The Forest That Will Be
The Gates again open, the skies darken, the rain soaks through stone and skin.
The rain poured through my skin. As I stood upon the pavement outside the tavern, soaked in the chill night, smoking a cigarette, the Gates opened around me.
Straddling the ford, wet up to the laces of my boots, water rushing past my feet along the river-bed: someone is laughing at me. Eddies swirl in the torrent unable to clear the leaf-clogged drains, and someone is laughing at me.
“Look at this guy,” he says, and his companions titter and jeer. “You’re being scary, dude. Is that your costume?”
It was Halloween, after all, though I hadn’t dressed up. I wore what I usually wear, thrift-store camouflage trousers, a printed shirt from my friend Alley, a maroon-and-blue flannel shirt. No more a disguise than any clothing is.
One of his companions, a gentrifying ‘woo-girl’ (anthropological note: they literally shout ‘woo’ and gentrify everything they touch), sneers at me. She turns to her friend and says, drunkenly:
“Oh my god he’s totally on drugs or something.”
Then she turns back toward me. “You think you’re being creepy standing in the rain like that?”
I shake my head. I cannot tell her about the forest we’re standing in, the elk crashing through the bramble, the endless dripping of the last-to-fall Maple leaves down upon our heads. I cannot tell her about the river in which I stand.
I smile. “Welcome to Seattle,” I say, laughing. “It rains here.”
“We’re from California,” her friend says. I’m disappointed he’s such a jerk — he’s kinda attractive. “This weather’s stupid.”
I’m standing in a river. I’m standing in the road, just off the curb. A car passes; I’m surprised to see an auto in the river, the river in front of the gay bar, the gay bar on a night the gates of the dead were thrown wide open, the gates of the sky unhinged as rain soaks everything.
I am in the forest. I am in the city.
Tip some out to the dead, to The Dead who linger forever just behind your eyes, walking alongside your step through puddles and streams over concrete.
Tip some to the dead and notice you’re not where you were.
Everyone’s bumping into you, pushing against you, surprised for a moment you’re there, startled they had gotten so close.
They’re drunk, you tell yourself, but not just on vine and grain.
It made no sense to try to tell most people what I was doing for Halloween, so I shrugged when asked. I didn’t know myself, really, though I knew I’d walk with the dead.
With grave dirt and an elk tooth and crow feathers in my pocket, I biked to a bar after a shift at my part-time social work job. It was storming, rare for Seattle where the weather is, for 6 months, at least, a steady, relentless drip of rain, not a downpour. It had been dry, the earth too compacted to soak up all that water, so streets were flooded, blocked drains overflowed. For that night, at least, the streams and rivers of the Forest-That-Was could run again, un-culverted, upon the surface of the city built over them.
In many urban fantasy novels, there’s a spectral, magical city overlain upon the disenchanted mundane. Those writers know a thing or two about magic and a thing or two about cities. But Seattle’s not old enough to have a ghost-twin that looks like it, only stranger. Rather, what haunts Seattle in the Other is the Forest-That-Was, the dead forest, the waiting forest.
The dead are not always what has gone before, but also what could have been, what maybe will be. The forest-that-was haunts Seattle, but so too does a second forest; its roots slowly lifting the broken concrete of sidewalks. Plantain, horsetails and chamomile find purchase in the crevices, moss and lichen cover unattended stone. Ferns grow in gutters; aerial moss suspend from uneven brick.
Both the Forest-That-Was and the Forest-That-Will-Be are the same, and they both haunt the city. They co-exist; they merge in the frontage garden, the untended lawn, the volunteer tree. They dance; they collide; they collude in endless war against small-business owners, property developers and civil engineers.
One of my favorite writers, Octavia Butler, was said to be a casualty in this war. Newspapers reporting her death blamed a root-broken sidewalk for a fall that triggered a stroke. But this was propaganda. Later, it came out she had the stroke first and then fell, returning to the forest that seemed to inspire her. Seattle’s mayor was unpopular with the propertied classes for leaving sidewalks broken, potholes unfilled: Butler’s death was used against him.
