In Seattle the leaves are turning. The big-leaf maples blaze in fiery tones and the alders, parched from a long dry summer, blanch from the cooler nights. In the Cascades the huckleberries rage crimson and the larches glow golden. Leaves litter the trails and swish underfoot.
This time of year I like to brew up a strong pot of tea and turn to one of my favorite authors, Malcolm Lowry. Specifically, to one of his finest works, the novella The Forest Path to the Spring. Published in the posthumous story collection Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, Lowry’s pastoral is full of lyrical language, classical allusions and keen observations on nature and self.
The plot is minimal, arising from Lowry’s life as a squatter in a shack on the Burrard Inlet, in Dollarton, near Vancouver, British Columbia. Lowry and his wife spent fourteen years there while he wrote his masterpiece, Under the Volcano. For Lowry, Dollarton represented paradise on earth, a place of bliss and creativity. His love for it shines throughout this quiet, mature work.
If Under the Volcano is Lowry’s Inferno, The Forest Path to the Spring is his Paradiso. In fact, Lowry envisioned a series of six or seven novels titled The Voyage that Never Ends, and planned to use The Forest Path to the Spring as its coda. Except for this little gem and Under the Volcano, the grand opus remained a pile of rough drafts and loose notes at the time of his death in 1957.
Lowry describes a collection of Manx, Norwegian and Danish fisherman, Scottish boat builders and other odd fellows who lived independent and very private lives in their squatters’ shacks, yet who formed a close-knit community that shared its bounty and discreetly watched out for one another. Each day the novella’s first-person narrator goes to a spring in the woods for water. In Lowry’s hands, the walk and the spring become metaphorical; the novella is about overcoming fear, resisting the intrusion of the past, and tuning out the noise of civilization to achieve happiness.
Here is Lowry’s lovely opening:
At dusk, every evening, I used to go through the forest to the spring for water.
The way that led to the spring from our cabin was a path wandering along the bank of the inlet through snowberry and thimbleberry and shallon bushes, with the sea below you on the right, and the shingled roofs of the houses, all built down on the beach beneath the little crescent of the bay.
Far aloft gently swayed the mastheads of the trees: pines, maples, cedars, hemlocks, alders. Much of this was second growth but some of the pines were gigantic. The forest had been logged from time to time, though the slash the loggers left behind was soon obliterated by the young birch and vines growing up quickly.
Beyond, going toward the spring through the trees, range beyond celestial range, crowded the mountains, snow-peaked for most of the year. At dusk they were violet, and frequently they looked on fire, the white fire of the mist. Sometimes in the early mornings this mist looked like a huge family wash, the property of Titans, hanging out to dry between the folds of their lower hills. At other times all was chaos, and Valkyries of storm-drift drove across them out of the ever reclouding heavens.
Often all you could see in the whole world of the dawn was a huge sun with two pines silhouetted in it, like a great blaze behind a Gothic cathedral. And at night the same pines would write a Chinese poem on the moon. Wolves howled from the mountains. On the path to the spring the mountains appeared and disappeared through the trees.
He continues to layer image upon poetic image, with metaphors changing shape and meaning like the mist in the mountains.
More often than not, Lowry’s febrile imagination and unquenchable alcoholism fed a delirious paranoia and self-destructive tendencies, which he captured brilliantly in Under the Volcano. In that novel, as in this novella, Dollarton represented a safe harbor, an idyllic place that could not possibly survive except in dream or memory. The squatters’ eviction in 1954 to make way for a suburban park became for Lowry an eviction from Eden, and an obsession. Though eviction had always been a theme, his writing now took on a more strident ecological protest, unusual in its day, as civilization encroached upon his piece of wilderness. From the moment of his eviction to his premature death at the age of 47 in Ripe, England, he never felt at home again.
The Forest Path to the Spring is Lowry’s testament of longing for a place and a peace of mind that he lost. It is beautiful in its affirmations. It should have a greater stature in the English-language canon than it does, and it should be read by more people than it is. Ideally, in autumn, with a fresh pot of tea.