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… says Malcolm Lowry’s autobiographical narrator in his story, The Forest Path to the Spring, and he’s right; but useful only if a writer can narrate the man’s experience well.

You know UD as a mad lover of Lowry’s despairing novel, Under the Volcano. She admires just as much the totally different Forest Path, an extended meditation on happiness.

Like Lowry during the 1940’s, the narrator is an artist who lives as a squatter in a shack on the water in Dollarton, Canada. He writes a strange story, with no real plot beyond a spiritual one which traces, through his general love of nature and his particular daily ritual of carrying a water canister through the forest to a spring, his recognition of the character of happiness.

A long story like this one, with little event, has to carry you along on the strength of its mood and language, and Lowry’s open-hearted, earth-besotted prose accomplishes this from the outset. (Another great example of this sort of story is Katherine Anne Porter’s Holiday.) We are accompanying a man whose mood is happy, first, because the woman he loves is with him and loves the water and forest and sky as much as he does. And he’s also happy because, engrossed in natural life, he suspends his customary anxious self-consciousness.

His awareness is overwhelmingly of the earth, the “ever reclouding heavens” which, when they finally clear at evening, reveal a stand of pines that “write a Chinese poem on the moon.”

Awareness itself – this astoundingly sharp perception of the natural world – is a symptom of his happiness, one that he sees too in his lover:

[I]t was … her consciousness of everything that impressed me …

“Joy,” wrote Simone Weil, “is the overflowing consciousness of reality.” That overflow is what the writer gathers when he goes to the spring. “Ah the pathos and beauty and mystery of little springs and places where there is fresh water near the ocean… [S]uch happiness… was like what is really meant by freedom, which was like the spring, which was like our love, which was like the desire to be truly good.”

The writer says the same thing at the end of his long story as he remembers his years in Dollarton:

[I]t was as if we were clothed in the kind of reality which before we saw only at a distance…

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Burdened, to be sure, by thoughts of the war in Europe (“The shadow of the war was over everything. And while people were dying in it, it was hard to be really happy within oneself. It was hard to know what was happy, what was good. Were we happy, good? Or, being happy at such a time, what could one do with one’s happiness?”), and, more immediately, by the gradual encroachment of the nearby city into his paradise, the writer nonetheless spends most of his time moving unselfconsciously through the natural world and reflecting upon that world.

His little community of fragile shacks and penurious squatters represents

something that man had lost, of which these shacks and cabins, brave against the elements, but at the mercy of the destroyer, were the helpless yet stalwart symbol, of man’s hunger and need for beauty, for the stars and the sunrise.

Part of the answer to the question of happiness has to do with the realization here of the perilousness, the jerry-built vulnerability, of oneself even as you brave the elements of mortal life. Part will have to do with – despite this – fashioning your life as “a continual sunrise… a continual awakening.”

An ideal of all-transcending serenity flickers occasionally in these pages – “the Tao… came into existence before Heaven and Earth, something so still, so changeless, and yet reaching everywhere, and in no danger of being exhausted…” – but the writer knows that he exists confused, in a human world of suffering. Like Thoreau, he also knows the extremity of his human-world-estranging gesture:

Often I would linger on the way and dream of our life. Was it possible to be so happy? Here we were living on the very windrow of existence, under conditions so poverty-stricken and abject in the eyes of the world they were actually condemned in the newspapers, or by the Board of Health, and yet it seemed that we were in heaven, and that the world outside – so portentous in its prescriptions for man of imaginary needs that were in reality his damnation – was hell.

He can’t keep his own hell off the forest path to the spring, though, and another part of happiness is somehow admitting into this new lucid consciousness one’s own ugliness:

Half-conscious I told myself that it was as though I had actually been on the lookout for something on the path that had seemed ready, on every side, to spring out of our paradise at us, that was nothing so much as the embodiment in some frightful animal form of those nameless somnambulisms, guilts, ghouls of past delirium, wounds to other souls and lives, ghosts of actions approximating to murder, even if not my own actions in this life, betrayals of self and I know not what, ready to leap out and destroy me, to destroy us, and our happiness…

These theatrics, though, these anticipated beasts, weren’t really what his unfolding spiritual life was about:

I became convinced that the significance of the experience lay not in the path at all, but in the possibility that in converting the very cannister I carried, the ladder down which I climbed every time I went to the spring – in converting both these derelicts to use I had prefigured something I should have done with my soul… [As] a man I had become tyrannized by the past, and… it was my duty to transcend it in the present.

Those derelict objects – his own dereliction – would not be rejected, avoided, denied, made ghoulish; they would be made useful in the capture of something beautiful.

Having, on the path, encountered and to some extent calmed these ghouls, the writer enters into a lucid stillness in which

I dreamed that my being had been transformed into the inlet itself… so that I seemed to contain the reflected sun deeply within my very soul, yet a sun which as I awoke was in turn transformed … into something perfectly simple, like a desire to be a better man, to be capable of more gentleness, understanding, love –

It is the same selfless stillness that Norman Maclean describes at the end of A River Runs Through It:

Like many fly fishermen in western Montana where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.

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The Dollarton shacks. Long bulldozed; now aestheticized.

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