Learning to Ask: An Aboriginal Custom for Respecting Forests Brings Appreciation and Understanding. (Saving Place)

Article excerpt

Ten years ago, I began to ask before entering a forest. I first learned of this custom in a conversation with Wilf Peltier, an Odawa (Ottawa) elder, and his Cree friend Cliff Thomas.

We were talking in the family den of two friends, Bob and Louise, after a ceremony that Wilf and Cliff had given for the loss of a forest, one of the last patches of old-growth white pines in the Ottawa-Outaouais area (lower Ottawa River region).

Bob and Louise, and their neighbours in Champlain Park, a community in Aylmer, Quebec (across the river from Ottawa), called the 25-hectare stand of white pines and mixed hardwoods "the Cathedral Forest". It had been cut down the middle for a four-lane highway. What remained could no longer be called a forest. But residents' efforts to preserve the forest had saved a few of the larger, 150- to 250-year-old white pines.

I had asked Wilf if he would give a ceremony for the forest. He said yes, without hesitation, after I told him how this place of white pines had been destroyed.

People in Aylmer, and residents across the river in Ottawa, had spoken out for preserving the forest. But the politicians, government officials and developers wanted the highway built. It didn't matter that people loved this forest for what it was and for what it gave them.

The ceremony for the white pines, maples, basswood, white birch and other plant and animal life was given in the destroyed forest beside a wide swath of cut-down trees. Over 70 people gathered around the place where Wilf laid out a blanket and an altar cloth, on which he carefully arranged a pipe, tobacco, sweet grass, small rocks and other ceremonial articles.

Children sat up close to the blanket, looking and listening with open wonder and involvement as Cliff assisted Wilf in cleansing himself with sweet grass smoke. Wilf then began the pipe ceremony. He offered prayers for the spirits of the white pines and other trees in his Odawa language.

After the ceremony he spoke in English. "I also said prayers for the people who ordered the destruction of the forest. I asked the spirits to forgive them. The ones who didn't know what they were doing."

He went on to speak of his perspective on life. "My people say: We are the land. Whatever we do to the land, we do to ourselves."

Later, at Bob and Louise's home, where they had invited Wilf, Cliff and others for refreshments, Cliff said something that opened another perspective on forests. "We call trees 'the standing people'. Before we go into a forest, we ask the standing people for permission."

When Cliff said this, a forest became something else. A veil was lifted, showing what I had only partially seen before.

Until this moment, I had sometimes shown respect in various ways to plants, rocks and other expressions of life in forests and in the back yard of my house. …