Propaganda works like that, though. The first story is the one most remember: The forest killed a famous elderly Black fantasist. Don’t believe their lies.
You weren’t from the forest, and now you are, the dark wet places, rain dripping from leaf, mud and rot slicking the paths beneath your feet, your exposed roots.
What are you doing walking when you can stand still, soak deep into the earth, reach like great pillars towards the sky?
The tension between civilisation and nature is a bit obscured in Seattle. From my second-story balcony I'd see more trees than houses, Crow and Scrubjay, Racoon and Opossum eat the peanuts I leave for them just within arm’s reach, and it’s easy to forget I’m in a city at all. I tolerated Seattle most of the last 16 years because of this. Gods know I couldn’t afford to live there, nor afford many of the things that make a city appealing to an artistic queer.
I’m the ‘degenerate’ sort against which the fascists often complain. “People like me” move to cities because we honestly like people; we like art; we like culture: all those things you can’t find in the suburbs or the rural. I live happiest when I’m among dreams and the people they inhabit.
But I’m also a Druid, a Pagan, an animist. Without raw, breathing Nature, I become parched and eventually wither. The ocean of concrete in strip malls, parking lots and massive highways that comprise the main architectural feature of suburbs, for instance? Those feel like murder.
Seattle is unlike most other large American cities in that the forest was never fully obliterated. Though almost every ancient cedar, spruce, red alder and pine was killed to rebuild San Francisco after the fires or to fuel the furnaces of capitalist expansion, or to clear the way for internal migrants from other parts of the United States. Seattle is still a forest.
Though even manufacturing, then war-contracting (Boeing), then an onslaught of businesses completely reliant on near-slave labor and global coal-use (Microsoft, Amazon, Google) have joined the war against the forest here, none have ever conquered the forest.
You weren’t from the forest and now you are, the forest that was before, the ghost-trees and spectral ferns, Elk crashing through bramble, startled by a voice still echoing from the past.
You weren’t from the forest but now you will be, awaiting its birth through broken sidewalk and disused alley, hearing it growing through what will soon be your corpse.
You weren’t from the forest, but now you can’t return here. Wet pavement is river, and you wade through it, unseeing the cars unseeing you.
Pagans make much of the environment, as least romantically. We like the forests and the streams, we idealise the pre-industrial world, worship land-goddesses, divine with symbols from nature. Yet most live in cities or suburbs, drive cars, use computers, work in flourescent-lit offices or stores or restaurants. We like the idea of the forest, but live apart from it, in the urban and suburban--in cities.
Cities seem to stand against the forest, in the same way that the forest seems to stand against the city. In many critiques of civilisation, the city is the cause of the destruction of the natural world. Some anti-civilisationists, merging the bourgeois anthropology of David Abrams with the misanthropic primitivism of Deep Green Resistance, link almost all the problems of humanity to the birth of cities.
On the surface, this appears plausible. As people transitioned to agriculture and settled in one place, the fabric of human society changed. Work was divided, roles ensconced in tradition. Some say the Patriarchy arose first from the urban, men doing one sort of work, women doing another. Abundance and settlement created surpluses, more than what people could carry with them. Surpluses meant less work, surpluses meant wealth. Surpluses could be stolen; surpluses could be hoarded; surpluses could be extracted. Some say this birthed hierarchy and class.
Gods and ancestors became worshiped in buildings, shrines arose as did temples. Those who tended gods became priests rather than shamans, another division of labor in a settled civility, a class with purpose and power and economic interests. Some say that debt sprung from the need of priests (also skilled scribes) to track donations and the cost of temple labor.
Agriculture, dense living, the need to protect surplus: these, some say, led to population explosions. More people require more resources, need military classes (and conflicts stemming from that need), and need to destroy their environment to extract more resources.
If we extrapolate from what we know now of cities, this story is unassailable. The city seems an illness, a plague, the root of evil, the root of hatred.
