up into the tree’s canopy and smiles, as if it might smile back. He gently pats its trunk and laughs. He has never hugged a tree before, and had considered doing so the unusual ceremony of hippies.
His stomach rumbles. He looks down at the forest floor around the tree, but there is nothing but a carpet of spongy, yellow-green moss. He lifts his head and gazes into an orange glow, illuminating the mist, and remembers the bear in his dream. He laughs aloud, yet starts to walk in the direction of the morning sun, as the bear had suggested, with the vague hope of enjoying fish for breakfast.
Perhaps fate had chosen the time of year, or maybe it was simply chance that had led him to leave when the blueberry bushes were starting to bear an early fruit. At first, he eats the berries by picking one and popping it into his mouth, and repeating the action over and over again, until he starts gathering a handful and throwing them into his mouth all at once. He raises his head and squints towards the morning’s light source, every now and then, and once he has eaten his fill, he begins to march towards it.
Although he doesn’t think anyone saw him running into the forest, and imagines it will be the last place anyone will think of looking for him, since he assumes one normally searches for the comfort of familiarity when absconding, he wants to get as far away from civilisation as possible. His small hometown rests on the edge of a vast wilderness, which stretches for a seeming eternity, and he feels he must find his own space within it, far away from everything he had felt necessary to accumulate to ‘have a life’.
As he strides through the forest, he is troubled by an occasional craving for a cigarette, but finds it surprisingly easy to shrug from his mind. He wonders if the growing distance from shops is helping him to break the habit, or whether it seems easier to discard because it’s bundled up with everything else he wishes to abandon.
His stomach lurches and grumbles, but he keeps walking. He hadn’t thought of toilets, but knows he must when his stomach convulses again. He stops, clenches his buttocks and says – “ah .... touching cotton” – before dropping his trousers to his ankles, squatting, and allowing a noisy torrent of faeces to escape into the tranquil forest.
When he has finished, he rips a handful of the soft, spongy, mossy foliage from the forest floor and uses it to cleans his bottom. He stands, draws his trousers up to his waist and turns to frown at the human atrocity he has left in hitherto unspoilt nature. The smell is so appalling that he wonders whether every creature in the forest will be raising their noses to sniff the air, and grimacing with disgust. He feels embarrassed, and thinks of Sunday drivers leaving their picnic mess in laybys, while considering his action even worse. He digs a hole with his hands, pushes the poop into it with a stick and fills the hole with the excavated soil. He smiles, satisfied, and thinks of his waste as food for the forest’s flora; a gift in return for the gifts it has given him.
As he resumes walking, he considers that every creature in the forest engages in this harmonious exchange; every creature on Earth apart from the human race. He wonders why human waste is pumped into seas and oceans, since it causes pollution rather than nourishment for the planet, or to ‘sewage plants’ where a simple gift is transformed into a feat of science and engineering. He is glad the toilet has left his mind, which he considers an absurdity replaced by higher reasoning.
The sun rises, drawing the cloak of morning mist up to enshroud the clouds. He marches over the gently rising and falling terrain, while occasionally touching trees as he passes them, as if making their acquaintance, and humming bespoke tunes that exist when they are born and die before they are remembered.
When the morning has found its warmth, he takes his jacket off and swings it in an arc to hang over his shoulder. He walks as carefree as a Saturday schoolboy; stooping on occasion to eat blueberries and cloudberries and drink water from a brook meandering through the forest – as if it has heard of the sea, and wishes to go there, but has no idea where it is.
When the treetops begin to comb the sun, he stops and lays down with his hands behind his head – which rest upon a pillow he has made from his rolled up jacket – and watches clouds as they pass above a shimmering canopy of birch trees. He sees faces in the clouds, as if Gods looking down upon the Earth. He looks into their eyes and wonders what they are thinking. A face swirls and churns before being reborn as two faces kissing; finding privacy when they pass out of sight above the gently swaying trees. There is no border between daydreams and the dreams he dreams when his eyes close.
Chapter Three of The Forest
His sleeping eyes blink. And again. He opens them to a slate-grey sky, but they close when a drop of water hits his face with all the velocity gravity has allowed. He wakes fully when he is peppered by volley of raindrops, when he sits and sweeps his jacket from behind his back, stands, and pulls it on. He pushes the bar of the zip into its groove and yanks the fastener upwards. The zip jams mid-way, so he pulls it back down and tugs it up. The zip sticks again, so he pulls it rapidly up and down until the zip falls open. He runs a finger along the zip’s teeth, and finds some are missing on one side. He shouts – “FUCK!” – and runs off with one hand holding his jacket closed.
He wonders why he is running and stops. He stands blinking in the shuush of rain, enveloping the forest, while scanning the vicinity for shelter. The tall birch and pine trees offer nothing of substance, so he selects the shortest, leafiest birch and sits with his back resting against its trunk, where large drops of water pitter patter onto his head and shoulders from the treetop.
While he’s wondering whether the large drops are making him wetter than raindrops, a dim flash of light is followed, moments later, by a distant rumble. He knows to count the seconds between the lightning and thunder, to determine the storm’s distance, and whether it’s advancing or receding. He also knows you shouldn’t stand under a tree during a storm, but doesn’t know what to do in a forest. It’s getting increasingly dark, and he supposes it’s because of the storm rather than the time of day.
The forest lights up, and a thunderclap follows before he has reached three. He feels anxious, reaches into a pocket for cigarettes that aren’t there, and pulls a wet hand from it covered with pocket fluff. ‘They would be wet anyway’ – he thinks, and tries to use the joy of stopping smoking to alleviate the misery of not having any cigarettes. “I will never smoke again” – he promises himself, to further increase the possibility of a bright mood penetrating the considerable cloud cover. He lowers his head, and lifts it when water runs down the nape of his neck and along his spine.
He jumps and shouts involuntarily when a bright flash of light is followed, almost immediately, by a deafening clap of thunder. He draws his jacket up over his head, leaving the small of his back naked and resting against the wet trunk of the tree. The shuush becomes a fhoosh, as the rain pelts down, and he jumps and shouts again, when the forest and its sounds are obliterated by a blinding flash of lightning and crack of thunder that have joined as one incredible force.
The rain cascades relentlessly; interwoven with bolts of lightning and thunderclaps that suggest he is sitting in the heart of the storm. After some time, he feels the skin of his arms and shoulders becoming damp, and then wet and cold. He becomes concerned that lightning might strike the tree he is sheltering beneath, so he stands and walks out into the rain, where he flaps his arms and shouts – “STOP FUCKING RAINING ALREADY!” – which is punctuated by a deafening thunderbolt of lightning that make him shout and fart simultaneously. He scurries back to the birch and flops down at its roots.
He is overwhelmed by misery and starts to curse under his breath, which is interrupted by a flash so bright, and thunderclap so loud that it encourages him to shout a snotty – “WAH!” – and burst out laughing at his reaction. He sits in the storm and laughs, until the fhoosh becomes a shuush and flash and thunder part company.
Eventually, the rain ceases, and the thunder is no louder than a rumbling stomach. The sky breaks to reveal patches of late afternoon sky, when his will breaks and he begins to cry. He wants to go home. He thinks he would gladly take his old head back if he could be warm and dry. To have his wife towel his hair while nagging about the dangers of the forest, and his kids laughing and calling him a moron for running away. Or a wanker. Or a twat. And then his wife going on and on about this and that. Nag nag fucking nag. He lowers his troubled frown to rest parallel with the ground between his feet, runs his fingers through his wet hair, and tries to block out the thoughts attempting to barge their way into his mind, like eager shoppers to a summer sale.
The clouds continue to disperse until they reveal the sun, which casts patches of light and shade upon the twinkling forest floor, where mist begins to rise slowly, like sleepy angels ascending to the heavens.
Chapter Four of The Forest
He stands, takes off his jacket, and hooks the collar over the stub of a tree’s broken branch, before stepping back to twist the garment until water runs from the sodden cloth and thermal stuffing.
The early evening sun is warm, and once he has wrung as much water from the jacket as he is able, he spreads it over branches in the sunlight, and watches with a sense of satisfaction as it begins to steam. He takes off his shirt too, and drapes it over branches, before sitting upon the trunk of a fallen tree and pulling his boots and socks off. He wrings out his socks and hangs them on the ends of branches where his shirt lays splayed, and places his boots on a crook at the other end.
The sun warms his skin. He takes off his jeans and hangs them up, and after a moment’s hesitation, he slips out of his underpants and hooks them on a branch of the tree, where his wardrobe steams like a silent symphony.
He sits upon the fallen trunk, lowers his head, and stares at his blue-grey floppy belly and shrunken manhood, before slapping his wet thighs together and jerking upright. He scans the vicinity. There’s no one there. No one. On impulse, he springs from his seated position and sets off running across the mossy forest floor.
His body is alive with sensations forgotten since childhood – the cooling breath of air on damp skin, ground beneath bare feet, and his genitals jumping around, as though delighted to escape the confines of underpants. A wind, created by his running, whistles past his ears and through his mop of wet hair, and laughter erupts from his soul and he shouts nothing but shouts. He runs between trees, naked and free, gathering berries when hungry and snoozing at the roots of trees.
When he is quite exhausted, he collapses onto his back in a patch of sunlight and laughs between gasps for breath. He lies there for some time, smiling at a cloudless sky, and sensing a growing coolness upon his body, while watching the first glow of twilight paint the forest warm. His cooling body reminds his mind to find his clothes, so he reaches for his toes, and with a jerk of his upper body weight, rises to his feet. He turns towards the direction in which he assumes he ran from, and tromps off on the spongy forest floor.
When he realises his tromping has gone on too long, a wave of dread washes from his head to his feet, leaving his skin prickling with a fearful, primordial uncertainty. He turns his head in slow half circles as he walks, while squinting through ever shifting patterns in the forest’s fading light. He doubles back and does the same. He is hungry, but knows he must find his clothes before it’s dark, so he ignores the berry bushes and continues his search.
