"This ... is the Forest of No Return! ... This ... is the Forest of No Return!" It's just a children's song, from an old show like "Zoom!" or "Puffinstuff" ... but it's scary! I shake off the shivers, and look over my shoulder. Nobody's following me. But, if nobody's following, then why do I have the creeps?
"Come on, fella," I say to Nahgua, my riding horse of many years, as I urge him forward and we follow the dog ahead of us on the trail. We ride like this often; just Nahgua, my dog and me. We've ridden these trails many times through the wooded game lands of Pennsylvania's Dutch Country, where I was born. We ride among the trees, jumping over logs, splashing through streams and racing across fields. Birds fly overhead, rabbits scamper across our path and whitetail deer lift their heads. It's peaceful here. It's a place where we can think, and breathe, and feel.
I always feel "different" here. Having lived in places like New York, Beverly Hills and Philadelphia (not to mention the many places I've been able to visit in my travels), I was always glad to come back to this part of Pennsylvania, with its red earth, called "Ironstone Valley." There are mysteries here. And, my rides take me through them as if they live on the mountain, waiting to be discovered. Sometimes, like today, I lose my sense of time ... trees begin to sway ... and the artist in me sees them not as trees anymore, but as people. All kinds of people, like you and me, singing, laughing and swaying in the wind.
My dog trots ahead of us for a while, sniffing at the usual things dogs like, making a big deal out of a tree stump, playing with a pile of leaves, rushing after things that, to me, seemed imaginary. Nahgua, the stallion I've ridden most of his life, and surely my animal soul mate, carries me like nothing in the world could be more important to him.
But something is different today. Although we have ridden this trail many times before, suddenly, I don't know where I am. Is this Canada? Is this Oregon, where I was once kidnapped by gun smugglers? This isn't the trail I know so well. What happened to all the trees? Why are they all cut down?
Not a bird, not a quiver, not a sound ... What does it mean?
Who chopped down all my happy tree-people, without any regard for their beauty, their fragility, or their wisdom? Who slashed through the living forest cutting trees off at the ground, tossing branches in a mass of broken arms and legs, and leaving the remains to rot? The artist in me, or maybe it was the animal lover in me, searches for meaning - and doesn't have to look far. I call to my dog. We must leave. We must get away from this. "Take us home, Nahgua," I say, realizing that for the last mile or so I don't remember hearing one sound or seeing one squirrel or chipmunk. I don't remember my ride at all.
It's been a long time since I took that ride, but I never stopped wondering about it. If you listen to the experts, they'll have you believing that we can have a stroke and not know it, and that your mind plays tricks on you. But, being an animal lover, I never accepted that explanation. Animal lovers search for deeper meanings when they want answers.
What did the trees "cut off at the knees" mean? Haunted by that question, I spoke with a group of people at a library a few nights later and found my answer. As I looked around the room, loving them for caring so much about their dogs and horses and cats and fish and birds and all the other animals in their lives, I began to see them as the trees of a beautiful forest. I knew there were dangers lurking - new laws, new attitudes that affect our lives and which can change our emotional lives forever. Maybe even cut us off at the knees, or try to.
Animals are the key to our emotional development. There are plenty of human beings for us to interact with and learn from as we grow and take our place in the world. All of us have parents, and neighbors. But, only by playing with, caring for and being around animals - other forms of life - do we discover a wider range of love and our capacity to feel it. Not having this is like a forest cut off at the knees.
Was I worried as I looked at the faces of those people that night? No. I wasn't worried for them. I was worried for the lawmakers and unhappy people dreaming of ways to take away our songs and laughter as we sway in the wind. They don't realize how powerful animal lovers are when we know the score, and what to do about it. We are more powerful than we ever thought possible, and any law that is ever made can be revoked. Looking into the trusting eyes of the animals that depend on us, we should remember that.
Nahgua is old now, my dog is lying at my feet as I write this and I may never know where my spirit really was during that ride on the mountain. But, I do know it gave me faith. How can broken trees in a frightening forest give us faith, you ask? Like jumping over a fallen log on your path, it can give confidence, hope and faith in the most natural way. New and strange rules being forced on animal lovers are like chain saws ripping through a forest, but we understand something deep and wise and ageless. No matter how different we are from each other, and no matter what laws are being forced upon us, animal lovers know that horses can have foals, dogs can have puppies .... and trees will grow again.
Ron Hevener ~ Author Of "The Blue Ribbon" & "Fate of the Stallion"