Someone asked me the other day about my response to a photo of a Lady Slipper flower. He had taken this photo on his forest walk. I was immediately transformed to my childhood and the magic I found in the forest.
I grew up in central British Columbia. This place is in the western part of Canada, inland from the ocean and up high on a plateau between mountain ranges. I grew up outside of a small town and there was lots of untouched land all around.
In the winter we would wait in eagerness for the temperature to drop to minus 25 degrees Fahrenheit. The school buses would not run and we would have the day to toboggan and play in the snow. The ice and the snow was the magic of that season. We would build forts and try to make igloos from blocks of packed and crusty snow. Much to the horror of our mothers we would build tunnels and play games of hide and seek.
In this long winter season in the northern part of Canada, the northern winter light would create a heightened sense of this magical world, as the temperature dropped, the sun, low and bright in the sky would create blinding rays that I loved to stare into. This blinding light would alter my view of the world for just a moment. The bright winter afternoon light filtering through the coniferous evergreen trees was a tonic and it was always a little warmer in the shelter of the forest floor.
Another magical time was when troops of us children from the few houses around my childhood home would trek our way about a mile from our houses through the forest to a ground fed pond. When we arrived at the pond, the group of children would naturally and easily divide the tasks to prepare for the magic of skating. Groups would clear the snow off the ice. Someone would chop a hole and flood the ice with buckets of yellow sulphurs water that would bubble up through the hole that they had industriously chopped. Another group would build a fire so we could warm up as we waited in anticipation for the ice to freeze over and miraculously create a smooth surface that we could skate on.
Skating was another miracle to me. I was never awkward on skates. This was a childhood phenomenon, because as an adult I am self conscious and totally awkward whenever I put skates on. As a child I hated hockey. A group of boys, and some girls would be eagerly engaged in this active and wild game. On the other side of the pond I would glide and twirl and listen to the swooshing and scraping sound of the blade on the ice as I seemed to fly and float and soar away into my own world.
The forest around my childhood home and the scrubby undergrowth played a part in my childhood magical life. The trail that we walked through in the winter turned into a muddy mess in the spring. We would keep to the pine needled sheltered areas under the trees as we made our way back out to the pond to find clusters of frogs eggs and globs of gelatinous green slimy fiber that house the miracle of life as the pond woke up to the spring.
I adored the frog eggs and would trek out to the pond often to check the progress of the eggs. Over time the eggs would start to change, it seemed like forever, although it was likely days. The eggs would morph into a bubbly mass with tadpoles. Eventually the tadpoles would turn into tiny frogs and the tiny frogs would grow bigger. Some of the kids would capture the frogs or tadpoles. These poor creatures very often died in the confines of their Mason jar prison. Somehow, by watching this dawning of life I came to believe that life was indeed a miracle and that there were forest gods and unknown earthly forces that brought life.
Later in the spring, likely sometime in May and June the sun would be much higher in the sky and the temperatures and light would have dried the ground, everything would be warm. The forest floor would be fragrant and vibrant. In this sparkling undergrowth, this was where the trees would magically filter the light. The wonder of the forest floor would bring forth the fairy world. I still believe that the fairies could be present in the form of the tiny flowers that would burst through in the brightness of their petals and the strangeness of some of their shapes and forms. The Lady Slippers were few and far between but they were the manifestation of the good magic in the forest.
Where there is good there is often bad. This bad would be hanging from the trees in the form of hairy green and brown and black moss. This moss told the story of how the evil witches had left their hair hanging in the trees as they fled the power of the coniferous trees branches. The trees and the flowers and the ever changing plants were to me a symbol of good. The hanging moss was simply bad, evil and seemingly dead. The witches who had been stripped of their hair were evil spirits wandering through the trees searching for stray children who they would capture and force into their evil coven. My sister and I would scare ourselves as we wandered in this magical wood, always searching for the goodness of the Lady Slippers and the Blue Bells and the Buttercups. Sometimes we would find tiny strawberries bursting with flavour and magic.
As the summer progressed and we were free of the binding pressure of school. We would go as gangs out to a lake that was about a thirty-minute drive away. There could the five or six or seven or eight of us in the back of an old pickup truck. We had to go by ranchers fields to end up at a cold and crisp beach that was at the end of the third lake fed by a slow moving stream. There are several magic moments from these wild rides that reside in my now adult body.
One of these moments is being in the back of the pickup truck, wind streaming over my face as we sped careening down a very steep hill. There was magic in being able to breathe in the face of the force of the wind. I would often seek out this sense of asphyxiation, by poking my head out of a car window. Just like a dog. I sought out the simple joy of catching my breath and seeing my ability to breath as a sign of the magic that I was. I am now surprised that I never passed out of fell over the walls of the truck. I am sure my sister would have held onto me as I giddily played with the force of the wind.
