by Rose Ghaedi, AP'18

The part that people remember most vividly when I tell them about my Arete experience is the fact that we slept in three-walled shelters completely open to the elements and nature. For the most part, I shrugged off people’s concerns about wandering animals or flooding rain, thinking that the summer would be survivable, if not comfortable.  But the truth was that I just couldn’t imagine myself living entirely outdoors for two months: I’d never even gone camping before. 

From my first moments in North Carolina, I began to realize the extent of the engagement with nature that was expected of me. As the bus struggled to make its way up the Blue Ridge mountain trails, it began to rain so heavily that I could no longer distinguish any of the scenery outside the window; but, the moment we reached the Arete homesite, which would comprise my entire world for the next eight weeks, the rain stopped. This was my first interaction with what would become one of the most important characters from my summer experience: the torrential afternoon rains that would seemingly drown the world for a few hours each day before receding behind the mountain peak as if they’d never existed. 

Settling into my shelter and looking around surreptitiously at the four other girls with whom I’d be sharing the space for the entire summer, I wondered if I was the only one for whom such a complete immersion in the outdoors bordered on surreal. Against my own expectations, I fell asleep easily that first night, listening to the sound of a stream running not five feet away from my bunk. Halfway through the night, I woke to the sound of shrill screams: a large spider had crawled onto one of my bunkmate’s face as she slept. I realized that I was not the only cohort member new to this style of living.

On our first day of labour, as we carved rain gutters into the side of a hill, a girl I’d yet to interact with admitted to me that she’d always felt intimidated by the “richness and whiteness of outdoorsiness” and that she’d never been surrounded by so much green before. She said it with a look of deep shame and a side-long glance at two other cohort members (an ex-sailor and a geological engineer). I wondered for a moment why she’d chosen me of all people to be the recipient of her confession, before I realized that the two of us were the only brown women in the cohort and that, to her, my skin tone must have signified a discomfort with nature. What frustrated me was that she was right.

The very next day in class we read through Wendell Berry’s essay “A Native Hill.” Speaking about his family history in Kentucky, Berry writes, “And so such history as my family has is the history if its life here. All that any of us may know of ourselves is to be known in relation to this place. And since I did most of my growing up here, and have had most of my meaningful experiences here, the place and the history, for me, have been inseparable, and there is a sense in which my own life is inseparable from the history and the place” (601-602). It was a beautiful piece, but it also left me feeling deeply uneasy. Reading Berry’s argument that settlers, due to their lack of respect and understanding of the natural landscape, “still have not, in any meaningful way, arrived in America” (611), I was uncomfortably reminded of my own relationship (or lack thereof) with nature. What did it mean to be so disconnected from my immediate environment, especially when the Canadian consciousness is so full of that vast and unknowable wilderness? Where was my native hill? I realized that neither the landscape I was born in (the Maranjab desert, halfway across the world and filled with a history and culture I know nothing about) nor the landscape I’d grown up imagining (the Laurentian shield, which filled me with both pride and terror) were any more familiar to me than the surface of the moon.

Every Wednesday, we’d stop class early and go on a two-hour nature walk with a local naturalist. The first concept we learned about on our walks was the idea of plant blindness, an inability (coming from inexperience or a lack of focus) to distinguish individual plants and species from amongst the great mass of greenness. It was immediately apparent that I suffered from a near-terminal case of plant blindness; by the end of the summer I could identify only two plants: the rhododendron shrub (the most common plant in the area) and poison ivy. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the nature walks and was always deeply moved by them.

For our second-last nature walk, the naturalist took us to a local field to look at some rare orchids. The field had been recently cut, the grass shorn close to the ground, but the orchids were tall and visible, like skyscrapers in the middle of a low-rise neighbourhood. The owner of the field, who grazed his cows on that land, had noticed the rare orchids growing and found them so delightful that he had painstakingly re-located his cows and cut the grass around the orchids to protect them. This attention to and respect for nature is characteristic of the Celo community, where every resident is focused on living together with the local landscape.

