Hey, I'm Soda, I am a forest person. Join me on another journey into the ultimate dimension, and most primordial expression of life on Earth. This is a truly psychedelic landscape, and the mystical ancient beings who live here have a lot to teach us, a lot of compassion and oxygen to give us, and a lot of pure water held in their solid embrace. All they ask in return, is that we stop, listen deeply, and come back home into their Sanctuary.
Human beings were never kicked out of the garden of Eden, they forgot how to listen, became Colonizers and Slavers, and destroyed it. Still the Earth holds intact ecosystems, full of wonder and abundance. This is a story about a couple such places, on the stolen and fractured land of the Pacheedaht and Ditidaht people. Today I will be sharing a couple of trip reports, and speaking about what it means to belong to the Earth, and propose some practices of how to truly Belong.
Will of the Coastal Trail Collective, with the Cheewhat Giant, the worlds biggest cedar tree. This tree is like a sword, that when encountered, will slice through your conceptual, orderly mind. And plunge you into a Wild Presence and sense of Awe you had only dreamed of before...
The song of Sandhill Cranes, flows into the riparian forest from the marshy edges of Cheewhat Lake. The Setting sun dips below the mountain, the forest is dimly lit now, and the headlamps are on our necks ready to go. We use our night vision as long as possible, as the last scraps of light render a headlamp ineffective, so rather than interfere with our ability to see, we follow the path of least resistance in the muted light of dusk.
Deep within the Cheewhat Lake ancient forest, we are but little creatures in an environment where the massive trees, rugged terrain features, and sheer level of vegetation surrounding us is truly epic. Darkness and Silence, immerse us deeper into the Bushwack. My shirt and pants are soaked through, from the inside out with sweat, for despite the cool temperature the ancient forest maintained throughout the day, walking in these hills is strenuous, and one should bring layers on such journeys so that you can layer up as the chill of evening sets in. As we arrive to Maia's Tree, my resting heart rate returns and I feel cold, the cold refreshes me, and let's me know I have to keep moving, even if i would like to curl up beneath this ancient giant and sleep with the Deer Fern and Salal.
After a time of photographing Maia's grove at night, we enter the home stretch of our return to the Cheewhat Trail. And when we arrive, it is an easy cruise up through the shadowy giants to our Vehicle. The Silhouettes of the biggest Cedars in the world, are equally arresting of a sight at night. Their size seems exaggerated by the darkness that envelopes them. And the world feels all the more mysterious and raw when experienced in the true darkness of the wilderness...
An absolutely massive Cedar, emanating complex wisdom. This tree makes you smile to see what wild and whacky shapes 1000+ years of growth can produce. This tree definitely has a lot to say.
Salmon Counting Station Number 8
At some point in our long 10 hour walk that day, we arrived at one of the loveliest little creeks I have seen, surrounded by Ancient Spruce trees and a lush, dense understory typical of such Spruce Flats. A little marker on an old giant let us know we had arrived to Salmon counting station number 8, a little creekbed that I fell in love with instantly. The water was cold and pure, and we stopped numerous times here to drink in our adventure. In a place such as this, the world feels gentle and everything you feel inside is poetry. Look at the way the dappled light comes through the sky scraper canopy. There are little salmon fry in the river, and it seems a perfect sheltered habitat for them to grow up in. A true Earth Nursery of life.
Salmon Counting Station Number 8, Cheewhat Lake
When we finally did return to the car, we see that we popped a tire on the way in, now deflated and sad. And my tire iron is missing from my car, wow Soda, a crushing blow of unpreparedness! so we went to bed, exhausted, dreading a potential 24 kilometre walk back to the remote community of Ditidaht First Nation to ask for help. It seemed that our Cheewhat adventure may be cut short, and I was disappointed to think we wouldn't get to canoe across the lake the next day as we had intended.