The magic and wonder of these trips to the lake was also found at the mouth of the stream that fed the lake. Here in this slow moving flow of water there were magical fish. I never knew where they came from. It seemed like there were millions. They were large. These fish were long, likely as long as my forearm. Perhaps that is an exaggeration. It is okay to exaggerate as these fish were magic. The came from the water of the stream, they simply appeared. There was, over time a dawning in me, that indeed, these fish came from eggs, just like the tadpoles.
There are more magical stories of fish and water. There were minnows and tiny fish swimming and travelling in the lake. Sometimes the shoals of tiny fish were being chased by bigger fish or perhaps there were even bigger fish that lurked and floated near the bottom. These bigger fish were nefariously waiting to gobble up greedy mouthfuls of the tiny fish. There was a sense of good magic and bad in the images of the layers of fish in the water.
I hated that some of the boys in this gang of kids would go to the mouth of the stream and seek out the bigger fish. Although these fish, suckers, they called them were very ugly, it did not stop me from seeing these sparkly, slimy fish as magical. These kids would pull the fish out of the water and mercilessly murder them by clubbing them and throwing them out onto the ground to writhe and suffocate gulping for air that they could not breathe. Again, forces of good and evil. Fish or children, I do not know.
Another image that resides in me, from this lake, was being under the sparking water. The lake was cold and rich and full of mystery. I would sink down in the water and sit on the bottom, opening my eyes to see the vast amount of life swirling through the water. Again, for the child, this naïve being that I was, I was excited and thrilled to be witnessing the magic of light and life. Life would sparkle through the creatures and layers of the water of the lake. There had to be good fairies here in this water. This water was cold and fresh and I enjoyed bursting out of the water after my little sojourn to the depths. I was magic as I burst out of the water. I was life and I was fresh and pure and brilliant in the sun.
At other times and by other bodies of water, I would lie on a big towel and soak in the rays of warm light. The sunshine soothed me and calmed me and put me to sleep. Of course, I would wake up and my skin would be burned to a raw red. Funny enough the sun was not a bad witch. I was just a greedy boy soaking in all the goodness that the sparking rays of light shone on me. The sunlight contained those magic fairies that were in the rainbows that filled me with good, even though they punished me for my greed with the discomfort of painful sunburn. A little later, perhaps, at about 11 or 12 I had had a lot of sun, so sunburned that I became really, really dizzy and passed out from sun stroke. I adored the uncontrollable feeling of passing out. My mother was horrified and wrapped me with cold compresses and fanned me with a Sunday Church Bulletin in a frantic effort to wake me up.
Summer light and magic played through a great amount of my childhood spent in a special bower. This bower was a shelter of branches that provided a quiet refuge for me to get away, escape my reality and read. I loved the quality of the filtered light and warm lazy temperature of midsummer. I could feel the security of this canopy of branches that could surround me and protect me from the ravages of the world. There was good magic here in this shelter. There was good magic for me as a curious child when I sought out this sheltered refuge to read. I read ferociously and with a hunger and thirst for knowledge and escape that was unquenchable. There was magic in words, they could transport me. Words could help me escape and words could help he find some understanding of the magic. I was so entranced with the words that one summer I spent my time reading the World Book Encyclopedia. Reading ll 22 volumes from A thru Z was a wondrous journey
There was more magic in the passage of time and the unfolding of the calendar. This magic would come with the fall, the return to school and the inevitable harvest of the garden. My mother would magically preserve fruits with water and sugar and jars and canners of boiling water. I loved watching her can and preserve fruits for the winter. She was like a squirrel or other forest creature, gathering and preparing for the barrenness of winter. It was a miracle that our garden could bring us food. From the planting of seeds in the spring, through the bursting growth of the summer, the fall would bring harvest and my mother, the ever-good fairy, would be able to feed us all through the winter.
The fall would again, with light and frost produce magic in and on the forest. I would look from the front window, across to a rising hill across the way. I would watch day by day as the patches of poplar, birch and aspen trees would gift me with their brilliance. Like magic they would turn: yellow and orange and red and scarlet. These clusters of deciduous trees stood as brilliant patches of color surrounded by the dark greens of the coniferous tress. The hills around my home were magic in the fall.
The leaves would swirl from the forest and spiral down over me. The sparkling light in the morning would cast a sparkle on the frost over the ground. I would search out the perfect leaf. Perfection dictated by colour, shape and the lack of spots of mould or off colour markings. I would gather the most precious and the most wonderful of these leaves and like magic with an iron and some waxed paper they would be preserved for my future furtive glances when the world had transformed from colour to black and white. The leaves were a product of the fairies and they were my gift for living and watching and participating in the ever changing life that surrounded me.
As I remember these childhood times they are filled with light, sunshine and the openness of the sky. There was magic for me in the sky as it changed through the day. There was also magic in my furtive glances at the moon and the stars. My relationship to the moonlight and the dark and twinkling of the night sky is another chapter of a magical life. Perhaps one day, or perhaps one night I will recount that other source of magic that I found in the night.
Love always. Phillip