Like so many of you, I have felt shocked, devastated, and immobilized by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24. Other than discerning a good way to send relief, I have felt helpless. So, when the Wilderness Guides Council put out a call for a collective gathering to hear the stories, needs, and strengths of our Ukrainian friends, I eagerly signed up. (WGC is a global network of wilderness guides and supporters who offer “contemporary wilderness rites of passage”.)
Since the international Wilderness Guides Council convened in Ukraine in 2012, I was hopeful that some of our Ukrainian guides would be on the call. At least four participants were from Ukraine. The rest of us tuned in from many countries including South Africa, Spain, Germany, Canada, South Siberia and many U.S. states.
One of the Ukrainian guides was sitting in total darkness because his city is under bombardment and strict orders to have no lights on at night. One is currently living in Canada, every day fearful for her parent’s lives. The other two had fled their cities and were in the currently safer western part of their brave country.
The intention of the council was to offer peace and protection for Ukraine. We opened with a slide show of that 2012 gathering, a song, silence with lit candles, and then an open invitation for the Ukrainians to speak so we could bear witness. Words came slowly at first. Feelings were raw, so very raw. One of the Ukrainians had spent 12 days in a bomb shelter with her family before fleeing to the western part of the country. Another is still living in a city being bombarded. His face illuminated only by his electronic screen showed the wear of sleeplessness and living in constant danger. Still another wrote her comments only in the chat box because her reception was so poor she feared we would not be able to hear.
There were long pauses. This is the way of council. We wait. We hold the space open so words can form and be supported as they arise.
Some of us as witnesses added comments after our Ukrainian friends spoke. One American guide who went to the 2012 gathering spoke of bringing 3 acorns back from a 1,000 year old oak. One of those acorns sprouted. She planted it and it is now about 30 feet high—a symbol of the longevity and strength of its home country. Another shared the t-shirt that was literally given to him off the back of one of the Ukrainians on the call. Another among us spoke how she is living on stolen lands—from U.S. native peoples—and reflected on the violence so long perpetrated against peaceful peoples everywhere.
I chose to repeat the words one Ukrainian guide had spoken at the end of his second check-in. “Something new is being born. In a birth both the mother and the child are very vulnerable. We must pay attention and protect both the mother and child.” The words haunted me, yet I know he spoke them as a man who has lived many decades and watched the ongoing trials of his country. His voice invited respect. He spoke with hope. He repeated words that each of his countrymen and women had spoken earlier, “We will not lose our country. We will remain free.”
The chat box was filled with information, including a note from one of the German guides with a connection to a site that would help refugees find shelter, food, and clothing in her country. We shared emails. We want to remain connected. We want to speak again. We are eager to help in whatever ways we are able.
The parting words from each of our Ukrainian friends was, “Do not forget us!”
Something new is being born
Leaving the council, I chose to head to our nearby state park with its old growth Douglas firs and western red cedar. I wandered the slowly emerging spring woods in the tradition of the Medicine Walk, so dear to the hearts of my fellow WGC guides. The phrase “something new is being born” kept repeating itself in my mind. A short ways up the first hill of the trail a large, old alder tree next to the trail had blown down since I walked this trail last week. It was shocking how little root structure had held the old alder all these years. The alder will now become a nurse log providing a platform for mosses, mushrooms, salal plants, huckleberry, and eventually another alder tree. Something new is being born out of a loss, though, at the moment, all that is visible is the dead alder and all the ferns and young plants it smashed on the way down. Can any of us begin to see what will be born out of the current tragedy in Ukraine?
“We must pay attention and protect both the mother and child.” Further along, I stopped to lean against the 500-year-old cedar tree. It is hollow now—a person could actually bend over and “skinny” their way from front to back. The winter has blown down some of its enormous branches, yet as I gaze skyward, back against the tree, I cannot see through the many remaining branches to the top of the tree. It is probably the oldest tree in the park.
In 1999 I was sitting on the bench overlooking the tree when two young boys wandered up from the campground. They grabbed some big sticks and started hacking away at the then smaller hole in the tree. I was completely shocked. It occurred to me that no one had taught them to respect a large old tree. I rose from the bench and gently approached them.
“Excuse me,” I said. They both looked up. “Would you beat your grandmother with a stick?” At this point they have set their sticks down and are looking at me as if I am some kind of apparition. “This is the oldest tree in the forest. It is the grandmother tree. We must treat it with respect.” The two boys hurriedly disappeared down the trail.
Later I worked with the park ranger to erect a sign and a barrier to the tree explaining its age and importance. “We must protect both the mother and the child.”
The winter has been hard on the forest. A number of large trees have blown down. Yet the whole of the forest remains functioning, beautiful, and vibrant. The further I walk the more I can understand the wisdom of the older Ukrainian guide who has walked the “forests” of his country for many decades. He knows intimately the individual components of cities, mountains, forests, people. He sees them as a whole—resilient, interconnected, ever-changing. Two hours later I return home with a much better understanding of how these four guides could be so sure that they will not lose their country. They know and understand things that we as outsiders can barely comprehend.
Sitting down to dinner that night next to the wood stove, holding hands with my beloved, we offered prayers of gratitude for the incredible privilege of an intact home, enough to eat, and a peaceful neighborhood. And we asked for prayers for all who do not have such privilege at this time.
We will not forget our Ukrainian friends. We will keep the stories of their courage and determination alive, for they represent the hope that people everywhere have for democracy to remain alive.