At 8 or so in the morning, as we ate a breakfast of oatmeal with nuts and banana. We hear a car coming up the road, so we wave them down. and a kind woman who was going to reseed the old logging road and culverts further up, lends us her tire iron so we can put on the spare and be free to go back into the ancient forest. What a blessing! We proceed to drive to the other side of Cheewhat, where there is a canoe that we will take across the lake to the salmon counting trailhead.
A long logging road walk averted by the kindness of a forestry worker encountering us deep in the backcountry!
Cheewhat Lake at Dusk, a formation of Sandhill Cranes flew before us as we admired the marshy lake. their ancient cry exudes a deep belonging to the wildest corners of Earth...
"To what shall I liken the World?
Moonlight, Reflected in Dew Drops
Shaken From a Crane's Bill"
Canoeing on Cheewhat Lake, small trout jump out of the water in front of us, this is a shallow warm water lake. It is rich in nutrients and supports a higher concentration of life in a smaller volume, than a deeper, colder lake. Paddling through the marshy edge, we witness a variety of aquatic plants, lilypads, grass and underwater vegetation.
Back at salmon counting station number 8, we encounter a small newt who is struggling to swim through a pool of the small creek, it seems the little guy can't break the surface tension of the water, so his movements are slow and ineffective, a very curious and cute sight to see. A crayfish crawls along the bottom of the pool, and in neighbouring pools, we see numerous small salmon fry, and a couple medium size fish, swimming about through the shadows, under the fallen branches. A diverse and rich habitat that could keep us occupied for hours.
Several of the world's biggest Western Red Cedar's grow on the hills Surrounding Cheewhat Lake. This is an exceptionally productive natural environment.
When you stop moving, and sit down, you can notice so much richness in the Mini Worlds that exist beneath our feet, on the tree trunks, and in the bushes all around. Little birds flutter past, a salamander walks slowly across a mossy log, The world of Moss and Lichen Glistens with dew drops, and they seem to be breathing as they absorb the moisture the ancient forest captures/produces. This is one of the wettest climates in the world. Despite it not having rained in many days, the ancient forest here is still full of moisture, it is the master of holding water, and as such, high intensity, stand clearing forest fires are extremely rare here in the intact rainforest. As you walk, your pants will become soaked from the abundant droplets held by the bushes.
We have our eyes set on the Cheewhat River, that drains this little lake into the mighty Pacific Ocean. Though there is no trail directly to the river, we use this rough salmon counting/science trail that has been cut into the spruce flat, to get further from the lake towards the grassy river bank we want to see. When the trail disappears, we bushwack through dense terrain, using log highways to navigate the thickets of salal and smaller wind thrown trees that make walking extremely difficult.
When we reach the river, we are greeted by many shy ducks, who promptly move away from us, This river is evidently Tidal, we are only a few kilometres from the ocean, and after a time we notice that our kind of wet route through the grassy riverbank, is quickly becoming an inundated tidal marsh...
We take that as a sign to depart this stunning and rarely visited place, and begin our long trek back to the canoe, which we left on the shore of the lake (the beginning of the river is not passable and as the terrain is so difficult, attempting to portage the canoe from the lake to the paddleable portion of river seemed a foolhardy endevour, even to us crazy bush people) . Although we are only a couple kilometres at most away from our start point, travel through this lush lowland rainforest is complicated and time consuming, as numerous adjustments and zig zags must be made to navigate all the obstacles you encounter.
Those who learn to wander in the trackless bush will be rewarded by the wonders of life they encounter. The most important thing to bring with you is your practice that lets you be firmly in the present moment. The ancient forest naturally brings you back into the here and now. As this is the ultimate sensory experience, walk slowly and quietly and many subtle beings will reveal layer upon layer of beauty.
As Will and I wander through this mystical landscape, conversation ebbs and flows, mostly about our immediate surroundings, as they are completely captivating and immersive, but also about our love for ancient forests, and our ideas about how to help others fall back in love with the place. Welcome Moments of silence come often, both because we are enjoying the deep peace and quiet of the place. But also because this bushwhack is intense and difficult, as we tire, it becomes more difficult to form words, and that is part of the magic of such an adventure. If you would like to learn more about Will's years of meaningful work and passion in this spectacular ecosystem, check out the Coastal Trail Collective Website here: https://www.coastaltrailcollective.com
A stump of a Monumental Cedar in the nearby San Juan River Valley.
