The Disquiet Report: Missives and Musings from Chad Swimmer
An Ecosystem of The Mind
For the record, I continue to investigate this lifelong obsession: forest, forests, but in particular, this forest outside my backdoor, this sister-city to the foggy, mossy, disorderly ecosystem of my mind. Jackson—I must use the name, not because I like it or approve of it, but because we haven’t agreed on a better name. English—I must use the language, not because I necessarily like it, agree with it, or even find it satisfactory for expressing the reality I perceive, but because I was born in an ex-colony and raised colonized. My thought patterns were shaped by civilizations that looked to the sky for divinity, that learned the word ‘dominion’ as their birthright. I, like so many, was deeded an obligation to conquer and ‘man’age the natural world. I am heir to empires, slave to paradigms that continue to marginalize, destroy, or assimilate the planet and all of us of any race who feel the divine in the soil beneath our feet, who hear voices and songs in the winds that caress our skin.
Obsession: I have written about this obsession in other places. I have seen people overtaken and possessed by forests before. I myself am in the thrall of Jackson, going on 28 years now. The mycelium has entered and nourished me; spiders have walked upon my skin while ticks have feasted on my blood. Raven overseers have spoken and I have listened, rapt, wishing I could understand but one word.
I have traveled more miles here than anywhere else in my life, know the paths like the deepening lines on my face—but still I get lost in the fog, still I circle back upon myself like Pooh and Piglet in the Hundred Acre Wood, over cypress, manzanita, and pine-covered terraces, in deep redwood ravines, straying, straying, as my prints are joined by other prints and I become part of an invisible throng.
I am not alone.
Jackson: that name again. I am sure Jacob Greene Jackson The Rapacious, that 19th-century timber baron, was obsessed as well. But my present obsession is surely distinct from his. I can only imagine that sums and saws and ledgers and logs filled his nights, while I would gladly and unceremoniously ditch his name in some ravine, perhaps drown it in Caspar Creek, let it float out to be lost at sea with the SS Frolic and other shipwrecks.
Others—folks whom I look upon more kindly, people whose names shall remain vague—have walked or ridden with me in the past and now risk their lives for a place they barely knew of just a few dozen months ago. Still others fought and fought, years back, took a break for a decade, and now fight again, only a couple strides missed in the interim.
What is it, I ask at 3:35 am, that keeps so many of us entangled? Wealth? There are many kinds of wealth here, but the kind that brings financial gain can only stripmine the soul. Other treasures are more keen: the fecund and brisk air after a storm, like gold. The spirits of the grand ancient trees, the ghosts of the slaughtered. Could it be they that keep diverting my dreams? Those trillium—also my elders—those turtles in the hidden ponds? On occasion I even secretly suspect the usnea that dangles in various shades of gray-green from old branches, streaming in the breezes before being rent asunder and woven into birds’ nests.
There is an ecosystem of the imagination here, its bounds not mapped, its depths not plumbed. There is a forest inside my skull, in some queer manner a mirror of the neural map of mycorrhizae weaving through the loam. Even deeper beneath this web lurk secret wetlands, known only to burrowing creatures, giant salamanders, and to the rare person who has noticed certain perpetually thirsty plants demarcating seeps that silently nourish those amphibians, worms, bacteria; the roots that dance with fungal threads, sipping cool spring water and sharing life’s syrup all the while.
To call this a redwood forest is of a fashion to blind oneself. To ‘man’age it for anything at all is to neglect to notice that it actually would be much better at foresting us.
Jackson—that damn name again. Jackson Demonstration State Forest. We might as well call it a sword fern forest, a western gray squirrel forest, a plein-air concert hall for the minute but grandiose winter wren. A subterranean playground for the Pacific giant salamander. A valhalla for chipmunks and chickarees.
This is a place that defies both science and the English language, but at the same time partly defines the word that is me. The we, however, the nearly-blind, mostly monolingual beings presently responsible for either this forest’s salvation or its destruction, its desiccation or its deification, we must make do with what empirical observations and vocabulary we have been afforded. We must listen, slow down, stop yearning so darn much for a happy ending or a package that when unwrapped will yield comprehensibly tasty contents.
The future to us is unwritten but the past is clear: this forest should have remained ancient in the first place. Where we allow time to take us is dependent on a narrative chanted in an obscure tongue. I can not and do not expect the loose ends to be tied up into an ornate bow. I fiercely want to ‘save’ it—to see it saved—but to be honest I am not sure what saving it would actually mean.
Instead, I venture out in my uncertainty beneath the boughs, past midnight, past December. There is nothing in the dark that can hurt me more than we have hurt it. Sometimes I walk miles before dawn. I am not alone, nor am I misplaced beneath the stars of this magnificent morass, this ecosystem of our collective mind.
I pass skunks—their white lines weaving in the blackness—pass deer nibbling, bobcats stalking, bears grunting, browsing, and lumbering. I am certain I pass an occasional mountain lion. Who really—I sometimes bother to ask—are the monsters here? Who really could be my friend, and why?
Chad Swimmer is an activist, educator, naturalist, musician, and gardener who has lived on the unceded land known as the Mendocino Coast since 1986. He co-founded the Mendocino Trail Stewards, the Coalition to Save Jackson, APAN-Mendo Needle Exchange, Touchstone Soup Kitchen, and is now the Chief Organizer of Disquiet Media, with three monthly radio shows originating from KZYX, Listener-Powered Community Radio for Mendocino County and Beyond. All of his radio shows can be accessed at www.disquietmedia.blue