The cool breeze becomes cold, and the light fades to a dim glow. He zig-zags through trees until they become silhouettes, while muttering – “no, no, no” – under his breath. He stops, utterly bewildered, and overwhelmed by the need for the comforting warmth of a cigarette. His hands perform absent-minded up and down sliding motions at his sides, where his pockets should be.
“FUCK! NO FUCKING WAY!” – he yells. He slaps both hands over his face and roars into them. He tries to calm himself, while muttering – “fuck fuck fuck!” – and – “un-fucking believable!”
He continues his search by walking in wide circles, and when he’s cold, and it has grown almost completely dark, he responds to a rising sense of panic and panics. He spins on a heel, bends over double and shouts – “NO!” – and – “FUCK!” – until he realises the futility of his attitude, when he tries to calm himself and listen to the voice of reason, which doesn’t have a whole lot to say.
His panic had the upside of warming his body, and the ensuing calm the downside of allowing it to cool. He stands in the darkness and begins to shiver. His teeth clatter together like a felled spinning coin on a table, so he clenches his jaw, wraps his arms around his midriff and hums in vibrato – “mm-mm-mm-mm-mm” – as if the melody might warm him.
After spending some thought power on his predicament, reasoning suggests he shouldn’t go anywhere, because he must stay within the vicinity of his clothes. He decides there’s no point looking for them, since it’s dark, so the only thing he need concern himself with is how to stay warm for the night. He begins to run on the spot – keeping a steady pace – until his breathing’s rhythm overrides the chattering of his teeth. After a minute or so he stops running, and rests with his head hanging and his hands on his knees, while breathing blasts of warm breath onto his cold legs.
When the benefit of the exertion has worn off, and the cold begins to bite, he straightens up and begins to run again. His body breaks into a sweat, so when he stops to recover, he cools more rapidly than after the first run. He repeats a short run four times, until he is quite exhausted, ravenously hungry, and after resting; colder than ever. He crouches in the darkness and sweeps his hands from left to right, with the hope of finding a berry bush. He walks forward in this position, while continuing his search, but his fingers only caress the thick, spongy, mossy foliage of the forest floor.
Then it dawns on him. He digs his hands deep into the moss and rips a wide hole, into which he places his feet. He pushes and kicks with his legs and wriggles his toes, and slowly edges his way under the blanket of moss until he is deep inside, where he curls into a ball and breathes into the cup formed between his midriff and thighs. He feels something scurrying across a leg, and then one side, and imagines beetles, but ignores them, and concentrates on fighting an urge to tremble. After some time, although he is not warm, he thinks he is not as cold as he would be if he were exposed directly to the night air.
He lies under the forest floor and remembers his warm bed, where he used to rest his exploding head, and finds he prefers the mossy blanket. He sniggers with incredulity.
His thoughts become increasingly abstract until he is sitting in the forest, waiting for the bear. The bear appears from behind a clump of wild raspberries, up on its haunches, sniffing the air. The bear drops out of sight and reappears beside him, where it sniffs his face inquisitively, while staring steadily into his eyes. It grunts as it flops down beside him. The bear is warm. They sleep.
Chapter Five of The Forest
He opens his eyes to the birth of day, and stretches within his mossy bed. Long morning shadows reach towards him, while birdsong draw dreams painlessly from his mind. He wriggles from the forest floor, as though the Earth is giving birth to him, stands, and brushes dirt from his naked body.
He remains stooped for a moment, regarding his uncleanliness, before straightening up and thoughtfully rubbing his chin, wondering how to get clean. As he does so, he senses an unfamiliar rasp of bristle. He looks down at his dirty body again, throws his arms up to form a loop above his head, and begins to hop from one comically bowed leg to the other, while theatrically scratching his crown and uttering a cacophony of high pitched screeches, shrieks and goose-like hoots.
He is both actor and audience, and his caveman antics are interspersed with his own laughter. He stops occasionally to laugh helplessly, with his hands on his knees, before repeating the performance over and over again, until he is out of breath with hilarity and exertion.
When he remembers why he is naked, he stops laughing and starts to walk in an ever-increasing spiral, while stopping periodically to gather handfuls of breakfast berries. He meets the brook searching for the sea, and cups his hands in the icy water and begins to wash his body, with each splash accompanied by an involuntary gasp. When he is clean, he lowers his head to the brook and draws water into his mouth through a kiss, before resuming his spirular, naked morning walk.
His heart leaps with joy when he sees his clothes, as if he has been reunited with long-lost friends. They bask in mid-morning sunshine, and are warm and almost dry. He dresses gratefully, and heads off slightly to the west of the rising sun; stopping every now and then to gather berries, with his good mood and clear mind carried by an eager stride.
He is surprised by a bush of wild raspberries, which he circles while eating the sweet fruit and remembering the bear in his dream. He can’t remember having dreamt of bears before, or any other animal. He rarely remembered dreams, and thought he didn’t dream often. He recalls nightmares though; of fighting an unknown foe, with ineffective punches thrown towards them, as though his fist were travelling through syrup, or meandering upstairs and downstairs in a house, where he is lost, even though he realises it’s his home.
His stomach rumbles and his bottom flinches, which encourages him to stop gathering berries and start digging a toilet. He drops his trousers and squats over it; somewhat alarmed by the ensuing squirting and farting. When he has finished, he rips moss from the forest, wipes and stands, while pulling up his trousers, and turns. His face sags with disbelief when he sees what he has left in the hole, and it takes a moment or two to realise the blue hue of the poo is due to his diet of blueberries.
He sets off walking through shafts of sunlight, whistling remembered tunes that are reborn as his own, while his shortening shadow appears and disappears at his heels like a semi obedient dog.
Unpleasantries of the past are displaced by every sight, sound and simple pleasure, such as the discovery of a branch he adopts as a walking cane – so perfect in length and breadth that the forest might have placed it on his path as a gift.
He whistles, hums and swings the cane, with his fleeting shadow at his side, and delights in a mind that seems to clear with every step he takes. He considers the natural beauty of his surroundings, and how humankind has manipulated nature to create spaces recognisable only as their own. Grids and boxes. He looks around and doesn’t see one square shape. Trees stand in random groups of varying height and diameter – a paradox of the trees lining the roadsides in his hometown; each of equal height, girth and spacing, with their roots encased in pavements, as if to prevent them from uprooting themselves and returning to the forest – as if a symbol of humankind’s desire to dominate and control nature.
He thinks of tsunamis and earthquakes, volcanoes and hurricanes, and senses nature’s dominance over humankind. Although he isn’t religious, he feels a sudden urge to pay homage in some way; to pray to someone or something – the spirit of the forest, perhaps.
He stops and allows his cane fall to the ground, drops onto his knees, and bends forward until his brow touches the soft mossy foliage of the forest floor. He closes his eyes, and breathes the gentle fragrance until his mind is still.
“Hello” – he says, eventually – “my name is Joseph.”
He pauses, as if hoping for acknowledgment and a cue to speak, and supposes a sudden silence may be the omen he awaits, as though the forest is listening.
“I am here because I could not live with my kind any longer” – Joseph continues. “I hope I’m welcome. I don’t mean to cause harm or be disrespectful.” He pauses and listens to the silence, which seems to encourage him.
“I wish to apologise on behalf of the human race for the harm we cause to the planet; for being the only species which treats the Earth with disrespect. I wish we could learn to live in harmony with nature – with respect for it, which is something I feel I can do, here, if you permit me the opportunity. There are many who do not wish to destroy nature to make way for their own; who see humankind’s ways are destructive and hope for change, and I pray you will see me as a symbol of this desire.
I sense peace and harmony in the forest, which has been achieved with no effort, since it is only natural. The advance of humankind destroys this peace and harmony, and has led to a stressful, divided, unjust world on the brink of a nuclear war. I hope you will teach me how to be, effortlessly. How to survive within the environment you offer to all life residing within you, without causing harm.
I do not know to whom I speak – whether to the spirit of the forest or a great God in the universe, or perhaps only to myself. Yet; if my words are heard, I hope I will learn how we should advance so we may live in harmony with nature, and each other, rather than a dissonance that may lead to the demise of the planet and all life. If I leave the forest, some day, I wish to leave with wisdom to share.”
He remains in his humble pose, and wonders whether it is only his imagination which senses an abrupt increase of birdsong and other sounds.
Joseph raises his head, lifts his cane upright, and uses it to pull himself to his feet, where he stands for a moment to absorb the tranquillity of the forest.
He sets off with a solemn step. A melancholy has settled upon him, as if the renewed forest sounds were a sorrowful discussion concerning the human race, and Joseph knows what is being said through some subconscious, primeval ability to understand a universal language spoken by all life.
He walks with his head bowed, while increasingly disturbing images pass before his mind’s eye. Chainsaws rip into the flesh of trees, as if it is thought they cannot feel, and animals pace restlessly in the confines of his skull, before they are slaughtered cruelly and without ceremony. Their cooked corpses are greedily ripped apart by eager hands, while others reach pleadingly from emancipated bodies in faraway lands. Vermin and insects swarm over food that has been transported from supermarkets to dumps, even though it is still fit for human consumption, and seeds rot, instead of growing into fruit-bearing plants and trees.
Grand houses cast shadows over the homeless, while boats overladen with refugees capsize on the horizon of his mind. Images of war thunder in his head, as though a glimpse into hell. The vision spins and convulses and gathers momentum, interspersed with flashing, colourful advertisements to stir every desire, until nothing makes sense – when a tidal wave of televisions and furniture and computers and cars and houses and boxes and all of the paraphernalia of human existence roars through his mind, with billions of people swirling and screaming in its tempestuous wake.
Joseph retches, and vomits a spatter of deep purple over the yellow-green moss. He bursts into tears and spreads his arms. “How did we get from this to that?” – he sobs – “it seems impossible!” He drops to his hands and knees and cries until his head aches, while watching tears and drops of purple spit drip onto the forest floor.
He cries until his sorrow is replaced by a sense of numb disbelief, when he rolls onto his back and watches sunlight play amongst shimmering leaves. An occasional cloud passes by – unhurriedly – seemingly content in its solitude. Joseph’s mind is blank. If he were to have a thought, he might think there seems little point considering something that doesn’t make sense, and that which does requires little consideration, since it only requires a sense of being in the moment. Experiencing the now, with no thought of tomorrow or yesterday.
