Learning to Listen to the Land

When I was twenty-seven, I left the Northwest and moved to northern California, it was a good move, since I made it for both love and work, but for many years I missed the land I had been born into with a startling ferocity. I recognized that the Californian landscape was beautiful, with its redwood groves, oak-studded hills, and lush and tidy vineyards, but for me its loveliness lacked significance. I felt no real connection to that picture postcard prettiness, and I longed for the subtler, deeper meanings of the land I had known first.

The land was eastern Washington, and I knew it as a kid knows her hometown—not as a place with a population count, principal industries, and named streets, but as a web of backyards, shortcuts, and smells. If I didn’t fully understand the history of the country, I knew its feel beneath my bare feet in every season. If I didn’t know the names of the grasses that grew by the roadsides, I knew the taste of the tender white pith at the base of their stems.

Even if I lacked names for many of the birds and most of the wild plants that inhabited my birthplace, still, all my words came from there. Tree meant an occasional pine, hill was a curved wave of earth, field an endless stretch of wind-tossed grain. Spring meant mud and rain and cloud-mottled skies, fall white mornings and blue and golden afternoons. For the first five years I lived in California, it seemed I had no language to describe the new land I was marooned in. I felt as though I were in mourning, as though a dear relative or beloved friend had died.

Then my husband and I found fifty-five acres of second-growth forest, steep and isolated enough that we could (barely) afford to make a down payment, and we moved there with our two small daughters. Sometime that first fall I read Gary Snyder’s The Practice of the Wild, in which Snyder quotes a Crow elder as saying “You know, I think if people stay somewhere long enough—even white people—the spirits will begin to speak to them. It’s the power of the spirits coming up from the land. The spirits and the old powers aren’t lost, they just need people to be around long enough and the spirits will begin to influence them.”

I was both comforted and excited by these words,. I had grown up assuming that vacation meant a camping trip, that the natural world was both bountiful and eternal. But I was coming to realize with increasing certainty and despair that human need and greed might well ruin that endless bounty forever, and I welcome a wisdom that offered even a hint of hope for us and for the land.

Not long after that, the story that became Into the Forest suggested itself to me during a rare night of insomnia. Included among its many strands were my fascination with sisterhood, my concerns about the future, any interest in the past, and my musings about humans’ relationship with the natural world. Perhaps one of the reasons I wrote Into the Forest was to attempt to understand was what might it be like for the spirits to start speaking again, what it would mean—in a metaphorical sense, at least—if we were to once more hear the voices of the old powers coming up from the land.

Because Into the Forest is set in a forest very similar to the one in which I live (though the fictionalized forest is much more remote from a much more rural town than my own), I set out to learn as much about that place as possible. Of course the real experts—both indigenous and Europeans, were long gone—the first banished by force from their native home, the second moved elsewhere when the land was no longer profitable or no longer suited their needs. Lacking them, and lacking the leisure to learn about my new home as I had once learned about my birthplace, by the long and rambling research of my own busy senses, I turned to books.

My first forays into the forest were burdened by field guides and histories, and through books I learned the names of dozens of plants, learned how the people who inhabited the woods before me found food, shelter, and medicine there. Books taught me about the history of the wild boars, and the ironic ways in which that history parallels that of the Europeans in California. I learned the story of the grizzly whose image endures on the state flag, although it has long since been exterminated from its vast California range.

Seasons passed, and it seemed I could tell by smell alone what time of year it was. I began to have a sense of when and where certain wildflowers might first appear, where I might find the first wild grapes or blackberries, when we might hear the cries that meant skunks were mating, when does might first enter our clearing with their wobbly new fawns. Aided by books, I practiced gathering and preparing forest foods, discovered a number of ways to process acorns, devoted some time to contemplating what type of leaves I would choose to use as toilet “paper.”

With that wonderfully augmented vision that writing (and reading) fiction lends a life, what I learned enhanced both my work and my experience. As I wrote my way into the forest, I began to know—and so began to love—the new land I was writing about and from.

I am still many years—if not generations—from having the spirits of this place speak to me. But not long after a black bear appeared in the world I was creating in my novel, my family found, to our delight and initial disbelief, black bear scat in our front yard. A pile that would fill a frisbee, it was dense and greeny-black from spring herbs and leaves, and when I was sure a passing bear had left it by the children’s sandbox, I felt more certain than ever that learning to listen would be—was—worth the work, not only because of the way it enriched my life, but also even more profoundly because of the lives such work might possibly save.

Copyright © 2024 Jean Hegland. All Rights Reserved.