Although I was touched by the culture of respect and attention cultivated in the Celo community (a communal settlement in the Blue Ridge mountains, populated mainly by retired artists and academics), I also saw some of the hidden issues with this seemingly-idyllic society. The sublime beauty of the mountains, the kind that I imagined would inspire great painters and poets, was not a universal experience. Looking out across flat, ugly fields of dead grass and hillsides scarred by coal-mining operations, I began to understand that you had to pay for the beauty in Yancey County. The almost pristine landscape, the ability to withdraw from the world and live with nature, was bounded by lines of class and education.

The realization made me reconsider my own identity and relationship to Canada’s landscapes; what had once seemed like a grounding attachment to the city now seemed hopelessly restrictive. I remembered reading about theories of the settler garrison mentality, the idea of an ingrained (and, to my mind, unproductive) fear of nature that kept settlers within their garrisons. I wondered if Toronto had become my own garrison, if the comfort of living in a safe space like Toronto, where I was surrounded by other middle-class people of colour, had kept me from fully engaging with the entirety of Canada. Perhaps my narrow-minded focus on the Toronto cityscape had actually been an expression of anxiety about my place in Canada.

I resolved to take full advantage of this unique opportunity to be, in every sense of the word, immersed in nature. Two decisions I made early on were to spend as much time as possible barefoot (inspired by the many locals who felt little to no need to wear shoes while traversing the forest trails) and to go on as many solo nighttime hikes as I could. Those walks quickly became more than just a habit: they felt like true journeys, the kind where I came back stranger than I was when I left.  The mountainside at night had a terrible kind of beauty: intimidating and surreal, the aged trees and ancient streams were illuminated by bioluminescent fungi. I would often scrape my feet on sharp rocks or accidentally stumble into a stream, but these were small inconveniences when compared against the liberating feeling of wandering the forest alone at night. 

This isn’t to say that I became some sort of wild, roaming mountain woman. On the last day of our four-day trip, we decided to visit Asheville (the largest city in the area), and I noticed that, as we approached the bustling city, I began to “settle into” myself, as if the entire summer so far had been a fanciful dream and I was now waking up. All my time in the wilderness, the two months I’d spent outdoors every moment of the day, where there’d been no escape from the sound of cicadas at night or the rain pounding against the ground, where I’d made a habit of skinny dipping in the pond at night and splashing around in the local river during the day, immediately faded to a nostalgic, almost sepia-toned memory. I was painfully aware of the ways in which elements of the cityscape—the sharp angles, the delightful griminess, the sense of constant hurry and urgency, the thousands of seen and unseen incentives to consume—made me feel at home, in my element.

I worried that returning to my “real life”—a space where learning was motivated by historical and economic factors as much as interest, where access to natural spaces was not guaranteed, where I was not isolated alongside fifteen of the most brilliant and caring people I’d ever met but was instead vulnerable to the thousands of disappointments and compromises of daily life—would mean a loss of everything I had gained at Arete. I was lucky enough to spend a summer in such a space, but I knew realistically that I had to go home, to my own life and my own landscapes.

Today, I’ve gone back to a life of cement roads and indoor sleeping, a far cry from my nights in the open-air shelters. I’ve populated my apartment with potted plants of all shapes and sizes, but in many ways, it seems like an incomplete and insincere gesture. Much of what I found at Arete has been lost to me; the idea that I ever had access to it feels like a miracle. The idea that I may never again wander through a magical forest glowing at night or dive into a flowing river in between classes haunts me.

But now, when I look at outcroppings of nature at home in Canada, I can see the gradation between plants: their secret lives, the existence of an inaccessible other, the history of the place I call home. I have much left to do before I truly understand the landscapes around me, before I “arrive” in Canada—but last week, waiting for the bus to save me from the grey slush of the streets, I noticed a tiny purslane stem peeking out from between the sidewalk cracks. It felt like seeing an old friend.

Rose Ghaedi is a member of the 2018 Blue Ridge Session cohort. She grew up in Toronto and currently studies English Language and Literature at Western University.