by Ada Skjærasdottir
It was a great old spruce, gnotty and gnarled, guardian of a small forest clearing high on the bank above a creek—and it had been desecrated by cheap plastic trash, polluted by capitalist offerings to false spirits: the gods of Disney and Hollywood, the spirits of shiny junk and mindless consumerism.
I was stunned immobile as I rounded the bend to pay homage to the tree spirit I hadn’t visited in some time. Gaudy, unnatural colours had caged it: a wide scattering of plastic junk around its roots, hideous baubles hanging from its lowest branches, filthy pop culture figures jammed into the crotch of its trunk. There were even signs, printed in toxic ink on bleached paper, advertising that this was the home of a “gnome” and pleading with passersby to “enjoy, don’t destroy.”
I had found the spruce a few years earlier, exploring the side trails that wind down from the ravine’s main path. I certainly wasn’t the only person to have been struck by the quiet majesty of the tree, pausing for a moment to feel its pulsing life beneath rough grey bark, to rest on the patch of earth it encircled with two of its great upthrust roots. I’d seen offerings of a sort before—the careless leavings of denizens who only visited after dark, chugging cheap malt liquor and leaving behind the cans and bottles. It was disrespectful, but other keepers would move through the forest regularly and clean those leavings up: the forest’s unwitting custodians made to serve it out of their inability to live within society’s boundaries and standards and white picket fences, for whom those empties were a necessary windfall.
Never before had there been a pollution to this extent: every nook and cranny of that mighty spruce had been populated with false spirits and trash. The true chthonic creatures dwelling in that ground had been driven out, and the insects and birds, rodents and herbs had been poisoned by chemical byproducts burrowing into the soil.
Blind fury came quickly, followed by steady resolve. It was likely not the intended reaction that the clueless creator of this mess had in mind.
That someone would feel compelled to leave offerings for a mighty tree and the other genius loci of the forest is a natural, intuitive desire. The place resonates with power and magic. The creators of this trash heap—because it was started by one, but greedily perpetuated by others—were desperate to connect with the natural, the wild. And yet their approach was so far out of touch with natural rhythms that they became invaders, conquerors, colonizers. They forced useless consumer products onto the wilderness, one of few such spaces left within the city’s sprawling asphalt web. These were not offerings of reverence and respect, but declarations of ownership and sacrilege.
In this misguided attempt to bring magic to a place already brimming with it, they had desecrated that very space, claimed control in the name of capitalist trash and a Pinterest board post.
I returned to the spruce the next morning, early: the air still carrying a crisp bite and the shafts of watery sunlight just beginning to filter through the dense canopy. As I approached the spruce’s clearing, I slowed my steps and took a few steadying, grounding breaths, then whispered an entreaty three times to the genius loci: to keep intruders from the area while I set to my task of cleaning the trash from their space, with the promise that I’d return to keep it free and unpolluted.
Arriving at the spruce, I pulled a bag from my pack and quickly set to work, plucking every bit of plastic junk, every container filled with processed, chemical-laden food, every piece of willing blindness to the fierce nature thought to be tamed and rendered friendly by scraps and trinkets. The bag was bulging as I pulled the last bit of garbage from the spruce’s branches, a heavy burden I carried triumphantly from that place.
The cries of the desecrator came later, unheard by me as I departed the clearing. The spruce has been left untouched since then, though rumours gather at the edges of the forest and the threat of copycat vandals have appeared. Quietly I watch; silent I return. My pact with the spirits of that place—the true genius loci—will not be broken. I will not allow their home to be invaded again by plastic pretenders, the cutesy perversion of the true face and nature of the forest’s oldest denizens.
Ada Skjærasdottir is an animist and journalist living in northern Canada.