A Walk in the Land of Little Sticks
The trees up there are small. They make you feel like a hulking colossus, existing on such a different scale than trees should. With a misstep, you can, unknowingly, crush one. These trees sprout on the edges of immense meadows, though ‘meadows’ is perhaps too gentle a word. They would be deserts were it not for the spongey tundra moss that blankets everything like fallen snow. They exist as uniform planes, sweeping off into the distance, rimmed by those tiny trees. As a lifelong Midwestern forest-dweller, seeing this vastness was unnerving. I felt like I could fall across the open space; nothing about this landscape could prevent me from slipping off toward the horizon.
We were in this desert to canoe a river that meanders to Hudson’s Bay. It flows along Manitoba’s northern border, weaving in and out of the tree line as it meanders east. Our four canoes were beached, so I decided to walk in a meadow. What a splendid idea.
As I stepped over the diminutive trees that fringed a vast desert of tundra moss, the world of my trip fell away. When looking across one of these meadows, the trees in the distance, just visible above the tundra, stretch the emptiness. They shrunk me within the environment, minimizing my once-towering figure to a mere pinprick on the spongy moss. I could not rightfully establish the magnitude of anything; I felt small – smaller even than the trees. Smaller even, in fact, than a college first-year in a senior seminar. I was nothing.
This is the Land of Little Sticks, the Barren Lands of Canada, a place where the familiar scale of humanity to nature simply falls away. The sheer immensity of the place is stunning. The desolation is conspicuous. There is an emptiness to this place, like outer space. It is simply impossible to imagine people in such a place. Picture, in your mind, a cozy room, with a fireplace and blankets, and maybe an easy chair. Maybe there is a warm mug of hot chocolate sitting on a side table. This is not that. It is so profoundly not that. How could a Dairy Queen exist here? It was inconceivable that any people could survive here, though the Inuit manage, spread thinner than gold leaf across the enormity. This land is primordial, unmolested by human hands, and silent, save for the wind whistling through those tiny trees. It is a place devoid of human experience, a place where people are unable to leave their mark.
I tried to make my way across the meadow, but the trees on the far side weren’t getting any nearer. I turned around to see where I had come from, but I could not; the riverbank was swallowed up among those little sticks. I began to run in my five-pound, waterproof (water-filled) boots, at first forward, then back, where I thought I had come from. Then I just ran, attempting to make some progress going anywhere in the vast meadow stretched out before me, but the ground was a treadmill before me. Those trees were no closer, no matter how hard I ran towards them. What was I, and what could I be, in the face of such enormity?
Haruki Murakami said of the Gobi Desert in “The Wind Up Bird Chronicles”: “The surrounding space is so vast that it becomes increasingly difficult to keep a balanced grip on one’s own being.” In that moment, I had lost my grasp on my self, and in the process, seen the majesty of the Barren Lands. This place has a certain magic; it made me a giant, and then reduced me to nothing – less than nothing. It takes away everything that you are, and, in that poverty, you can come to recognize that perhaps Earth was not created for humankind, that we simply inhabit it. We may have sprawled over swathes of the globe, but, for now, our powers of conquest only extend so far. In the wilder places, we are still nothing, just fleeting shadows across the landscape.