‘Anyone Can Walk in the Woods, But Who Truly Knows Them?’

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Tristan McConnell‘s recent essay at Emergence Magazine just might be the deep breath you need amid your busy week and a chaotic, never-ending cycle of news. In “Illuminating Kirinyaga,” McConnell takes us on a journey into the shrinking forests of Mount Kenya and writes about the land, coexistence, and the people who commune with the trees.

We immediately meet Joseph Mbaya, a man who lives in Kiambogo, a village on the edge of the forest. Mbaya forages for medicine among the trees and finds treatments for everything from arthritis to indigestion; the sap he collects from a red stinkwood tree can help treat an ear infection or a toothache, for example. There’s also Samson Thureinira, an elder living in the foothills, “still strong as a cedar’s trunk,” writes McConnell, and who moves “on a timescale more akin to trees than humans.” The indigenous saplings in Thureinira’s tree nursery are part of a reforestation program led by the Mount Kenya Trust that will, hopefully, help to protect these forests long after he and Mbaya are gone.

They, and other foresters of this landscape, understand that the forest can be used without destroying it.

Mbaya’s visits to the high forests mark him out. While the swirling centrifugal forces of modernity have sucked so many others into a prison of quotidian constraints, Mbaya’s forest walks are a portal to a different, slower, and more meaningful world. Anyone can walk in the woods, but who truly knows them? As we strode, paused, scrambled, and sat, Mbaya painted the forest with his knowledge; trees and plants were illuminated by their names and made more vivid in their value and uses. To see the forest through his eyes— however fleetingly and partially—is to be granted a rare glimpse of an understanding that feels as inaccessible as Mount Kenya’s soaring peaks. But appreciation and preservation of the mountain and its forests is dwindling.

DEEP INSIDE THE fractured forests that still ring the mountain, a hallowed sense of wonder persists. One morning, soon after the sun burns mist from the mountainsides and clouds shroud the peaks, I visit part of the mountain’s few remaining areas of old-growth woodland with a pair of young Kenyan foresters from the Mount Kenya Trust. Marania Forest, on the mountain’s northern fringe, is a revelation: thickly towering trunks of eight-hundred-year-old rosewood reach overhead, the trees’ crowns held up to the light of the canopy, pencil-straight cedar and craggy-barked olive are draped with lichen, and moss carpets the earth, muffling sound to a church-like silence. It is dark, crowded, and otherworldly—the ground soft underfoot, the trunks damp to the touch, the trees centuries old, the sunlight breaking through in narrow shafts. At our feet, fallen trunks breach the understory like shipwrecks, gradually decaying and returning to the soil—to its subterranean fungal networks and the spreading roots of neighboring trees—as food for the rest of the forest. We all smile, the foresters and I. It is a routine venture out for them, and my first to these old forests, and yet our reactions are the same: joy and reverential wonder. We instinctively drop our voices to a whisper. We walk and talk, feet sinking into the damp, spongey soil as the foresters teach me about the trees.

Read the essay