In the summer I went to visit a good friend. At the small gathering at his place I met another man who told me about one of his first jobs, assessing what was to become the West Coast Trail. Parks Canada was considering buying the land and turning it into a park, but first they needed a thorough stocktaking of what was there, meaning bridges, ladders, trails, etc.
Over a period of months, this lovely man did exactly that: took stock, measuring and detailing. During his time in the woods he met only a couple of people. One bunch flew in on a seaplane to do a photo shoot for a day, and left behind their gear once they were done.
As he talked about the experience of being in the woods for a long time, craving a beer or something other than dried camping rations, one detail stood out in ravishing colour. One day, on a beach, he found a crate of oranges that had washed up on shore, apparently having fallen off a ship somewhere. The oranges were cold and fresh, and he ate as many as he could handle.
Listening to the story my brain immediately set the scene: the colour of oranges against the deep rainforest green, as vivid as fire.
"That sounds really interesting," I said.
"It was..." he said and smiled.
I think about this exchange still, a brief little blip among other conversations, and remember the fierce call of longing that it immediately called up.
To break free, slip the trap and scamper across the grass into the trees and disappear. I've been thinking about the idea a lot lately. It pops up in strange places and random moments -- in the midst of the afternoon while watching films, in the predawn bleakness of 3 a.m., when everything seems insurmountable and you coil into a heap and draw the covers over your head. Or, most keenly, on the way to work when you look at the North Shore mountains and think about walking into the tree line and vanishing.
The options for escape aren't quite as straightforward as they once were. The world is getting smaller every day, and increasingly there aren't that many places to run away to, in the real world at least. But there are always the movies.
A film for that ancient feeling
If you are in need of a little cinematic escape, and really who isn't at the moment, I would suggest Wolf Children. The anime film just screened at the Vancouver International Film Festival, but if you missed it, no worries: it's slated to come back to Vancity Theatre in November.
It is an exceptionally beautiful film, with the lingering glory and magisterial quality that recalls Miyazaki's greatest work. The spirit of Totoro is here, in the woods, the wind and the mountains. It is also a film that you leave feeling as if you have lived an entire lifetime in some other world. You stagger out feeling oddly ancient.
The story begins when a slip of a girl named Hana falls in love with a mysterious young man, slender as a noodle, with a raggedy shirt and a mop of black hair. Love is wild. It leaps out of the bushes and grabs you by the throat. And so it is here, when Hana discovers that her paramour is actually part wolf, a lupine spirit in human flesh who can shapeshift at will.
Director Hosoda Mamoru (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time) takes his sweet time, letting the story unfold at a gentle pace. The blossoming romance of the young couple unfurls into love and the birth of two children: Yuki, named for the snow that fell the day she was born, and her little brother Ame, whose name means rain for the deluge that marked his birth. The couple starts their life with little more than some sticks of furniture and a trust that love can, and will, sustain them. And so it does for a while, until tragedy strikes and Hana is left to raise two kids on her own.
As a single mother of two young wolf kids, Hana is forced to make a change. Her kids simply can't be contained in a city apartment. They virtually chew down the walls to escape, so the family pulls up stakes and moves to a decrepit house in the country. Hana sets about learning how to cultivate a garden, fix a roof and create a life, all with the help of library books from the bookmobile and some gruff advice from the curmudgeonly farmer up the road.
The centre of the film is so rich and lush with pleasures, both simple and strange, that it almost overshadows everything on either side. Hana and her kids spend days romping in the woods, catching snakes, chasing wild boar and generally being both kids and wolves at the same time.
One sequence stands out for its unbridled howl of freedom. On the first big snowfall, the family tears through the woods, set loose to roam and romp and slide and scream with laughter. It is hard not to howl alongside such rampant, undiminished beauty -- which is exactly what one small child did at the recent festival screening, warbling forth with a tiny howl that literally brought down the house. We all have it in us, and it doesn't take that much to unearth the stuff, especially in kids.
Send 'em to the woods
Most children are pretty feral by nature. It takes a lot to squish it out of them -- namely the constant application of video games, the cementing of almost all access to the natural world and more marketing than you can shake a stick at. But you don't have to scratch very far beneath the surface to get to the wild thing underneath.