He spends the rest of the day in this peaceful recumbency. He ignores a desire to eat, which eventually passes. The forest whispers gentle, soothing melodies, while patches of sunlight and shade drift over him, within the timelessness of his endless moment.
When it’s dark, he watches stars wink at him through the silhouette of the forest’s canopy, until he drifts into a sleep that seems to have passed no border between the dreams he dreams and his magical reality.
Chapter Six of The Forest
Joseph wakes with thoughts of his wife, and supposes he was dreaming of her, although he can’t remember the dream. He thinks back to when they had met, and considers how much she had changed over the years – how much they both had. How their carefree youth had been displaced by the stresses of adulthood. Love letters placed gently into hands had been replaced by bills thrust into them; dreams by reality, eternal love with daily resentment. He remembers their first argument had been over money, as was their last before he left.
He realises he doesn’t miss her, and wonders whether he would if everything hadn’t changed so dramatically; if their youth would have melted into adulthood instead of drowning in it. He feels guilty she has the burden of raising the children alone, but knows he had no choice but to leave.
He remembers browsing the Internet, searching for the least painful way to end his life, and deciding on the railway line passing through the town. He thinks of the long letter of apology he had written to the train driver, and imagines he would be dead if he wouldn’t have ran to the forest.
He wonders why life’s concerns had clambered on top of him, to suffocate him; why he seemed so much more bothered by the world’s problems than others he knew. He remembers crying whenever there was footage of people starving in faraway lands on television, while others continued eating their dinner. His skin prickling with fear when tensions between the Capitalist and Communist Bloc grew, while his friends and family watched the news as if it were nothing more than entertainment.
He recalls how his wife had loved his sensitivity when they were young, and tries to remember when the love became annoyance; an intolerance even, which prompted her to say he had to change and become ‘a man’. Joseph remembers wondering whether that meant becoming cold and indifferent – not caring about anything one should care about; as if one should watch the news only to gather information, rather than lead one to consider what’s wrong with the world and what should be done to change it.
His thoughts lead him to think it an irony that he had met his wife on a peace march against nuclear weaponry. Even though he hadn’t belonged to any group in particular, such as hippies or punks, he remembers he had cared for the world, and still did, and he had thought his wife cared too, which was a quality that had attracted him more than her colourful, spikey appearance.
He looks back in time to when their children were born, and thinks all his wife had seemed to care about was money since they were. He understands the stresses of life had manipulated her nature, until things once unimportant dominated her thoughts.
He smiles when he recollects how they had laughed at people queuing for a Spring sale in their youth, and frowns when he remembers she had tried to persuade him to camp all night outside the same store, a month or so before, so he would have been one of the first to be let into their sale. He wonders whether they had drifted apart because she had grown up, and he hadn’t; that everything is as it should be, and he has never been able to let go of the naivety of youth – the dreams of utopia – which should have withered in the cold light of reason long ago.
Joseph thinks he has always felt there is something terribly wrong with the world, ever since he can remember, and knows life would have been easier if the feeling would have been replaced by acceptance. Yet, now, as he gazes up into the canopy of the forest, he realises the gravity of conviction has strengthened his stance, for he considers it naivety to continue building a troubled, unstable, divided world at war with itself, with the belief it will keep growing forever.
Joseph stands, stretches, hacks a cough, and sets off walking in the direction of the morning sun. His eyes are drawn to the bright blue droppings of birds, which leads him to think they and he are the same; feeding from what nature offers. He remembers coins in his pocket and digs them out. They glint in the sunlight. Joseph thinks their worthless value in the forest has been converted into a powerful symbolism, reflecting almost everything wrong with the world. He considers how the only way he would be able to eat, in the town, would be if he were to go to a shop and exchange these curiously potent discs for food, and if he didn’t have any, he would remain hungry, even though the shop is filled with produce.
Joseph remembers a discussion he’d had with his friends, some months before, about the ‘dumpster divers’ in the town, and his point of view, which had been that the food had been produced to feed humans, not insects and vermin on dumps, so it was good the surplus was being eaten by hungry people. He thinks of his friends’ opinions; that it should be thrown away, because it would damage the economy if it were given away. He recalls arguing with them; saying concerns for the economy were overriding common sense and sound reasoning, and the ensuing heated debate, in which he was accused of being out of touch with reality.
He remembers being deeply affected by their attitude, and believing they may be right when they said he had ‘lost the plot’. The dark enlightenment, combined with his wife’s endless nagging and scorn, together with his children’s seeming hatred of him, had led to a feeling of disassociation – as though he lived on a planet not his own. He remembers how the world had seemed increasingly alien; increasingly absurd, until it reached a point where he wished he could leave, but he had no idea where to go, so thoughts of suicide had begun to trouble his mind.
He recalls visits to their family’s doctor, who had prescribed anti-depressants, which made him slip into a sense of numb sub-reality. And the feeling he had when he stopped taking them, when the suicidal thoughts became overwhelming, and his sense of disassociation unbearable – until his head began to feel like it might explode and he would lose his mind. He looks down at the coins, closes his hand, twists to one side and raises his fist to his shoulder, but stops before he throws them. ‘They are metal’ – he thinks – ‘they may be useful.’
He drops the coins back into his pocket and begins to gather breakfast, and soon afterwards, digs a toilet. Once his ablutions are over, he continues walking, with a feeling he may never be able to return to civilisation, even if he wished to. He feels both lost and found; without direction, yet guided by a reasoning that makes perfect sense.
“Why have humankind created phenomena like war, inequality, exploitation, divisions between rich and poor, black and white, capitalism, communism, and a belief in God? Why doesn’t everyone live to experience their unique vantage point within the universe and allow everyone else theirs?” – Joseph asks himself – “so we may compare one view with another, with the hope peaceful, intelligent debate will result in a world to please humankind, and God, should God exist?”
Joseph wonders why humans do not live in harmony with nature, like every other creature on Earth; why humankind create barriers to block out nature, as though afraid of it. He thinks the boxes most live in are a paradox of the flowing curves, random shapes and patterns nature creates. That battalions of bright electric lights have replaced the gentle light of the moon, as though we are illuminating a foe.
He feels we search for a meaning and purpose to existence, with our backs turned towards the answers. He senses the meaning of our existence lies in nature; that all answers are to be found by observing the harmony with which everything exists, and all we should do is strive to become a part of it, rather than apart from it.
Birds swoop through the air and rest upon boughs of trees, singing cheerful songs. ‘They do not seem sad or depressed’ – Joseph thinks – ’why aren’t we able to rest content as they do? Why are we driven by insatiable desire; never satisfied unless we know there is more? So the economy must grow forever, and there is no point when it has grown? Are there any other creatures prepared to destroy the world as a consequence of pursuing an unattainable goal?
His pace slows. ‘Why am I walking so fast?’ – he thinks. ‘Where am I going?’
He stops to observe a beetle, crawling along a fallen branch. Its colours shimmer and transform with every movement, as though a walking gemstone. Joseph is stunned by its beauty, and realises it would be stamped upon if it found itself in the town. He stands and turns in a circle, taking in everything he sees, smells and hears. “It’s beautiful!” – he says aloud. “Everything is beautiful! Everything is harmonious! This is paradise! The Earth is paradise! What more could anyone wish for?”
Joseph frowns and continues walking. “We are beautiful too” – he murmurs – “because we are a part of this” .
Suddenly, Joseph is overwhelmed by a love for his wife and children, and a wish to bring them to the forest, so they would be able to experience the joy of being cocooned within the beauty of paradise. He wishes the entire human race would be able to gather with them, so they may experience it too. So all may embrace the truth and release the lie; be inspired to begin again. To start from scratch, by observing nature, so we may determine the point from which to advance towards a bright future. To let go of the stresses created by a twisted perception of time and purpose, and surf through existence upon the wave of an eternal moment.
After considering the notion further, Joseph speaks to the forest;
“The human race would seem out of place, gathered here, fighting over whose God is real and whose not. Which stagnant, flawed political system works and which doesn’t, and threatening one another with annihilation because of differing opinions. Maybe it’s too late for us to change.”
Joseph shakes his head and walks towards the ghost of the morning sun. He stops in a wide patch of sunlight, and lays down with his hands behind his head. He feels tired, and wonders if his diet of berries provides the nourishment he needs to walk all day long.
He wishes he would have prepared before he left, but knows it’s pointless to speculate on what should have been. Although he tries to live in the moment, he considers the seasons – of winter – and how to prepare without fear; to consider preparing for months ahead while living fully in the fearlessness of the now.
To contemplate the future seems necessary, and the past too, so he may learn from experience. He hadn’t prepared before he left, but he can for the future. Joseph thinks of a shelter. A fire. How to stay warm and dry. What to eat, and finds it difficult to consider everything without a sense of anxiety. The familiar desire for a cigarette passes through his mind and body, and he senses a restlessness that attempts to displace the peace of his enlightenment.
He rises and begins to walk, with an anxiety that encourages him to give up and turn back, even though he knows he has as much chance of surviving the winter as finding his way back to civilisation. Joseph decides to continue walking deeper into the forest and try to eradicate the fear of the unknown, and forget almost all he has ever known.
He walks, eats berries, and slowly slips back into the moment. Thoughts of winter melt in the sun’s rays, which warm his back as the day draws to a close. He walks along the shadows of trees, as if they are guiding him to his bed for the night, which he finds when his eyelids grow heavy, as if they have been dowsing for a place to rest. He curls up in a foetal position, as if the forest is a womb, where he will sleep until he is reborn the next day.
Chapter Seven of The Forest
Joseph wakes and laughs. The dream is still vivid within his mind, as if it were a memory of a real event; of sitting with the bear around a campfire, sharing the deep pink flesh of cooked salmon and occasional glances and smiles as they ate. He cups his hands behind his head, with his fingers interlaced, and recalls the dream in detail, while contemplating a ceiling of whispering treetops.