This region of Southwestern Vancouver Island where Cheewhat Lake lives, was once home to vast, unbroken tracts of giant tree studded, exceptionally biodiverse rainforest. Especially in the valley bottoms with the richest soil and mild year round climate.... In only a handful of decades ( but a blink in time in the life of a 1500 year old Cedar) Colonizers have reduced the landscape into a patchwork of remnant old-growth, surrounded by vast swaths of tree farms and clearcuts. With that being said, here is another Biodiverse Native forest that I am in love with and learning from...
A few Major Valleys South x Southeast of Cheewhat Lake lies the spectacular San Juan River Valley, one of the great rivers of Vancouver Island, that is the home of the Pacheedaht people (The Gordon River is the other major river that flows into Pacheedaht, who are the people of the Sea Foam). The San Juan River contains some of Earth's biggest trees and grandest stands of rainforest. Notably, the biggest Douglas fir in the world by volume, the Red Creek Fir, as well as the San Juan Spruce, formerly one of the largest spruce trees in the world before being partially toppled by wind and/or decay, both grow in this valley. Along with many other monumental Fir, Spruce, Cedar and Big Leaf Maple trees. If someone wanted to know if there are authentic Jungles in Canada, I would show them the San Juan Valley and say yes!
Looking out over the Juan de Fuca strait, In Pacheedaht Territory, not far from the mouth of the San Juan River. the Salish Sea is under that thick blanket of fog, and it is in this rich, wet, coastal environment that many of the world's biggest and oldest trees exist
On this particular day, I venture into a grove of riparian forest I had been eyeing on the satellite map, thinking it to be a big tree area. Immediately I am struck by the scale of this forest, especially how dense and tall the understory shrubs are growing in this nutrient rich and mild environment. Salmonberry thickets tower overhead. And passage through the woods seems at first, all but impossible, if not for the game trails. I trust the Elk, they always make good trails through such places, as they walk regularly through the area foraging and evading predation by the abundant cougars and wolves who live in this region. The elk trails do not follow a straight path, they zigzag in an unhurried type of way that makes it clear they have been blazed by mystical wandering ungulates instead of straightforward thinking humans who want to get efficiently from a to b. This forest seems to be an earlier successional kind of ancient forest, where the biggest trees are the cottonwoods and Maples, the Sitka Spruce are smaller but still very tall and majestic nonetheless.
A spectacular Moss clad Black Cottonwood Tree in Sanctuary Grove, This gentle giant was truly captivating, and I will never forget where she grows as our meeting made a deep impression on me!
This Grove of Cottonwood trees leaves me speechless, the leaves are falling in the wind, dancing to the forest floor. I feel the energy of autumn so strongly looking up at the canopy of golden Cottonwoods and Maples. This forest is truly mossy and awesome. As wild a place as any, that certainly belongs to the Bear, Elk, Wolves, Cougars, Deer and other creatures and plant beings who live here.
It is clear that the exceptional biodiversity of this holy natural garden, is flourishing in no small part due to the large animals who act as caretakers of the land. An intact food chain with large predators ensures that ungulate (deer and elk) populations are regulated, those hoofed browsers have to stay on the move to avoid the Cougars who will hunt them. This helps keep the understory from being over browsed, allowing this Riparian (riverside, prone to seasonal flooding, high in nutrient rich sediment) zone to rival the lushness of any tropical forest! As this is a wildlife refuge, I affectionately nicknamed the place Sanctuary Grove, in the hopes that it remains an unvisited area by humans for many years to come!
