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Roots of Belonging: Exploring Albright Grove's Primeval Forest

Primary forests are those that have developed over centuries without logging, contributing to rich and complex ecological diversity. An English oak tree (Quercus robur) that lives for six hundred years can decompose over two hundred years. The ecological significance of this is that certain types of organisms, such as fungi and others, only thrive for the first time decades or centuries after the tree's death! Seven hundred years since the tree sprouted and a hundred years since it died, it still nourishes new ecosystems. Therefore, it will take a renewed forest hundreds or even thousands of years to restore the biological diversity and complex interaction network within it and resemble a primary forest once again. These forests are characterized by high biological diversity and a complex ecological network, including multiple layers of vegetation, climatic and ecological resilience, and a much better carbon sequestration capability than other forests. In contrast, secondary forests, which have regrown after disturbances, have simpler ecology and lower biological diversity, and they are more vulnerable and weaker than the original forest.

Primary forests that have never experienced significant human disturbance are called virgin or primeval forests. While vast areas of tropical jungles and Siberian coniferous forests are primeval, it is very rare to find a temperate primeval forest, one that is suitable and pleasant for human life.

For several years, as part of my research on states of consciousness, I have been traveling to different regions, mainly tracing primary oak forests that preserve an ideal habitat for humans. These exceptional spaces, which once covered all living areas in the temperate Northern Hemisphere and now exist in unique conservation corners, hide ancient secrets about the relationship between humans and the forest.

How does the human animal feel when it returns home? How do we communicate with the forest, and what insights and intuitions do we receive from it? What will our home reveal to us thousands of years after we left it – will we feel longing or connection? Will the ancient forest spirits and secrets be revealed to the modern human?

Throughout my academic career, as a professor of computer science, I have researched and taught human-computer interaction and creative processes, and developed combinations between computerized creation and traditional handcraft. I have dealt with hybrids, the merging of opposites. How do you bring soul to technology? How do you combine ancient craft with progress and mechanization? How do you build a modern world that balances humanity with science, tradition with progress? In the past, these questions were expressed technically in the research and development of design and technological hybrids, gadgets and tools, and in academic publications and articles.

Gradually, I distanced myself from functional engagements and focused on the core of the human experience. I found myself researching the essence of interaction itself, present in every array of relations through which we act in the world, such as the interaction between an artist and his craft, between man and land, between life and machine, between animal and its grove, between lover and beloved. And slowly, the forest began to call me, at first faintly, and over time and through a series of encounters, as a voice that cannot be ignored.

Suddenly, I found myself in the middle of my life, embarking on a journey to discover my home. Not a structure of bricks and plaster, but a temple of belonging, love, and connection to the earth. The physical connection I experienced in primary forests is indescribable and unquantifiable; its essence lies in belonging. Mother Earth revealed her treasures to me, structures of light and life, halls where the divine presence is visible, permeating every cell of my body, recruiting me to their service: to learn and research, to teach and share.

The earth calls her sons to return to her embrace. In the current period, where loss is evident both overtly and covertly, I choose to dive into the depths of the forests. I observe the interaction between man and forest as a starting point for harmony, connected consciousness, and the most significant library of nature and creation secrets. Faced with this source, I re-examine perceptions of reality and intellect, creation and engineering, communication, touch, conversation, and love.

I wonder, what can the forest teach us about navigating the digital world? How can we use technology in a way that benefits the entire environment, not just humans? These are the questions guiding me on this journey, in search of ground, connection, and home in a hybrid world.

Albright Grove in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers a rare glimpse into the primeval forests that once covered the eastern United States. This primeval forest serves as a living testament to the complex and delicate balance of a rich, ancient, and undisturbed ecosystem. The Cherokee people, which once inhabited this area, viewed these forests as sacred spaces rich in resources and spiritual meaning. The grove represents a climax community with complex interactions among all components of the ecosystem, and even the hasty visitor cannot avoid discovery.

The life in Albright Grove is incredibly diverse, including black bears, elk, squirrels, woodpeckers, owls, salamanders, and countless insects. Walking through the grove, I am awestruck by the towering presence of tulip poplars (Liriodendron tulipifera). These impressive trees, which can reach heights of up to 50 meters and live for hundreds of years, dominate the landscape. Beyond its many functional uses, the tree is more than just a natural giant; it symbolizes protection and renewal: the tulip poplar echoes my journey to connection and rootedness.

The place is more than a tulip poplar forest. Eastern hemlocks (Tsuga canadensis), with their delicate needles, provide a rich green backdrop, while laurels, with their unique flowers, add touches of color to the forest canopy. White pines (Pinus strobus), standing tall, offer a contrast with their straight trunks and impressive height. Walking in the forest, you pass through groves of tall trees with dark bark, to groves with trees with light bark, like supporting columns to a temple of different colors in the ever-changing forest. We pass through jungle-like areas and open areas, encounter flowers and insects, observe various growths on tree bark, and listen to the echoing bird calls. Beneath the giant trees, fungi play a crucial role in maintaining the forest's health, aiding in decomposition and forming symbiotic relationships with the trees.

On my journey, I seek a heartfelt home, ground, a true connection – a place of belonging and rootedness that goes beyond the physical structure of bricks and plaster, tile roofs, and concrete ceilings, roads, and cars. Albright Grove, with its ancient trees, diverse wildlife, and rich life within it, offers a glimpse into worlds that were and disappeared, worlds from which we came, our natural habitat. Nature reminds us that the answers to our deepest longings are found in the quiet and undisturbed corners of the wild: both external and internal.

Before we leave the grove, a gentle fog creeps in from an unseen source and spreads through the forest, reminding us of the origin of the Smoky Mountains' name. In local tradition, the fog was a mystical element connected to ancestral spirits, through a layer of mystical beauty, a white velvet curtain. The fog mediates between the visible and the hidden, acting as a shield and a portal for purification and new beginnings.

Reflecting on the ancient human inhabitants of these forests, I hear echoes of my own search for belonging within myself. I find comfort and wisdom in these forests, I find connection and belonging. The forest is a teacher and guide: what does harmony feel like? How does our inner animal feel when released to freedom? Is it possible to bring such qualities to navigate our modern world? Can we use our creative abilities to benefit the entire ecological space, the trees, plants, fungi, animals, bacteria, earth, air, and water, and not just ourselves?

As we depart from the grove along the Maddron Bald Trail, our journey culminates in a serendipitous encounter with two Amanita muscaria mushrooms, their distinctive red caps adorned with white spots standing out against the forest floor. This powerful fungus, steeped in shamanic tradition in Eastern European forests, seems to offer a spiritual portal at the threshold of our departure. While the mushroom likely held no special significance for the local Cherokee, possibly due to its rarity in the region, for me it serves as a poignant symbol. This chance meeting weaves together disparate places and traditions, connecting the misty forests of the Smoky Mountains with the mystical practices of distant lands. It's a fitting end to our exploration, reinforcing the idea that forests, regardless of their location, can invite us into deep, mystical interactions with nature, bridging gaps between cultures, times, and ecosystems in an intricate, global network of natural wisdom.


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