He has no watch, so he doesn’t know the time, and for the first time in his life it doesn’t matter. All that matters is it’s morning, and his dream, which reminds him to follow the morning’s first light. He stands, stretches towards the sky, as if imitating the life of a tree, and lets a carefree roar escape from his soul, as though he were a bear.
Joseph takes his walking cane and throws the tip forward as his first step, before his feet follow to begin a journey towards the rising sun. He stops occasionally to catch his breath and gather a handful of berries, as the ground begins to rise beneath his feet.
As he ascends, the landscape becomes increasingly rocky, as though rocks are breaking through the forest floor, together with the seedlings of young plants and trees. The birch are becoming scarce, as if they do not like the growing altitude, or pine trees are racing ahead of them to reach the summit first.
He continues to climb, while noticing the decreasing height of the pine, as if the youngest are in front of their elders, and the ground between the rocks becomes earthen, as though the seedlings, moss and berry bushes are the slowest of all.
Joseph stops to rest, with an elbow on his cane and a hand upon one knee, while squinting ahead through the pine towards an ever-increasing gradient. He considers turning back, but thinks of his dream the night before, straightens up, and continues walking uphill, between trunks of pine, which seem more twisted with every step, as though they are turning to see why the others are taking so long.
The forest ends abruptly at an irregular line on the forest floor. Joseph wonders whether an eyelash hangs upon eyelashes, and rubs his eyes, but it’s still there when he opens them. He gingerly edges his way towards the unexpected disappearance of the forest, and finds his line of vision plunging into a precipice, where a raging river snakes its way into the distance, to his left and right, some thirty meters below.
He stands mesmerised by the sudden change of landscape, and astounded by the revelation that the bear’s prophecy had proved correct, before beginning to consider how he might make his way down the steep slopes of the rugged gorge. He turns to his right and follows the course of the river, along the edge of the valley, pausing every so often to peer tentatively over the valley’s crumbling edge.
Joseph begins to descend, while noting the valley’s wall’s receding height, and an increasing sound of rumbling water. When there is only a few meters drop to the river, he hugs the wall of the valley and makes his way down a narrow path, cut by the passing of animals, until he stands on the beach, where he stoops to select a large stone, nestling among countless others, rounded from their lifetimes of rolling together upon the riverbed. He casts the stone into the air above the thundering water, and watches the churning viridian river swallow it, while wondering whether to follow its course upstream or down. He reasons the river will be making its way to the sea, so he sets off upstream, with his feet rotating in needless directions upon grinding stones.
His crunching, grating gait is tiresome, and he curses under his breath when he realises he should have thought of gathering berries before he left the forest, and hopes the slopes of the valley will meet the forest further upstream. His hunger reasons with him;
‘Even if there are fish in the river, how will you catch them? Surely it’s better to be in the forest where you know there’s food?’
While he considers an answer, he stops, transfixed, when he sees a salmon, belly-up and twisting and gulping in the waters near the riverbank. The salmon tries to flip itself upright, but a deep gash in its underside reveals its efforts are in vain. Joseph wades into the river and grasps the salmon, which slips from his grip and lurches, with a flip of its tail, into deeper waters.
Joseph retreats from the river and follows the salmon along the shoreline, as it floats or swims weakly downstream, and wades into the water when the salmon drifts into a shallow stretch of river. Having had time to consider his technique, he crouches and scoops the salmon into his arms, before turning to stride through the water towards the riverbank.The salmon thrashes powerfully within his grasp, despite its weakened state, until he releases it to fall onto a grassy outcrop of land.
The salmon flips from one side of its damaged body to the other, drowning in the air, while Joseph selects a stone, which he uses to crush the fish’s fragile, angular skull. The fish bucks and slaps on the grass for a moment before lying still, with its blood, bone, and rainbow of colours shimmering in the midday sun.
Joy and sorrow mingle as a curious feeling, while Joseph combs the beach, collecting driftwood, which soon gathers to become the foundation of his first fire. He lights a loose bundle of dry grass within its heart with his lighter, and guts the fish while flames curl around the sun-bleached wood. He allows the roaring fire to die until embers glow in a gentle breeze, and threads a long, thin stick through the salmon’s mouth and holes he has made along its body to its tail. Joseph rests each end of the stick in the crooks of y-shaped branches, held upright with piles of stones, and turns the salmon slowly over the glowing fire until a delicious aroma suggests it is cooked to perfection.
Joseph eats with a beaming smile and his mouth smacking open and closed; a manner that had led to scoldings as a child, and contrary to the solemn, civilised chewing he had grown accustomed to. He considers the dark pink flesh as he eats, and compares it to the memory of the lighter pink, farmed salmon he had eaten sometimes at home. He had stopped eating farmed salmon after reading an article explaining that the darker colour of wild salmon’s flesh is due to their diet of crustaceans, such as tiny shrimps, and the lighter pink of farmed salmon – because they are fed with pellets containing soybean, corn meal and poultry by-products. The thought causes a wave of nausea to sweep over Joseph. His smile fades for a moment, and his chewing grinds to a halt, before he resumes eating with the certainty the salmon hadn’t eaten anything which wouldn’t have appeared on its natural menu.
He wonders how the salmon died, and thinks it may have escaped from a bear. He feels sorry the salmon suffered, but glad it lived its life free in the churning, tumbling river, rather than trapped in a concrete tank filled with still water. Joseph picks the last of the flesh from the carcass with his fingertips, and sucks them one by one until they are clean. He thinks of burying the fish’s skin and bones, but throws them into the river, and through a natural desire, stands to thank the river for his meal, and wish the fish’s soul is at peace.
He clears evidence of the fire as well as he is able, and resumes his journey along the rocky beach, with a newfound strength in his legs. As he walks, he gathers flotsam and jetsam the river has carried downstream. He finds an old tin, which he thinks could be used as a cup, and a fat plastic biro, which he puts in a pocket, without having a use for it in mind, and then, the most glorious discovery of all – a long length of nylon fishing line, which he untangles from branches and digs from under stones, for a good part of the afternoon, while wrapping its increasing length around a short, thick stick.
Once the line’s gathered, Joseph continues walking, with the crashing passage of the river to his right, the grinding melody of the rolling stones beneath his feet, and a curious echo of all sounds resounding from the walls of the gorge on his left. He walks without a thought of his past or future; only experiencing his existence as he exists.
The valley wraps itself in its own shadow long before the light of day begins to fade, and Joseph senses the night will be cold. The walls of the gorge rise high above, so he knows he will be spending the night on the banks of the river.
Before the sky presents its first stars, Joseph sits on a lonely grassy bank to consider his only possessions. Everything he has seems alive with the gravity of its being. His cane is his walking companion. The fishing line is like a lifeline – providing it doesn’t break, and he will be lucky enough to find a hook. The tin has a number of uses, from a drinking cup to a small cooking pot. The biro has no purpose, as yet, but seems to glow in the evening light with endless possibilities; a potential to be discovered. The lighter holds the magic of fire, with the flip of his thumb producing a flame, like a cartoon character lighting a cigar, and the coins – the most valuable possession in the civilised world – seem the most useless objects of all.
When he has finished contemplating his belongings, he curls up, with a grassy knoll as his pillow, and drifts into a dream where the bear stands on its haunches, sniffing the air, as if waiting for Joseph to fall into a deeper sleep, so they may dream together.
Chapter Eight of The Forest
Joseph wakes cold and damp in the day’s first light. The uncomfortable sensations encourage him to stand, flap his arms, hop from one foot to the other, and breathe warm breath into tingling hands.
Once he has warmed up he sets off walking, while trying to remember what he had been dreaming of, but his dreams become increasingly vague and distant, as though he has left them in his resting place. He is almost certain he had dreamt of the bear, but can’t recall what had happened if he had.
When the morning sun peers into the valley, Joseph stops walking and stands with a twitching bottom, for his morning ablutions call for an immediate hole, but he isn’t able to dig one in the hard, undulating earth at the foot of the gorge. He considers doing it in the river, but doesn’t wish to resume performing such a sacrilegious human ritual, so he shuffles awkwardly along the beach until he finds a small grassy verge, which appear occasionally to trace the contours of the river. He excavates a hasty hole, drops his trousers and shits, while thinking how incredibly disrespectful it is to pollute the environment of sea creatures by shitting in the sea; and how utterly foolish, since humans harvest food from the seas. He laughs when he imagines sea creatures rising from the waves every morning to perform their toilet on the earth, and how insulted we would be. He wipes, rather abrasively, with a handful of torn grass, buries the waste, and continues his morning’s journey.
Joseph’s stomach rumbles. He looks up to the summit of the steep gorge, and slowly back down to the beach, and knows there’s no hope of being able to ascend to the forest. He walks, while fumbling with the line in his pocket and wishing he had a hook. He casts glances between the beach, with the hope of finding one, and the river, with the anticipation of seeing another injured salmon.
He walks all morning with a growling stomach, and a growing sense of concern. Neither hook nor salmon arrive to alleviate his anxiety, and his consciousness of the moment collapses to spill into the past and future – he remembers the salmon of the day before, and hopes he might eat the same delight that night.
By mid-afternoon, his anxiety is replaced, occasionally, by a sense of panic, which he manages to dispel with the hope of better days. He imagines sitting in a cabin he has made, where dried fish hang upon walls and a fire blazes in a rocky grate. A wolf he has tamed rests at his feet, within the realms of his imagination, and birds sing joyful songs through glassless windows.
He is so lost in the world of his creation that he doesn’t notice the wounded salmon when it passes – drifting downstream – nor that the valley’s walls are declining rapidly in height. He walks in a pleasant world of a wishful tomorrow, when the forest appears on his left. He only realises it’s there when he turns and smiles in the direction of birdsong.
Joseph shouts, and then, on reflection – “whoop! Sorry. I mean, hello forest! Fancy seeing you here!”
He strides laughing into the glade, where he stoops to gather handfuls of berries, and once his stomach has stopped complaining; to lie on the soft forest floor within a patch of sunlight, with his hands behind his head, which rest upon a pillow formed from his rolled up jacket.