This Feeling I've dreamed about, I'm feeling right here, I sit in silence among the tall trees, at first the sound of leaves hitting the forest floor makes me nervous of a cat stalking me. I breathe and remember I am blessed to be in this rare jungle. I have to accept whatever comes to me. the longer I spend in the grove, the safer I feel. I am protected by the Grandmother Trees.
An Earth Nursery. We are all the Earth's children, and we belong to such places as well.
Who does this world truly belong to?
Who does any forested valley, mountain, lake or prairie belong to?
The world belongs to those who belong to the world, every living and non-living being.
We belong to one another, and we share this Earth together.
Some of the foundations of belonging are Awareness, Love, Deep Listening, Embodied Understanding and Interdependence.
Zen Master Dogen said,
"Although we say mountains belong to the country,
actually, they belong to those that love them"
I think the world could only be said to NOT BE BELONGING TO
those humans who believe that they OWN or CONTROL the world.
Because this is a fundamental misunderstanding of reality, that severs/obscures the sacred relationship of interbeing, equality, and authentic belonging that we all deserve.
A baby bear scampers up a tall hemlock in the Fairy Creek Rainforest, Bears exemplify true belonging, perfectly comfortable and at home in their rugged mountain environment, A bear doesn't need a lease agreement, or land title to live, why do we humans make living so difficult for one another?
That false idea of ownership existing, is a breeding ground for all kinds of destruction and violence against ourselves, our human family, and all other living and non-living beings of earth. We remove ourselves out of the sacred tapestry of interdependence. We attempt to manipulate and control, enslave each other, degrade and ultimately, destroy the planet, and all those who belong to the planet....
So you may be wondering, Soda, you say no one owns the earth, then why do you also say that the land has been stolen from the First Nations? If they do not own the land, how could it be stolen from them?
That is an appropriate question, that would seem to arise from our capitalist system and colonial world view we are holding. Where we confuse oppressive ideas and enforcement of Ownership (which is an illusion) with True Belonging, a living breathing reality, which is deeper than any Deed, Treaty, Lease Agreement, or other land tenure.
We peacefully defended Waterfall camp for months from the logging company and the Federal Police who attacked us with violence daily. We belong to Fairy Creek, the grief you feel seeing ancient forests clearcut, is sacred grief. Your Body knows that the destruction of the ancient forest is the destruction of yourself too. Thank you Land Defenders. Thank you for embodying that belonging and defending the sacred. Come back to the mountain for healing when you can, it is quite safe there again.
When we belong to a place, and rely on a landscape and intact ecosystem for our very existence, then we are in a reciprocal relationship of belonging. Indigenous people belong to the land, so their homelands belong to them in return. That is a sacred, living relationship, not some theoretical or intellectual designation, given false legitimacy by "the crown" or the government... And those capitalist, colonial ideas of ownership only serve to destroy real sacred relationships and steal life, land and love from the Authentic Cultures who have arisen from and depend on the land.
As much as we all belong to the ancient forest. We all also belong to the clearcut, the pipeline, the tar sands, the coal mine, and all the other wounds of industrial extraction and imperialism inflicted upon our great mother, all around the world. It is our responsibility to awaken and heal our culture, minds, and landscape together. Deep, mindful listening is the solid foundation we need to begin with... So that we can remember the language of Earth, and the better way to be in the world. And who should we listen deeply to first and foremost?
We must listen to Indigenous people, who literally hold in their cultural embrace and practices, the way back to reciprocity, sacred harvest and mystical wandering. And they've been trying to show people who have lost that way, forever. Every time colonizers show up to destroy everything. Indigenous people fight back and ask them to awaken and stop their violence against the land. Because they know we have no life without a living intact ecosystem, and they know that we all truly belong to the land, and therefore, the land certainly belongs to them/with them too. Are we going to be Earth's conscious guardians? Or are we going to allow weak, ignorant men to destroy our own Mother beyond recognition.
