Danger in the forest

Temperate forests train us to be passive. Occasionally, hikers get eaten by bears or cougars, or gored to death by mountain goats. But by and large, the biggest threats you face in a temperate forest are the elements. You’re much more likely to hurt yourself by getting lost, falling off of a cliff, drowning in a raging river or freezing to death. You’re constantly battling the elements when you’re outside–taking off a fleece, putting on a rain jacket. You’re afraid of getting wet, of cold, of the setting sun.
In the tropics, the elements are more or less constant. It might rain, but it’s so warm that it doesn’t really matter. It’s always hot and humid, and so you’re constantly drenched in your own sweat. And yet, walking through a tropical forest, you have to be constantly on guard. Here, all the threats to your existence are living. There are the standard subjects of nature documentaries—anacondas lurking in rivers, poisonous snakes tangled in the vines of a tree, ants whose sting will have you in bed for two days with a fever. But really, the danger is everywhere. Wasp stings become routine, like getting bitten by a mosquito while hiking in the Cascades. You have to re-learn how to walk in an environment where you can’t grab a tree to stop a fall because the trunk is covered in spines, home to a toxic caterpillar, or protected by a group of army ants. You’re constantly vigilant, because everything around you is full of poison—the spines of plants, the insects living on them, the snakes you’ve been afraid of your whole life, the frogs hiding between the leaves. There’s no place for idle daydreaming, for putting your hands on a blind ledge or grabbing a vine without really looking at it.
And yet, here I take risks. I strip naked, wearing nothing but my rain boots, and let wasps sting me in unmentionable places as I bathe in a puddle of water on the forest floor. I run through the forest on a moonless night without a headlamp, where the dark is so total that I can’t see my hand in front of my face. I swim in a river where I’ve seen an anaconda the night before, where there are piranhas and caimans and parasitic fish that will swim up your vagina and have to be surgically removed. I do this for a week, get stung by something large and black that I can’t quite see, and my hand is radiating burning pain past my wrist for an hour. But I’m fine. I survive, largely without incident.
Now, I want to go home and get to know my place better. I’ve never thought to run naked through a temperate forest, partially because I’d probably be close to well-frequented trails, but really because I just haven’t been trying hard enough to actually be outside. I don’t go into Discovery Park at night and run around without a headlamp. I don’t sit nestled between the roots of a hemlock tree and sketch the plants near me or close my eyes and see if I can hear the wind over the sound of my own thoughts. I haven’t even snuck back into Cleveland Memorial Forest, the Seattle School District-owned piece of old-growth where my high school ran outdoor program trips, to run around on the trails that used to be my home almost every weekend during the school year. I’ve been spending too much time reading, as usual, and not enough time getting to know the plants I live near.
When I come home to the US, I’m going to feel very homeless. Since I left for Ecuador, my cousin has moved into my room. My stuff is mostly in boxes in the basement. I have stuff in storage at Whitman, but I’m not moved into my house there either. I need focus and purpose for the month I’m home, or I’m going to drive myself crazy sitting at home and feeling like I don’t quite belong. And so, I want to try to re-learn the forests of my childhood, to connect with them better, to teach myself botany like a scientist and teach myself to see place like a tracker. I want to spend a good portion of a day or two every week in the forests by my house, not hiking, but just sitting and observing things and drawing leaves. So many indigenous people raised in the Amazon are able to walk through their tropical forests with completely confidence, knowing which plants are safe to eat and how to get where they need to go. I’ve been blessed to grow up near a forest that’s safe, a forest where I’m not going to get bitten by a poisonous snake or attacked by a bullet ant. And it’s time for me to start taking advantage of that.

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