His joy is complete. The forest offers the materials he will need to build the cabin of his dreams, and berries to eat, and when their season is over there will be mushrooms. The river is a source of food too, and provides water to drink and wash with.
‘Yes’ – Joseph thinks – ‘you smelly old man. Perhaps it is time for a wash’.
He strips naked in the sunlight and edges his way into the icy waters of the river. He stops when it reaches his knees, because the current is so strong, and begins to wash feebly, by gathering water in his cupped hands and splashing it on his body. When he has grown accustomed to the water’s chill, he wades to the riverbank and runs to his resting place to get his tin, and then back to the river, where he fills the tin with water and pours it over his head – laughing between sharp intakes of breath. Before long, he sits in the river, near the bank, and washes thoroughly, with his gasps for air dispersing until there is only the low roar of the river, and the splish-splashing of his washing.
When he is clean, Joseph stands and heads back to the forest, where his conditioning is disappointed because it suggests a towel. Rather, he drips dry, like a wet towel in the sunshine, before pulling on his clothes and strolling to the riverbank, to watch the churning waters and think nothing at all.
He stoops occasionally to select a stone and throw it high into the air, and watch its descent until it drops – with an unheard splash – into the river’s thundering wake. Joseph squints into the sun and contemplates the rugged landscape, and wonders if it will become familiar. He has walked for almost a week, and thinks he may be far enough from civilisation to live undiscovered in the wilderness, and has found the perfect place to be.
He wonders whether there will be hunters during the hunting season, but he hasn’t found any evidence of man’s presence since he left, apart from the items of jetsam he found on the banks of the river, which he assumes may have been carried a hundred miles before being washed ashore, so he hopes he will be the only person within his neck of the woods.
Joseph scours the beach, with the vague hope of finding a hook, before carefully examining everything he has, to see if he might be able to make one. When he considers his belt, he finds what he needs. Joseph thinks the piece of metal that passes through the holes on the belt, to keep it closed, is perfect. The belt’s buckle passes through a loop on the rod, which secures it in place, so Joseph breaks the buckle between two stones. He grinds the tip of the rod into a point on a flat rock, before pushing the sharpened tip into a crack on a boulder and hammering the looped end over with a stone until it forms a U shape.
After considering the resulting hook, Joseph takes a stick and begins to draw a simple diagram in the sandy loam that creates a border between the beach and forest. He draws a long stick – with the fishing line tied to one end – which leads to a float resting on wavy lines and a hook hanging below. Joseph completes the diagram by scoring the outline of a fish, staring hungrily at a worm on the hook.
He circles the near vicinity of his space within the forest, testing the flexibility of branches until he finds a young Yew, when he stands twisting and tugging a long, thin branch until it breaks free from the tree. He walks away, satisfied, but stops, turns and apologises to the tree, and hopes it did not suffer greatly. Joseph thanks the tree for the rod, smiles, and gently pats its trunk, before making his way back to the beach while considering the ritual that would have once seemed silly, but now only natural, as if he had taken a gift and forgotten to say thank you, and hurt someone without saying sorry.
Joseph considers the float. He spreads his meagre belongings on the sandy loam, and contemplates each carefully. The fat plastic biro keeps drawing his interest, which fades when he discards each method he thinks of to keep it airtight. He considers using a stick, but assumes it would become waterlogged and sink, and of the occasional pieces of polystyrene he had encountered on the beach, which, he concludes, would be too fragile to support the line.
Joseph racks his brains until a wave of realisation lifts him to stand and walk along the beach, where he finds a small chunk of polystyrene, stained yellow green by the river. He returns to the forest, sits upon the sandy loam, and pulls out the heart of the biro, before heating the tip of the fishing hook with the lighter and using it to melt a small hole on the bottom half of the pen’s plastic casing. He takes one end of the line and passes it through the hole he has made, and after tying a knot a half meter from its end, he threads it through the hole in the pen’s tip, from where ink once flowed. He pulls the line through the pen until it stops at the knot, and stuffs polystyrene into the pen’s body.
When he has screwed the two halves of the pen together, he threads the line coming out of the pen’s tip through the loop on the hook, and after securing it in place with a row of simple knots, he ties the other end to the Yew branch, before laying everything on the ground and stepping back to admire his ingenuity.
“A fishing rod!” – Joseph exclaims with pride – “made from a belt, a branch, a stick and a pen!”
Joseph is overcome with a child-like enthusiasm and scampers around the forest, lifting rocks, fallen branches and the dead trunks of trees, while gathering worms in the tin can. When he returns to the rod he sighs a heartfelt apology, and threads a writhing worm onto the hook.
He casts the hook and float out into the river, and almost immediately drags it back, delighted he has caught a fish on his first attempt. There is nothing though, and Joseph assumes the tugging on the line was caused by the river’s powerful current. He casts the line again and again, and loses worm after worm until the light begins to fade, when he knows he must stop to gather berries while he can still see them.
After he has eaten his fill, he lies in the forest, at the day’s end, contemplating the birth of stars, and thinking he should expand his territory to search for calmer waters. The forest vanishes when his eyes close, for a brief moment, before being replaced, as if by a sleight of hand, with the enchanted forest of dreams, where the bear stands waiting on its haunches, sniffing the air.
Chapter Nine of The Forest
Once again, the cold wakes Joseph to the first light of day. His first thought is to light a fire, which, once the notion has passed, makes his dreams difficult to recall. He vaguely remembers dreaming of the bear, and since the bear had led him to the river, Joseph wishes he could remember more because he wonders if there is some other advice it wishes to give.
Joseph thinks he should remain unconscious of the day, when he wakes, until he has contemplated his dreams. He thinks of alarm clocks, and wonders whether they are designed to replace dreams with reality as much as to wake one from sleep. He stands and performs the hopping, arm flapping, breath-blowing routine of the day before, while casting eager glances between his fishing rod and the tumbling river. He knows his day will be spent searching for calmer waters, and hopefully, eating salmon.
Joseph eats breakfast berries, while pausing sporadically to lift a rock, log or branch and gather worms in the tin, before heading upriver in search of a place to fish. The fishing hook had the price of inconvenience; he continuously hoists his trousers up as he walks, with the useless, buckle-less belt’s ends slapping his thighs. He thinks of using some of the fishing line to tie it closed, but that would mean dismantling the rod, and he would like the line to be as long as possible.
His concerns are dispelled when he finds a length of twine protruding from the stony beach. Once he has unearthed the twine, and untangled it from the pieces of driftwood it has wrapped itself around, he saws a length from it on the edge of a rock, threads an end through the leather loop that had held the buckle in place, and one of the many holes that determine the belt’s circumference, before pulling both ends tight and tying them into a bow. Rather than pulling his trousers up, he resumes walking with his hands engaged in the task of rolling the remaining length of twine into a ball.
Joseph crunches along the beach, or wades across grassy verges whenever they appear to keep the beach company. As the morning draws on, the sun illuminates a widening in the river’s course and a less hurried pace of its flow.
The growing silence of the river is met by a distant thunder of water, which grows increasingly loud as Joseph follows a lazy bend until he meets the slopes of a waterfall, a massive pool beneath, and salmon leaping from it towards the waterfall’s summit. Joseph’s heart leaps in his chest and begins to thump with exhilaration, while he stands watching the fish as they struggle and writhe their way up the slope of the falls, as if broken pieces of rainbow trying to make their way back to the sky. He takes the Yew rod, unwinds the line from over his shoulder and across his back, sits at the edge of the pool, and carefully threads a worm onto the hook, with the sorrow for its agony difficult to express within his elation.
He casts the line into the pool, and smiles broadly when the float stands upright once the hook has sunk. The pool’s gentle current carries the float back to him, so he casts again; repeating the action many times before the float plunges out of sight when he gets his first bite. He pulls on the Yew branch with all his might – which arches until Joseph thinks it will snap – but the line slackens, and he knows he has lost his catch. He pulls the line in, and feels relieved to see the hook’s still there, although the worm has gone.
He tries to connect to the moment, to feel genuine sorrow as he threads a worm onto the hook, and ignore thoughts that wish to jump backwards and forwards between the past and future – of eating salmon two days before, which he hopes to experience again later, and how to cut barbs into the hook so fish won’t slip off.
When the worm is secured on the hook, he casts the line, and repeats the action once the float has drifted back to the shallow waters near the bank. The repetition of events promises more of the same, so he isn’t prepared when the float vanishes and the rod is almost torn from his hands. Joseph grasps the rod and heaves it towards him until the Yew bends to a U, and begins to walk downriver, pulling his catch with him. The salmon twists and thrashes in the pool’s mouth until he manages to draw the fish up onto the beach, where it flails upon the rocks in a desperate attempt to return to the river.
Joseph approaches the salmon while wrapping the line around one hand – which cuts deep into his flesh – until he is able to still its powerful protest with a rock. When the salmon lies still, with the desires of its life, and for its life, only crushed brain and bone, Joseph unwinds the line from his bloody, trembling hands and holds them in front of his face, with fingers outspread; turning them palm outwards and in, before washing them in the river and examining the cuts in the early afternoon sun.
“They aren’t so bad” – Joseph says to himself, and to the landscape he senses listens to him and observes his movements, attitude and intent – “they’ll heal in time.”
He positions the rod in the centre of his back, wraps the line around his body, to secure it in place, pushes the hook and float carefully into a pocket and heads back downstream, with the fish hanging from a stick balanced on his shoulder. Despite the extra weight he bears, Joseph’s joy seems to lift him from the surface of the beach to float homewards, with his mouth watering in anticipation of an evening feast. He greets the forest when it appears, places his catch upon the sandy border between earth and water, and begins to gather wood for a fire, which is a task made easy with the forest to help him.
Once the blazing fire has burnt to glowing embers, Joseph creates a spit with two y-shaped branches, secured upright with stones, and threads a long, thin stick through the salmon’s mouth and holes that run from gills to tail, before resting the fish between them. What had been a meal of chance, two days before, had become one gained through skill that day, and Joseph imagines the difference will add flavour to his meal.
