HEART OF THE TAIGA

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It was my first summer after school. I had thought the year would never end but surprisingly, the Spring came again and the drudgery of the early mornings of dragging my heavy books to and fro school was also over. The euphoria of freedom suddenly was replaced by a grim realization that it was only one year… I had at least seven more to go. Will I make it through that many? I wondered. Well, the year was over for now at least and I was sent to a Summer camp for children of the military personnel. My parents tried hard to convince me that it was great luck and privilege to go to such a prestigious camp but for some reason all that was flushing through my mind as I heard the word “camp” was the documentary footage from World War II of the skinny naked people lined up in the Nazi concentration camps. Needless to say that I went to the place frozen with fear, surrendering to my gloomy fate.

The camp itself wasn’t too bad, though it did echo the infamous footage with the brutal seven am wake up calls, cold basins, strict, humorless disciplinarians and marches to the dining hall. Thankfully the tyrannical camp schedule did allow for a few hours a day of “personal time.” And that’s when I would, politely bypassing the invitations to the drill like “extra-curricular activities,” venture into the woods.

Taiga… it was not just your regular forest, it was a living magical world, full of fine smells, soft sounds and subtle movements of “somethings.” It was the world where I could breathe… My friends and I would spend hours walking through meadows, picking wild strawberries and stringing them on the long stems of barley, like pearls, just to eat them later in one swoop, soaking up all the precious aroma and the delicate flavor that spoke of long summer nights, pine trees and shy birds. Every step we took deeper into the woods would bring us new discoveries, new sensations. The trees that smelled so fine and oozed “tears” of amber tar that we, surely, sample tasted to never forget. The ants that, minding their own business, crawled through the carpet of dry pine needles, carrying loads five times bigger than themselves on the way to their giant ant hill metropolis, who we, I’m sorry to say, sample tasted as well, to never forget either…

It was the world that felt inviting and enticing without ever being pushy or demanding. It seemed to be happy whenever we visited and never upset if we didn’t. The warning signs, boards and speeches of the camp grounds personnel about the “dangers of the wilderness” would go over our heads, and we would venture farther and farther into the heart of the taiga. We felt that something was calling us, there was something very important for us to find there, something that would explain what we were feeling.

One day, after the mandatory afternoon nap, me and my two “bed neighbors” snuck out of the campgrounds, passing the most isolated cottage of the “Arts and Crafts Activities” and ventured into the woods, hidden by the thick trunks of the ancient pine trees. We were rushing along the familiar trail, past our favorite wild strawberry field, getting farther and farther into the forest. The woods have an alluring quality of promising a new surprise at every turn of the path. We would see a light among the trees and find a new meadow in the middle of the thick forestation. There we would inevitably discover new plants, shrubs, moss and berries- the ones we hadn’t seen before. And so we ran, rushing to find as many wonders as we could before the sun down.

Though Siberian summer nights were long, we still had to make the nine o’clock bed “check in” if we didn’t want to alert the camp authorities to our whereabouts. We ran and ran and ran, and the farther we got away from the campgrounds, the freer and stronger we felt, as if we were being empowered by the fairy magic of the ancient woods. We were feeling like mythic creatures ourselves, losing the meager identities of small and confused children somewhere behind and blending with the ever-present Eternal Spirit of the Earth. We were now a part of the taiga; we felt and understood it completely. It spoke to us, and we knew what it was saying.

“Come, follow my guidance- I will show you what you are looking for…” Linden leaves seemed to rustle.

And follow we did. The camp ground sounds died out in the distance, and the taiga swallowed us completely. Time disappeared and the magical world was opened up to us. We saw a beautiful glow in the tree opening ahead. There was soft golden light coming from the ground. As we approached the new meadow, the trees parted and we were surrounded by bright amber flowers covering the entire field, flowers we had never seen or heard of before. Their glossy and perfectly round heads were gently heaving on the long graceful stems, waving their rugged edged, hand like leaves. Layers and layers of tender petals hid the sun like stamens. The dizzying, musky smell could not be compared to anything we knew. It was utterly enchanting…

Nobody remembered how we returned to the camp. On the border where the summer camp grounds began and the wilderness retreated, we felt a sense of being squeezed into a box much too small for our new found freedom and expansiveness but something told us, it was only a temporary, make believe surrender. Little by little, the wild Spirit of taiga will seep its way into our lives. We knew that because we knew its secret- we had seen the heart of the taiga, the little golden flower, and now it was a part of us. Now it was inside our hearts…

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