The Haida have been living in harmony with the Yakoun River for Millenia. it only took the white man a few decades to decimate the watershed's old growth forest, and make the endemic subspecies of Caribou that once wandered here go extinct. If we don't act now to stop Colonialism and curb our immense appetite for raw materials, we will lose everything still pure and good on this Earth. Thanks to the Haida for fighting endlessly to save their homeland and the awe inspiring rainforest they live in
But those Destroyer People actually belong to the planet too! And they have forgotten that truth. They act out of ignorance, the ground from which all other afflictions and reactions arise. And by destroying the indigenous plantscape, people and cultures, Ignorance spreads across the world every day.... That is the culture of Death and Destruction. We know it well, we touch it every day...
The following is a transcription of part of a Dharma talk by venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, who we call Thay (Teacher in Viet language). I hope Thay's words illuminate more clearly what I am speaking about.
“Imagine 1000 people with a deluded mind coming together
full of anger and hatred, they will create Hell
No one understands the other, we imagine things, we discriminate against others…
The world manifested by the collective deluded mind
you know what it is, you touch it everyday..
Now let us visualize 1000 people with true minds,
10,000 people with understanding, with insight,
coming together, building a world
before they build anything happiness is already there
joy, light, flowers, full moon, cherry blossoms, are already there
Before they do anything to build a world, happiness is already there
because there mind is true mind
The collective true mind will bring about the collective beautiful world
and that is the world of the Avatamsaka
In the world of the Avatamsaka you can touch the buddha anytime you want
You can touch something in front of you deeply
and by touching that you touch the buddha.”
Listen to the full Dharma talk I wrote this down from by Thay here:
Yakoun River Ancient Forest, a place of rare wisdom for sure.
The ancient forest is that Avatamsaka World that Thay is speaking of.
The ultimate dimension of the present moment. Where innumerable beings are living together, creating the liveable world, and the most embodied, true understanding is already there in abundance. The myriad of Plants, Fungi, Animals, Lichen, Rocks, Water, Sunshine, and others who compose the place, understand each other perfectly. That is how they have been able to create such a stable paradise, that holds pure water we can drink from the stream, dew drops to marvel at, beams of light that guide us, and other elements that create the spiritual atmosphere of the place. Only ignorance would destroy such a place, and it is ignorance at the root of all this poisoning and destruction I speak of, and that you have witnessed too.
Dewdrops, and beams of light. Two of my favourite sights in the Bush. Please return to the intact ecosystem for a mindful walk as soon as you can, so that you can also experience beams of light, dewdrops, and all the other wonders of life.
So as Humans, is not our greatest potential to authentically rejoin and embody our place in that perfectly woven, joy giving, mysterious tapestry of life? instead of severing connections, burning things, cutting grandmother trees, discriminating against each other, and turning the world into a barren moonscape. We should be returning to the Intact Ecosystems wherever we are in the world... For meditation, healing, and community building. and I say if you go into the forest like that, it doesn't matter which nation state you happen to be in, in that moment of connection with the forest and yourself. you are in your truest home already. No passport needed, become a citizen of the Earth again.
Here is another quote from Thay to continue building on this emerging understanding we are cultivating together.
"On the level of the conventional truth, we see that there is a beginning, there is an end to everything, there is birth, there is death, there is being, there is non-being, and we know that these notions are useful also...
There is another dimension of truth, the ultimate.
There are pairs of opposites everywhere, there is you and me, there is father and son, they are distinct from each other, man is different from animals, and animals are different from vegetables, and vegetables are different than minerals, and things are outside of eachother.
Yakoun Lake, Haida Gwaii
But when we observe closely we dont see it anymore. we see that things are inside of eachother , father is inside of the son, son is inside of the father, you can not remove father from son. So you go to the second level of truth, the ultimate truth.
On this level there is no beginning, there is no end, there is no birth, there is no death, and the notions of being and non being are removed. There is absolute freedom in that. Here we see the extinction of all notions and concepts.