When the salmon is cooked, and while he sits breaking flakes of the delicious, delicate flesh from skin and bone, a shadow looms in his peripheral vision. He turns to see a bear standing on its haunches, sniffing the air. Joseph’s face breaks into a wide grin. ‘The bear from my dreams!’ – he thinks – ‘coming to share my meal!’
Joseph stands slowly and says quietly – “hello there, bear. I think we have met before, in dream world.”
The bear stops sniffing and stares fixatedly at Joseph, for a moment, before dropping onto its forepaws and running towards him, as if, Joseph thinks, to reunite with an old friend.
The earth thunders until the bear reaches Joseph, when it sweeps him clean off his feet with outstretched paws. Joseph lands on his back with a thump that knocks the breath out of him, and before he can gasp for air, the bear stands upon him, growling a deep guttural sound, while the sensation of teeth sinking into a shoulder causes Joseph to shriek with fear and pain.
A vaguely remembered television show pops up in his mind, the narrator of which says calmly – “keep perfectly still, as if you are dead.”
When another blinding wave of pain sears through his upper arm, Joseph clenches his teeth while trying to gasp for breath as silently as he is able. His arm and shoulder are at once numb, and Joseph waits for the next bolt of agony, which arrives when he feels and hears the bear’s teeth grinding on the top of his skull, and then, to his horror – entering the socket of his left eye – when Joseph passes out from fear, pain and shock.
Chapter Ten of The Forest
Joseph lies dead still on his side, staring unblinkingly into the faintly glowing embers of the dying fire. After an incalculable amount of time has passed, he struggles feebly into a sitting position – wincing as pain seems to travel to every nerve in his body. He takes a stick and pushes it into the embers, and then more until flames begin to spread, and his surroundings are lit by a flickering light.
His shirt is glued to his skin, and hinders every movement he makes. He gingerly lifts a hand to touch his throbbing head, but bolts of pain running up and down his arm and spreading across his back and chest prevent him from doing so. He tries again, with his other hand, which rises and rests upon his cranium. Joseph rubs a wet, hairy flap of skin between thumb and fingers, without realising it is his scalp.
His hand drops to his lap, sending sharp waves of intense pain coursing through his body, which seem to gather and explode in his left eye. He lifts his hand to his face, and wonders why something that feels like a wet fig hangs on his cheek. He rolls it between his thumb and fingers and tries to pull it off, which sends a paroxysm of excruciating pain into the very centre of his brain, making him scream.
He uses his good arm to load some more wood onto the fire, stands slowly and stumbles over the beach to the river, where he drops painfully to his knees. He scoops water from the river with one hand, and slowly raises it to wash the sticky feeling from his face. He touches the wet fig and howls in agony. Once he has recovered, he gently washes his forehead, while carefully exploring its contours until a fingertip slips into an eye socket, when a wave of terror sweeps through his broken mind and body.
“NO!” – he shouts.
“OH NO! PLEASE GOD, NO!”
The terror has jolted Joseph fully into consciousness, and he begins to shake uncontrollably from shock. He rinses his trembling hand in the cold river, and raises it to cautiously explore his face. His left eye is warm and wet and feels like the inside of his lips. He traces a line with his fingertips down towards his cheek – to the fig – which he now knows is his eye. He presses it gently; it’s soft. His sharpened sense of reason knows his eyeball has burst, and he is blind in one eye.
Joseph mutters to himself constantly; the muted syllables interspersed with shouts expressing his horror.
“No, no, no, no, no.... oh no, no, no .... OH MY GOD! .... NO! .... OH NO! .... PLEASE GOD, NO! .... oh, no, no, no, no, no ....”
He touches the top of his head, feels the flap of skin and screams;
“OH MY GOD! PLEASE! SOMEBODY HELP ME!”
Joseph’s plea echoes in the valley, heard only by that which observes, but cannot help. He scoops a handful of water from the river and washes his head. Red blood and viridian water mingle to produce a dirty grey in the final moments of the day’s twilight.
The pain becomes a part of his existence, like a crippling toothache engulfing his entire body. He continues to mutter, as if a song learned in hell, and uses his fingertips to push the flap of scalp back into its rightful place. Joseph thinks he should be dead, wonders if he is, and finds himself wishing he were.
Chapter Eleven of The Forest
After a sleepless, torturous night, Joseph washes his wounds and clothes in the river. He rips the sleeves off his shirt and tears them into strips. He uses one as a bandage that runs under his jaw and over his cranium, to keep the flap of scalp in place while it heals, and winds another around the back of his head and over his eye socket, while leaving the dead eye hanging on his cheek.
He lives in the moment, but his moments are agony. He wakes in the darkness, with his wounds aggravated by the cold, and paces restlessly through nights until he is warmed by morning sunlight.
One day, he finds a curious orb of dry meat on the loam between the forest and beach and rolls it between thumb and fingers, wondering what it could be, before realising it’s his eye, which has fallen off its withered stem. He thinks of burying it, but tosses it sadly into the river, and tries to remember all the sights it has seen, which leads him to contemplate his entire life.
He fishes occasionally, while keeping a fearful eye open for bears, but mostly eats berries – and mushrooms too, as the summer slips into autumn. He doesn’t see the bear, or any others. He dreams of it, sometimes, and finds it curious that it is always friendly and he is never afraid.
He spends much of his time thinking of nature; his growing respect for it, replaced during a moment’s terror by fear, and then a deeper respect, when he realised fear had put him firmly in his place. He senses the experience reflects the root of civilisation; the reason for its being and the attitude that led to its creation. Joseph thinks the fear of nature led humankind to create spaces almost devoid of it. The forest driven away, leaving only trees planted in neat rows, or huddled together in parks, so everyone knows where it may be found.
He thinks nature has become scenery, rather than something we exist within; as though it lives in a cage, which we observe from ours. Joseph thinks endless symbols of humankind’s fear, and wish to control and dominate nature, are wherever one turns. The wood of trees sculpted to form furniture and a myriad of everyday objects, and the irregular form of the tree cut into squared planks and trodden upon as floorboards, as if a blatant symbol of disrespect, dominance, and the desire to manipulate nature’s forces to comply with humankind’s desires.
He considers hunting and gathering, and how it had transformed into rearing animals for food, in confined spaces, with no compassion for their feelings of pain and discomfort; as though wreaking revenge for the time when nature held dominance over humankind. He contemplates grain and fruit, grown in geometric grid-works of fields and within ordered orchards, with their seeds destined to rot on dumps, rather than falling onto soil to grow into wild grain and fruit.
Joseph sees an incredible irony within the microenvironment humankind have created; that we have grown afraid of each other within this confined space, and wish to dominate and control one another as we wish to dominate and control nature. He sees we use fear as a weapon to achieve dominion and control, as we sense nature once used the same to dominate and control us. Joseph thinks the fear of one another has escalated to encompass the entire planet, resulting in the threat of a Third World War, which may destroy all life and even the planet itself.
Joseph assumes this scenario would not have arisen if we would have advanced to our present with respect for nature, rather than a fear of it, and a need to dominate and control nature to overcome the fear – and realise the philosophy should be applied to the interactions between our kind. He reasons that the world would not be enveloped within the threat of a man-made armageddon, nor teetering on the brink of destruction because of global warming, if it had been so.
Joseph’s days pass by engrossed in such thoughts, with each finding him stronger with healing wounds. When he isn’t thinking of such concerns, he uses innovation to improve his standard of living. He punctures holes alongside the useless zip of his jacket and threads a length of twine through them, which he draws tight, like the lace of a boot, to keep it closed. He tears patches from the forest’s mossy floor and hangs them over branches to dry, in the early autumn sun, and wraps himself within them in an effort to stay warm during the cold nights.
He finds a strip of metal, during a walk along the beach, and spends many hours grinding it into a knife blade on a flat rock. He uses the blade to carve its handle from a stout stick, and the resulting knife to cut an eye patch from a plastic bottle he has found, which he ties in place with a length of twine. He grinds the edge of the largest coin into a blade, and carves intricate designs on the knife’s handle, and the handle of his fishing rod, so it won’t slip from his grip.
Sometimes, Joseph traces the contours of a raised patch on the top of his head, his sunken eye socket, or the puncture wounds on his shoulder and arm with his fingertips, and knows they will remind him of the bear and his respect for nature for so long as he should live. Although his wounds and the loss of an eye have left him feeling less of a man, in some ways, in others he feels more of a man than he has ever been, and delighted to be alive.
Chapter Twelve of The Forest
Recuperating from his injuries have delayed Joseph’s preparations for winter, and he begins to wonder if he will survive. He knows he should build a shelter of some kind, and make snares from twine or fishing line so he might trap animals. Instinct suggests he should gather mushrooms and dry them, while they are abundant, and berries too, because their season is almost over.
Joseph is a little wary of encountering the bear, so he decides to make his winter camp in the forest on top of the valley, rather than next to the river, since the sun’s increasingly lowly position prevents sunlight from reaching the valley for most of the day. Joseph gathers his few belongings and sets off walking up the steep gradient leading to the gorge’s summit, while stooping occasionally to eat berries and raw Chanterelles on the way, since they are the only edible wild mushrooms he knows.
On his first night without the mossy quilts, he kicks and struggles his way in between the carpet of moss and earth, as he did on one of his first nights in the forest. He chuckles as he does so, as if he is climbing into a familiar, comforting bed remembered from childhood. The second night is the same, and the third day suggests it is time to start making his winter camp, when he peers over the edge of the valley and sees a wide pool where he will be able to fish, if he manages to find a way to make his way down to it.
As Joseph searches for a suitable plot of land to build his winter home, he stops and stares as though a rabbit hypnotised by the glare of a car’s headlights. The shape is unmistakable. A chill runs up his spine, and seems to gather under the skin of his scarred cranium. He drops to his haunches and runs in this stance until he squats behind a clump of wild raspberries, from where he peers towards the source of his surprise.
The windows are rendered opaque by sunlight, so he can’t see if there’s anyone inside or whether someone has seen him. The shape of the house stirs a thousand memories, buried under his time spent in the wilderness. His head returns for a moment; the head he had run from, damaged by living in such a shape and being surrounded by them, and now damaged physically because he ran to a space devoid of them.