This story’s eerily too easy, though.
The city’s unreal, the forest gates unhinged, and you walk always along the edge, in both worlds and neither.
You are emissary.
You are saboteur.
Is the city then some den of horror, the abode of voracious monsters? Or is it just full of people? I like people. No, I love them, gods-dammit, even when they jeer me in the rain. People cluster together. We need each other. We want each other. We love each other. We build off each other, create with each other. What would we do otherwise?
Rugged individualism is a Capitalist lie and will get you killed. Families are great, unless you were born to a developmentally-disabled schizophrenic mother and a violent father as I was. Tribalism is great, if you are in charge and get to choose who is in and who is out. Small villages are fine, if there’s at least one person there who you can fall in love with. Degenerates like me don’t fare so well in any of those alternatives.
But the city is undoubtedly sick. The destruction of the environment caused by the urban is undeniable, yet too often denied, even by us ‘degenerates.’ The ‘urban professional’ of today, working at a tech company, progressive of politics, in love with nature? Their organic and free-range foods are produced by immigrants working in near-slave (and sometimes full-slave) conditions. It takes a lot of forest to make toilet paper, a lot of coal to make electricity, a lot of oil to transport food from the farms to the city.
Both the prophets of progress and the prophets of anti-civilisation evoke the pre-historic past. It’s either nasty, brutish, and short for the one or Edenic for the other, but both groups are either awfully bad at history or betting that, because no records remain to challenge them, we’ll accept their stories without question.
Few dare mention the shorter history, a few hundred years ago. Something arose which turned the endless dance of forest and city into slaughter of one and misery of the other. A great forgetting, an archonic trick, the Demiurge’s conquest of Sophia.
Something changed in the world several hundred years ago, something so disastrous, that, like the Holocaust or the nuclear bombings of several Japanese cities, we seem incapable of approaching without shutting down or relying on Nationalist rhetoric.
The world was not always like this. The cities once could never win over the forest. And that wasn’t so long ago.
You are how the forest becomes the city you’ll betray.
You are unborn dreaming remembering the past.
You are the endless taking root in the now.
It was capitalism that filled the cities with factories, blackened the skies above them and poisoned the earth below them, and set them at war against the forests. Before, cities were places people lived; now they are citadels stacked full of workers. Before, the city’s power ended where the forest began; now, the city is the entire world, and the forests are all dying.
Civilization is not a thing we live in, but a crime that happened to us. Civilization is not the city, but the rules and logic of the cities’ masters. Civilization is what turns the people in the cities into workers. Civilization is what turns the forests into paper to clean the asses of the workers in the cities.
Historian Peter Linebaugh suggested that, because the Commons were destroyed by the Cities, the Cities must now become the Commons. We must say the same thing of the Forests.
This must then be our rallying cry, those who have become ‘from the forest’ but refuse to accept the notion of mass urban slaughter. Too many words have been wasted trying to run from the true war, betraying the forest with resigned rage while the cult of progress huddles, slump-backed, over backlit screens in self-arousal and vain hope.
The forest-that-was still lives, if you bother to look through the gates on a rainy night in the city. You can be standing, soaked, in front of a gay bar and see the rivers we try to forget. You can even, like I do, chuckle when those who will never see it jeer you.
The forest-that-was lives in the forest-that-will-be, which are both a waiting now, Walter Benjamin’s jetzt-zeit, the pregnant moment, the moment we hold in our hands.
The forest-that-was is also the forest-that-will-be, but only if we let it root through us. It is we who are the mages, the witches, the priests and bards. We are the rogues spreading seeds on the pristine lawns, the saboteurs helping trees lift concrete with their strong roots.
We were from the city. We are now from the forest. And only with our hands can the war finally end and the dance begin anew. The Cities destroy the Forests. The Cities must now become the Forests, so that our lives may once again, in the end, nourish the roots of past and future, making the eternal now.
Is the co-founder and Managing Editor of Gods&Radicals, and also writes at Paganarch.