Camp Fire, Children, Christianity, Civilisation, Consciousness, Drink, Enchantments, Environment, Faith, Forest, Forests, Ghost Story, Ghosts, Horror, Humor, Magic, Meditation, Nature, Peace, Summer, Summer Camp, Trees, Wilderness
Over a hundred miles of forest waited for us, every leaf and twig ready to be picked up and inspected. Occasionally one would come across an odd beam of light suspended like a crucifix above the gorgeous murkiness, the empty world of mystery beneath these trees. The forest seemed to have withdrawn into itself like a disillusioned man. We stepped with care and great concentration across the forest floor, apologetic for our intrusion, as if at the first crack underfoot, the forest would awake with a snort and begin howling at us, with all of the trees shaking their branches in rage. I assumed that this trepidation would at some point wear off. But this forest was inscrutable – what was meant by its furious silence? – an amused toleration or a vicious plotting?
We were midway through the last decade, I was possibly between cities, and I had returned home for the summer. Marcin and I had found a job with a summer school and we had been put in charge of a camp in the forest, a circle of tents under a silly flag. We were supposed to organise fishing and archery sessions for the kids, but after three days I was practically dancing on the spot for a few sips of vodka. With an unlikely responsibility, we had told each other that the forest job would be a sort of detox, we would drink only the forest air, and returning to the world would be like plunging out of a confessional, refreshed and immaculate. But this now seemed like lunacy, and we finally abandoned the camp, slipping away once the kids had settled for the night.
I wonder what happened to them? They were drips, these kids: one night their sausages were sizzling over the camp fire, and in a pique of mischief, I tore off my shirt and challenged the entire camp to fight over the food. I thrashed them to a child, they had quickly retreated to behind some nearby trees, and there they glumly watched me eating all of their dinners. The camp was so deep in the forest that I doubt that these kids could have ever found their way back to civilisation; whilst their parents could have only located them with the aid of a military satellite. The kids could catch fish with their rods, but if the camp fire went out, I cannot picture any of them being able to light it again. If I am ever back in that part of the world, I will have to venture in search of them, round them all up, and lead them home.
Come to think of it, the summer school was still paying us a monthly salary in September, so perhaps the parents were pleased with the situation.
Marcin and I subsequently visited a music festival and there we met Ana, who did not seem greatly amused by my account of our antics in the forest. In fairness to her, it is hard to think of a woman who would be. She mentioned that the next afternoon she herself would voyage deep into the forest – into the primeval interior, far south of the crust nibbled by sightseers – where she would spend a week meditating and enjoying the loneliness of the forest. This did not seem very wise to me and I immediately offered to accompany Ana, just to look after her. She replied that she had often journeyed thus, and that another person invariably distracted from the peace of mind which was the purpose of the exercise. Undeterred, I proposed that we could build a camp fire, and that we could each wander off in different directions at dawn and periodically return to the safety of the fire.
Ana agreed, if only to be agreeable. Perhaps I wanted to experiment with my consciousness – to learn what it could really do and where it could take me – and I wondered whether my being could be transformed by the forest. The city never shuts up, like a medical condition which has to be constantly subdued with pills, and one can occasionally take refuge in the brief quiet of an apartment, waiting in the bath for the hurly-burly to begin again. But the forest is imperturbable, the interruptions and objections of men rattle harmlessly off it like gossipers trying to move the heart of a monarch. Could it soothe my brain?
Ana and I sank deep into the forest. We erected two tents on either side of a large fire. On the first morning I wandered off, in a contrary direction to that of Ana, to sample the atmosphere of the forest, but I soon found myself absolutely unnerved. Of course, the peace was complete, but our minds are made to spot beasts lurking in the undergrowth, and they cannot cope with something as unnatural as tranquillity. Despite myself, I placed stealthily approaching figures in the corners of my eyes, peeping faces behind every tree, and chuckles and inaudible little comments amongst the gurgling of the stream.
I remembered an old wives’ tale which was set in a forest such as this, before a stream such as this one. A schoolgirl had slipped away from the city to follow a stream through the woods, humming to herself and pulling apart a succession of flowers in her idle hands. Suddenly, a man’s head was protruding from the stream, even though the water was less than two feet deep. The head was completely dry and it looked disturbingly crystalline, with neatly combed hair and bright blue eyes. The head addressed the girl in an oddly plain voice and asked whether his rabbit was dead. The girl bolted, leaving the head still sticking out from the water as bold as a rock. She later learned that during the war, over a hundred of the local townsmen had been stripped and machine-gunned beside this stream.
I scrutinised the stream before me, I then looked quickly to either side, and up at the bank overhead. Anybody could be approaching, from any direction. My flesh recoiled, waiting for the blow, the bite, the stab, which would cap the terror. There was nothing but a silent peal of laughter.
I walked slowly with the stream as if I had taken the arm of an elderly relative. At one point I trod from rock to rock, until I lost my footing on a slimy rock and plunged almost up to the knee. It would be over three hours before my boot even started to dry. There was a piercing hiss ahead and I eventually reached a waterfall which stopped the stream for a moment, an abrupt comma, revealing the water’s accumulated power, before it gathered into a serene dragging brown pool and stole away again.
To think of this beauty, this majesty, kept secretly in the forest like pirate treasure, singing its song of surprise. Had it been put there just for me? Had anyone even set foot here before? If I walked away, would the waterfall still be there upon my return? All of the appeals and arguments of churches seemed hollow before the sheer truth of this waterfall. I imagine that if an eighteenth-century peasant had happed upon this sight, it would have been in total harmony with all that he had been told. There could be no possible explanation other than the power and the glory. Perhaps I now reach for God too, or at least for something mysterious and otherworldly – an audacious alien intelligence, alive in the forest, wrought in this miracle.