Joseph crouches behind the raspberry bush until evening falls. When he is certain there’s no light coming from within, he stands and walks slowly towards the house, which adopts the form of a log cabin when its details gain clarity. He reaches the cabin and peers into a window, but sees nothing. He wipes the window with a sleeve, which makes no difference at all. He rolls a flame from his lighter and ignites a bunch of dry grass, which he holds against the glass, and makes out a barely furnished room with a fireplace.
“A fireplace!” – Joseph mutters.
He drops the torch, stamps on it, takes a few steps to his right, and tries the handle of the front door, but finds it locked. He walks around the cabin, but there is only the one door. He raises the lighter to a window and sees a simple latch within. He passed a wood pile, stacked at one side of the cabin, when he had walked around it, and goes back to select a log. He returns to the window, raises the log to his shoulder, and thrusts it towards a windowpane, which creates the deafening noise of crime. Joseph drops the log and sprints back to the raspberry bush, where he crouches until he is certain the crash of breaking glass is followed by nothing more than the silent indifference of the forest.
He walks back to the cabin, reaches through the broken pane, lifts the latch, opens the window, and clambers inside. He stands in the dark, surrounded by the unfamiliar geometry of a box, and strikes a flame from his lighter. He turns in a slow circle, with the flame held at arm’s length, while his eye flicks from one unfamiliar, yet familiar object to the next. An armchair, a bookshelf – upon which some books rest – a radio, and a plate resting on the floor with some candles standing on it, which Joseph stoops to light one by one until the room is bathed in their flickering light, which illuminates an oil lamp sitting on a small table, which Joseph lights too.
He unwinds line from around his body and swings the rod from his back to stand it in a corner of the room, flops into the armchair, rests his hands upon its arms, and contemplates the room’s every detail. He laughs when he sees a painting on a wall – of a forest – and presumes whoever has lived in the cabin likes nature too. He stands and lifts the oil lamp by its handle, and walks through the room’s only door and into a kitchen.
“A kitchen!” – Joseph exclaims.
He places the oil lamp on a work surface and opens a cupboard, which is crammed with tins and jars of food. He opens another to find the same, and the third causes expectation to override surprise.
He takes a tin and reads the label – “meatballs!”
He replaces it and takes another – “beans!”
The third he holds close to the oil lamp, while his eye roams over the tin in search of a sell by date. He sees nothing until he wipes a thin film of dust from the tin and looks again, when he reads they must be eaten almost immediately, which, together with the dust, suggests no one has lived in the cabin for quite some time.
He takes a jar of jam, wipes the lid, focuses on the date, sees it has expired a year before, opens the lid, sniffs it, and sticks a finger into the jar because it smells like jam.
“Nam!” – Joseph says – “tastes like jam too!”
He opens the rest of the cupboards, all of which are packed with tins and jars, and thinks he has found the perfect place to spend the winter, providing no one returns. He wonders if there are any other cabins nearby, and decides to spend the following day checking to see if there are or not.
There are three doors leading from the kitchen. The one he came through, from the living room. He opens another to find a small hallway, where an axe stands and a long mirror hangs, in front of which Joseph freezes, as though he has encountered another human being. Joseph stands rigid, while his eye wanders from scuffed, dirty boots, up worn, blood-stained jeans, a jacket held together with string, a bushy, grey beard, a thin, gaunt face, an eye-patch beside a surprised eye, up to an unruly mop of hair, and then back to meet the eye, which arches in humour when he bursts out laughing.
“Ha ha!” – Joseph chortles – “forest man! Pleased to meet you!”
Joseph backs out of the hall, shaking his head with wonderment, and into the kitchen, when he opens the third door, which reveals a small bedroom where a neatly made bed rests. Joseph yawns, stretches and smiles.
He opens a drawer in the kitchen, finds a spoon, and returns to the living room with the jar of jam and oil lamp, which he stands on the table. Joseph sits in the armchair and eats jam by candle and lamplight, while looking all around, as though he has never been in a room before.
When he has finished eating, he blows out the candles, takes the lamp and walks through to the bedroom, where he undresses for bed for the first time in many months. Joseph extinguishes the lamp, climbs into bed, and falls almost immediately into a deep, dreamless sleep.
Chapter Thirteen of The Forest
Joseph wakes and opens his eye, which is met by a sky of wood panelling. He rises from bed, stretches his hands above his head, arches backwards, and flops forward with a sigh. His priorities; his every thought has changed overnight. He has woken warm in bed, so he doesn’t have to begin the day by hopping and flapping in an effort to bring warmth to his body. His new state of being does not encourage his survival instinct; of how he may stay warm and dry in winter, or what to eat to survive, because the cabin offers a solution to all his concerns.
He almost hopes he will find neighbouring cabins, so he will be forced to return to the forest and connect with his consciousness of the day before – living in the moment, and considering an uncertain future from that space in time.
Joseph walks through to the kitchen, lit by morning sunlight shining through the room’s only window, opens a cupboard and regards the larder. Although the tins have an aged quality, he knows they contain edible food, so the thought of gathering breakfast berries is displaced by their being.
Joseph is left feeling somewhat devoid of purpose, and the thrill of life. His surroundings seem to press on the moment, so it spreads to embrace a comfortable future. Yet; he realises he would be foolish to leave the cabin because it offers everything he would search for if he were to – but knows he will be forced to if there are other cabins nearby.
Joseph is aware time is precious, since he may have to prepare for winter. So, he dresses, gathers his few possessions, and turns the handle of the cabin’s door, with the vague hope it will open from the inside. Finding it locked, he scans the hallway’s walls in search of a hanging key, and heads through to the living room when he sees there isn’t.
He opens a window, slides a small, square chest beneath, steps on it, throws the rod out, and jumps onto the soft, mossy carpet of his old home. Once he has tied the rod to his back, he walks around the cabin and discovers an outside toilet, a well, and an outhouse stacked with firewood.
Joseph notes the position of the sun, and begins to walk in increasingly wider circles around the cabin, with the intent of performing decreasing circles to spiral his way back, if he doesn’t find any evidence of human life. As his distance from the cabin increases, he looks for signs of a road leading to the property, and thinks it seems as though the cabin has grown where it stands, when he concludes there aren’t any.
Joseph’s circular investigations are cropped by the valley, so he walks in D shaped spirals for most of the morning, while stopping periodically to construct tepee-like frames from fallen branches, to act as landmarks that will enable him to find his way back to what may be his home.
He pauses to pick berries, which are becoming sparse, shrunken and slightly bitter, which leads him to consider finding the cabin as incredibly good fortune. On his final lap, he gazes deep into untrodden forest at every step, before heading back to the cabin with the knowledge there are no others.
When he arrives, he gathers armfuls of firewood from the stack at the side of the building, throws them into the living room through the open window, together with his fishing rod, and clambers inside. Joseph investigates every drawer and cupboard in the kitchen, and finds everything he will need for the winter ahead.
The discovery of a tin opener allows him to open a tin of beans and another of meatballs, which he pours into a pan. He places the pan on a two-ringed hob, connected to a canister of butane resting inside one of the kitchen’s lower cupboards, and uses his lighter to ignite the gas. He remembers seeing another in the hall, leaving his mind to rest in the comfortable embrace of civilisation.
Joseph sits in the armchair in the living room, eating from the pan with a spoon, and when he has finished his meal, he climbs out of the window and strolls towards the outside toilet, while untying the twine on his belt.
He sits, shits, rips a length of aged toilet paper, wipes, stands, and sprinkles a handful of sawdust into the hole where his ablution fell. Although the novel ceremony he has performed doesn’t have the same sense of harmony as shitting in the forest, Joseph thinks it natural compared to pooping in six litres of clean drinking water and flushing it into the sea, or to a sewage plant to create work that could be eliminated with a little thought – a problem for the planet transformed into a commodity from the commode, with a little sound reasoning.
Joseph leaves the toilet and heads towards the well. He stoops, lifts the cover, and peers down to the water some meters below, where his reflection is framed inside a square of light, shimmering within the darkness. He takes an iron bucket, tied to a length of rope, and drops it into the well. The bucket lands with a splash, before floating on the water, so he draws it back up and tries again. After further fruitless attempts, he drops it sideways so it sinks, and pulls the bucket up, hand over hand, until it clangs at his feet on the well’s concrete top, full of clear, sloshing water.
There is no sink in the kitchen, but Joseph finds a metal bowl in the outhouse, which he fills with water. He washes his hands and face, and then the pan, spoons and jam jar, before clambering back through the window.
The setting sun paints the trunks of the tall, straight pine trees surrounding the cabin orange, before passing through one of the living room’s windows to illuminate Joseph, crouching in front of the fire, where he loosely crumples sheets of newspaper and throws them into the fire’s bed, after reading each one.
The newspapers are years old, but they reveal the same news as the newspapers he had read before he left. ‘Nothing changes’ – Joseph thinks – ‘the same political tensions that may result in a Third World War. The sorrowful consequences of global economic inequality. Wealthy nations’ obsession with growing economies, which no one seems to know what they will be when they have grown, and even when economies are considered to be growing healthily, they only create societies few seem to rest content within, as though the desires of humankind are insatiable and without limit, and one must suffer for another’s pursuit of pleasure and comfort, leaving half the planet living in the realms of poverty.’
Joseph shakes his head, places a network of sticks over the news and lights it, while thinking that all our misguided efforts will surely lead to the destruction of the planet and all its life.
While the fire blazes, sending the chill of the evening outside, where it belongs, Joseph explores the sparsely furnished living room. He runs fingertips through dust on the small table, where the lamp sits, before crossing the room to the bookshelf. He takes books one by one and reads their titles. Nineteen Eighty Four, by George Orwell. Kes, by Barry Hines. The Prodigy, by Hermann Hesse. The Catcher in the Rye. As Joseph replaces the books, he thinks he would like to meet the cabin’s owner, and wonders why he hasn’t been there for so long.