The rewilding phenomena that George Monbiot talks about in his book Feral has particular relevance to kids, as his recent article in the Guardian indicates.
The experience of taking a group of 10-year-olds into the wild is like Wolf Children made flesh. Messing about the woods, getting filthy and eating things that you catch with your bare hands is deep-rooted stuff. It is a return to our older, original human animal, and the pleasure that comes from being in the snow and the rain or running through the woods as fast as your four or two legs can carry you.
Monbiot's book is wadded full with stories and facts aplenty, but the quality that most endures are his descriptions of the bigger world, whether that's out on the ocean in a kayak, or stalking through a marsh looking to spear fish. The tangible, almost perfume-heavy descriptions of the landscape and the creatures that inhabit them are wondrous and dream-like. Cinematic. One story in particular stands out: while recounting a search for flounder, Monbiot has a vivid flashback to some past life experience. He virtually howls like a wolf after catching, gutting and eating a raw fish. The book is a little overripe in places, but that's fine. I'm sure Monbiot won't mind the occasional giggle at his excess.
The notion that children should be freed from the confines of school and sent into the woods seems to be gaining ground in the U.K., as David Bond's new film Project Wild Thing makes abundantly clear. The freedom to roam the woods, safe with the knowledge that their own cunning and strength is enough to sustain them, is not something that most children have anymore. They've been shuffled into a cyberworld, the long-term consequences of which aren't entirely clear. Another U.K. film, Beeban Kidron's InRealLife, explores the complexities of this online migration, and it's not a comforting image. Porn and plastic is mostly what populates the cyber jungle.
In an interview with the Globe and Mail during the Toronto International Film Festival, the director explained the impetus of the film. Reads the interview: "Most teenagers, Kidron says, don't think of the Internet as something that is 'constructed, bent and owned.' They imagine it as existing almost naturally, like the air and the sky -- a notion partly facilitated by the fact that much of our data is stored in the so-called 'cloud'..."
The notion that we need to be out in the real world isn't new. Study after study invariably shows the multiple positive effects for humans, from lower cortisol to improved brain function. The question at the moment appears to be whether we have mucked things up so badly that nature might not have us back at all.
Something far older within
The drumbeats of doom have been banging away as of late, with the disappearing Himalayan glaciers, the acidification of the ocean and the dwindling of the honey bee population. Take your pick: all flavours of grimness are in ample supply. But what does one do with this type of information other than find a nice high cliff and take a running leap?
We've had our kick at the can, our time to run around, honking and tooting in big cars and jet airplanes. All that fun and frivolity has a price tag, and here it comes in oceans of acid.
But of course, anyone who has kids, knows kids, or once met a kid has a responsibility to make certain that we clean up our mess before walking into the woods, never to be seen again. Or the idea of escape becomes just that: an idea. There's no place to run any longer, no place left to hide.
Sometimes I think about the idea of a world with no frogs, much less no black rhinos or Siberian tigers. The vanishing of larger species is sad, but something about frogs gets me in the gut. Maybe because they're so fragile, thin skin stretched so delicately over tiny bones. They make you think of newborns. Is a world without frogs really a world you want to live in?
Humans have made a terrific mess. But being the giant-brained creatures we are, perhaps we can put our noodles to work and devise some solution to clean all the plastic bags out of the ocean before there are no sea turtles left.
The lingering quality that remains from a film like Wolf Children -- or Monbiot's tales of eating grubs in the woods, or the depth of green silence from a time and place on the West Coast of Canada when only the occasional human bumped along, dreaming of oranges -- sings in your brain like a siren's call.
Far from the hectoring of doom, Monbiot's argument is to celebrate the pleasure and joy to be had from mucking about, getting dirty and free, and giving over to the wildness within. The idea of setting your kids loose in the forest may go against the last 30 years of conditioning, but there is something far older beneath all that.
We owe the next batch of humans a place to escape to, a world with frogs, salamanders, bees, dolphins. And of course, wolves.