I hear a loud crack and turn to see where the noise has come from. I notice a branch shaking from the takeoff impact of whatever animal it was that was perched on it and that most likely made the loud noise, but it’s disappeared. Out in this natural park in Gatineau, I am considered a threat to most of the wildlife and my steps – though I try to tread carefully – set things scurrying into bushes and plopping from pond lily leafs into water.
I am almost never quick enough to see what it was, little air bubbles and trembling leafs being the only signs that something living has just been there. Sometimes I catch a glimpse of a small bushy tail slipping into some undergrowth or little slimy, athletic legs pushing their way down into the shelter of the dark lake.
Once, walking round a bend on the gravelly path I come face to face with a deer. She gives me a solid stare before jumping into the forest, her hooves kicking up a cloud of white dust behind her.
Although I know it’s near impossible and perhaps unwise, I want to communicate to the wildlife I come across that I don’t intend to hurt them and I feel somewhat snubbed by the animals, insects and amphibians darting off in all directions to get away from me.
But by the fifth day of my two-week stay out in the Canadian woods, I’ve become a bit better at being inconspicuous and spot a family of otters swimming in the lake. It feels strangely sacrilegious, as if I’m watching a trio of nymphs bathing in precious water. As a mere mortal, I hold my breath and try not to make any noise while I watch. The otters undulate in and out of the water and happily munch on the remainders of dead tree trunks left behind by the beavers.
This moment seems oddly precious and makes me a little nostalgic. I think about the future, the almost ungraspable rapid growth of technology and wonder how likely I am to get a similar glimpse of something like this again.
When I get back to the house, I tell my uncle, who I’ve been staying with, what I’ve seen. He asks me, ‘Do you consider it nature?’ I reply, without hesitation, that of course I do. Apparently there are some people in the world claiming otherwise and my uncle informs me he’s currently writing a counter-argument to an idea that’s been circulating amongst certain environmental groups in the US that nature doesn’t exist anymore because everything has by now been tainted by human impact.
Over lunch one day my uncle, who is curious and loves to ask questions, wants to know what I find different about living in Canada and the UK. I’ve just come back from a walk in the woods and I tell him that I consider the differences between the flora and fauna of both countries to be the thing that stands out to me (among lots of other things of course).
I love how unkempt the Canadian forest is as opposed to the tidiness of British fields. As I climb over fallen trees on the path and push through bushes to get to a clearing – which, having once been a beaver dam is now a rich ecosystem for insects and wild flowers – I think about how all of this is part of a natural cycle of growth and decay.
The beavers seem to have an understanding of this cycle, leaving behind what looks like a battlefield of dead trees in their wake but which over time clears space for rich new growth to move in. I’ve heard that nature doesn’t like a void.
My uncle tells me that some people have complained about the unkemptness of the Canadian forests and that in Europe lots of organization is put into making proper paths and clearing dead trees away so that humans can enjoy these natural parks.
In Poland, the government has allowed logging to take place in one of Europe’s last remaining primeval forests, Białowieża forest (a Unesco World Heritage site), which could potentially disrupt the natural cycle, pushing the ecosystem to a point of no return. The logging is part of the forest management but there’s a disagreement between the government and local Forestry Service and various environmentalist groups about how much management to do. The latter group claims that there should be less management and that nature should mainly be left to her own devices in order not to kill off the rare species of wildlife which lives there.
My uncle drives me to the station on the last day of my trip. I look out at the forest surrounding the long drive from his house to the main road, my eyes hungrily trying to take it all in before I go back to the city. As we pass the wild flowers which have grown over the former beaver dam I think of how much nature still has to teach us. About cycles, symbioses and organization. Perhaps I belong to the group of ‘hippies’ which the ‘nature is dead’ camp claim is clinging onto an older way of life, as opposed to their suggestion to explore what human technology can do to manage the environmental situation.
But there’s something humbling and awe inspiring about being out in nature that I’m not ready to let go of, and which I think is necessary for our mental health. Nature is messy and untidy and apparently chaotic. I say ‘apparently’ because I think one man’s chaos is another man’s order and I actually consider nature to be very organized.