Two drawers rest at waist height on the bookshelf, which he opens to reveal boxes of matches, a compass, some pens and loose sheets of writing paper. Joseph admires the evidence of a simple life, and turns to see how much more complicated it might become. He switches a radio on, which blares the silence music is painted upon, before turning his attention to the square chest beneath the window.
He opens the lid, lifts out a pile of magazines, and finds three cartons of cigarettes sitting at the bottom of the chest. “Six hundred cigarettes!” – Joseph exclaims. He had almost forgotten about his old habit, and knows it will form again if he lights one, and since the tobacco supply is limited, he will be faced with the prospect of breaking it from the moment he does.
Joseph had always wished he could stop smoking, and now he has, with little effort. He remembers the promise he had made during the storm, but old habits die hard. He tears open a carton, removes a pack of cigarettes, peels open the cellophane wrapper, flips the lid and pulls a cigarette out. He slips it into a corner of his mouth, and cups the lighter with his left hand while spinning its wheel with the thumb of his right. He observes the flame being drawn towards the tip of the cigarette with a narrowed eye, before his cool, cowboy-like routine is interrupted by a sudden hacking coughing fit.
“Ha ha!” – Joseph laughs, between bouts of hacking – “welcome back tobacco, my old friend!”
He takes a magazine and strolls over to the armchair, and drops into it with a smoking sigh. He opens the magazine and begins to read yesteryear’s news, which resounds with the sound of familiarity. Faces of world leaders have changed since their publication, but the print reveals the same words fell from the lips of their predecessors, as though the world is trapped in a hideous time warp from which it cannot escape.
Chapter Fourteen of The Forest
Joseph wakes with the thought of spending the day at home. He lies in bed, contemplating a wooden sky, while considering the word ‘home’.
‘A place of safety’ – Joseph thinks – ‘not only from nature, but from one another too, because we don’t trust nature or each other’ – and he wonders if there’s anything in the world he can trust. “You can’t even trust yourself” – Joseph says aloud, as he lights the day’s first cigarette.Joseph thinks back to the moment he understood the root of civilisation – the reason for its being and the attitude that led to its creation – and reconsiders the steps of his reasoning in an effort to find further clues relating to the decline of the human condition, which seems to have walked hand in hand with humankind’s so-called advance.
His thoughts drift back in time to the early days of our existence, when humankind strove to survive in what must have seemed an incredibly hostile environment.
‘We aren’t able to walk or run hours after birth, like most animals, so we were, and still are an easy meal for predators’ – Joseph reasons.
’We are born naked into the world, without fur to keep us warm. We do not have spines, a thick hide or scales to defend ourselves against attack, nor claws, horns or sharp teeth to attack with. Physically, humankind are one of the weakest animals on Earth. Yet, we learned how to compensate for our vulnerability. We covered our delicate skin with the hides of animals, and responded to nature’s aggression with weapons.
It almost seems as though we misread Mother Nature’s message; that she is the source of all life and sustains all life, and demands a respect that reflects her omnipotent presence. Perhaps we assumed Mother Nature was trying to intimidate us; dominate and control us through fear and violence, and once we had transformed from one of the weakest of the Earth’s creatures to the strongest, we sought to dominate and control Mother Nature in the same way we sensed we were once dominated and controlled by her. Maybe we assumed she disrespected us, and responded by disrespecting her.′
Joseph senses he has grasped the end of a thread leading to an understanding regarding the plight of humankind, and furthers his consideration.
’Did our vulnerability within nature – our struggle to survive within it by using weapons of defence and attack – lead to our aggression towards each other? Is our fearful world born from a subconscious primordial reasoning; if a man can kill a bear, then killing a man would be comparatively easy, so one should take measures to defend one’s self from man as well as bears?
Did the prowess we developed to defend ourselves against nature, and harvest its fruit, become a quality we used in the interactions between our kind? Did farming animals spread to encompass human beings? Is that what slavery and exploitation is, in essence? And governance?
Did we carry our fear of the natural world into the microenvironment we created to protect ourselves from it? So the safe environment we intended to create became more fearful than the one we ran from, since we became afraid of each other within the safe haven of our creation? The fear of not being able to survive, incredibly, rising within the environment created in response to the fear of not being able to survive, and becoming even greater than the original fear?
The fear of losing our homes greater in our man-made world than within nature? Greater; the fear of not being able to feed ourselves and our families? And a greater threat than one may ever encounter in nature – the fear of being attacked by other members of our kind on a colossal scale, which may result in a war that may destroy the world and all life?’
Joseph’s inner dialogue becomes overwhelming. He hops out of bed, dresses, and walks through to the living room, where he takes some loose sheets of writing paper and a pen from one of the bookshelf’s drawers. He places them on the lamp’s table and sits on the edge of the armchair, before dragging the table towards him and beginning to write.
Joseph sees the birth of civilisation with incredible clarity, and its disease, which spread until civilisation became a deformed monster, upon the back of which humankind rides to a destruction of their own creation.
He writes of humankind’s slow, vulnerable ancestors trying to survive in an environment where they would have perished, either from cold or hunger, or within the jaws of a hungry animal far faster and more powerful than they – if they had not developed weapons of defence and attack, and used hides and fire to warm their bones.
He explains that humankind’s common fear of nature drew people to live together in communities, which benefited them and led to a sense of safety, but the sense of safety led to an assumption that nature was a foe.
Joseph’s writing explores the notion that humankind’s eventual sense of dominance over nature led to a growing disrespect for it, with every step we took from our hunter-gatherer roots towards a future of farming. Joseph reasons that we believed we could dominate and control nature as one might an animal, once we had mastered the art of farming, even though nature reminded us, from time to time, that we should respect it, and take the gifts it offered gratefully, rather than manipulating nature into giving more and taking everything without a word of thanks.
Joseph writes that we eventually adopted the title of the lords of nature, but we are not good lords, just as kings and queens of the people may be good or bad, depending on the level of respect they have for their subjects.
Joseph reasons and writes, while pausing occasionally to chew the end of the pen, as if doing so will encourage it to voice his thoughts. He considers the cabin he sits within, with a growing feeling he may have discovered a quality the majority of civilisation lacks, since the cabin blends in with nature, rather than seeming as though it wishes to have nothing to do with it.
He sees the fear of nature lurks behind every wall built to protect ourselves from it – to separate ourselves from it – leading us to live within walled enclosures where only humankind may be found, apart from dogs on leashes, animals in cages, plants in pots, trees in parks, and endless symbols of fear, disrespect, and a need to dominate and control that which seems separate, when it is only an inextricable and necessary element of our existence.
Joseph writes that once we felt nature was under our dominion and control, we were driven by a desire to dominate and control one another, which led to a world divided into almost two hundred groups of people, housed within borders that may not be crossed freely, since each group, or country, feared being dominated and controlled by others, or wished to dominate and control.
Vicious circles began to develop when groups once dominant feared they would be attacked by those once dominated, because those once dominated had grown stronger, over time, until they had the ability to dominate. Joseph sees the scenario has led to a species driven by fear and greed.
Joseph explains that humankind have created a divided world within the greater free world, which we should strive to interact with, harmoniously, rather than separate ourselves from, within fearful groups. He sees our freedom only exists within the boxes created to protect ourselves from what we perceived as a common foe – nature – and what has become a common foe; one another. So, freedom is only a man-made captivity that is the result of misinterpreting nature’s attitude and intent in the beginning of civilisation’s construction.
Joseph writes in an effort to encourage the destruction of these boxes, so we may let the world in and ourselves out. He suggests we should consider ourselves as one of a great number of species, and strive to live in harmony with the planet and all its life, and be free to roam wherever we please; to live as all other species live. He writes that we should live with respect for one another, the planet, and all life residing upon it before it’s too late, and our manner of interacting with nature, and each other, results in the death of all life.
Joseph knows he has stumbled upon a code humankind may employ to ensure we live in harmony with the world we live upon, and with each other – a code of living that would enable humankind to build a new world, while casting aside the absurdities of the old.
He sees the beauty of humankind, and wishes the walls and borders will be torn down, so humankind’s true nature may shine out over the world, instead of upon the walls of fearful self-confinement. Joseph writes until the chill of the room encourages him to light a fire, when he begins to write again. He stops once more, in the fading light of day, when he hears the sound of a vehicle approaching the cabin.
Chapter Fifteen of The Forest
The engine stops running, just outside the cabin. An icy wave of fear crashes over Joseph, causing his scrotum to tighten almost audibly in the silence of the room. He hears car doors slam, voices, and a key rattling in the door’s lock. Joseph grabs the sheets of writing paper and pen, scrambles out of the window, drops to the ground and starts to run.“HEY! YOU! COME BACK HERE!”
The first voice he has heard in months fills him with a greater sense of fear than any sound he heard while living in the wilderness, apart from the guttural growling of the bear.
Joseph casts a glance over his shoulder, as he sprints through the forest, and sees two shadowy figures in close pursuit. They are running fast, so Joseph supposes they are too young to be the cabin’s owner, and thinks they may be able to run fast enough to catch him. He gasps for breath and his pounding legs weaken, because he is afraid, so he tries to override fear with the desire to escape.
He leaps over fallen branches and throws his feet forward with every stride, while his breath hammers against the cool air he cuts through – to vanish behind him as clouds of determination in the peace of the forest.
He accelerates to a speed he has never reached before – the time his body spends airborne is far longer than that of his feet on the ground. He turns briefly and laughs when he sees he has gained on them, but runs with an increased vigour, until his footing gives way to space, when he falls and turns in the air, with the sheets of white paper floating above him like doves of peace.
He twists and sees the snaking river, getting fatter and fatter, and then the sky, with those doves of peace circling beneath the clouds he got to know so well, but never knew, for each passes through a constant rebirth, so one does not know if one has seen the cloud before.
Joseph hits the beach with such force that he cannot draw his last breath. The doves of peace, with their words of hope, settle on the river one by one, to be swept away as nothing more than the wishful thoughts of a dying man. Joseph knows he will soon die, as he watches a river of blood flow from his head, like a dream of paradise on Earth, which bleeds, already forgotten, between stones rounded by the endless passage of time.