There is a link, a way , connecting the conventional truth with the ultimate truth"
-Thich Nhat Hanh
Interbeing... Ignorance and wisdom are inseparable. try to remove one, and the other cannot exist. Look at the landscape, the wisdom of the ancient forest, the ignorance of the human clearcut. they are neighbours. Nature can teach us everything. We have to look deeply inside of ourselves and recognize seeds of ignorance, to understand why we are destroying the landscape.
To Belong, is also to Practice. Because if we don't Belong to the present moment, nothing else will be real for us, we will never experience the ultimate truth of interbeing, impermanence and non-self. And we will live as sleepwalkers, vampires and hungry ghosts, who's throats are tiny and can't take in nourishment and cultivate joy. Living like that, we suffer a lot, and life can feel unbearable. Everyone needs love to live, everyone needs to know why they belong.
Without a PRACTICE of Belonging, it will remain but a fleeting and theoretical craving in our soul, always desired, but never attained, as will all other things, for life is only really there, when we are really there, when we practice to be in the here and now. What does it look like to practice belonging? Well I can only speak of my direct experience.
When I come back to my in breath and out breath, I remember that the Earth is giving me air to breathe, and right away I feel loved, and know that i belong to that basic reality of life. Without this atmosphere, clean air, abundant trees, kelp forests and peatlands to produce oxygen and absorb carbon, I know that I couldn’t exist.
So I know that I belong to the One Earth Forest, the peatlands and other wetlands of Earth, and the Kelp forests and aquatic vegetables under the sea that also produce massive amounts of oxygen! This is a very tangible and simple practice to embody true belonging.
In the Buddhist tradition, we say that our only true belongings, implying things that we own. Are our Actions and Words, our personal conduct and way of life. That is what will live on of us, after we have transformed back into soil, and merged with everything else. We do not own land, we do not own earth, we certainly do not own one another. Treat yourself, those around you, and all beings with great spacious compassion. Immerse yourself in the miracle of being alive with your entire being. Remember daily to enjoy your breathe, your sitting, and your steps. Listen deeply to your loved ones to help them be free and transform their suffering. I'll close off this sharing with one more quote I have transcribed from Thay, who is a great spiritual teacher to me. Here Thay is talking about how to Trust. and Trust is another element of belonging, we have to learn to Trust the practice, trust ourselves, trust the earth, trust our human community. Then the feeling of belonging will come easily. Thank you for taking the time to read what I am feeling and practicing with today.
On Cultivating Trust: “Like the practice of mindful breathing, someone try to convince you that mindful breathing is good, it can help you a lot. But you don’t have to believe him right away, you have to put into practice and see whether it truly can help you, and that is what the Buddha said. Don't believe right away in something, even that something has been said by a famous teacher, even if something is written in the holy scripture. That's what the Buddha said. When you hear something beautiful you have to learn to put into practice. And if it works for you, and if you see that it works for another person, then you can trust. You can believe in it.
You have to base on evidence, like a scientist. So if you practice mindful breathing, and you persevere in the practice, you will learn from it. You can learn that the practice of mindful breathing can increase your health. And can help you recognize the conditions of happiness that you have, can help you handle a painful emotion, a painful feeling.
In the beginning you might not be able to do it right away. But you have to try really to practice, you will find out that the practice works, and you have trust in the practice. When you have trusted the practice you have trusted yourself. Because it is you who has done the practice.
When you see a person that suffers, practice the fourth mindfulness training, say something, do something to help him or her suffer less, and you try to do several times, and one day you see that it works. You can do it, you have the capacity to make one person suffer less, you have the capacity to make you suffer less, and trust is built in that way, experience in practicing.
And we know that in principle our ancestors have handed down many good things, many good seeds, it for us to discover these good things and allow them to manifest. The seeds of understanding, the seeds of joy, forgiveness, compassion are all in us. We hear the Buddha say that we have these good things, but we have to practice in order to really recognize them as existing, and sometime they have manifested in the past and if we practice well, they will continue to manifest better in the future, and that is the way to cultivate trust.”
I trust you, I belong to you, and I love you.