Variations on the ceremony of innocence
For an audio excerpt that picks up part way along a journey into the forests of the Simien Mountains, play the mp3 file on this page.
To set the scene…
The title of this essay is a nod to W.B. Yeats’ “The Second Coming” as post-war life in a place as majestic as Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains yields a similarly complex haze of brutality — and yet also the possibility of rebirth — as that of post-war Europe.
I am led on a walk in the mountains by a guide and a scout,* the latter of whom knows every person, rock and tree in these hills and is perfectly suited to indulge my request to explore what is happening with the local trees.
The story opens with the scout lovingly slaughtering a lamb as a ceremonial greeting for his arriving in-laws.
As we journey through different types of forests — the native heathers that grow old and gnarled where they haven’t been plucked for firewood, the invasive eucalyptus introduced a century early by an emperor keen to combat deforestation, and finally the dark juniper forests planted by a communist dictator who carried out the deadly Red Terror in parallel to his life-affirming treeplanting campaign — I come to deeply appreciate my amazing scout.
He withstood war in his youth and then, right after the war, he watched the beloved forests he was tasked with guarding be razed in an act of vengeful outcry from his own liberated people. Yet he carries on walking tourists through the overgrazed hillsides, pointing out owls and medicinal berries.
In Variations on the ceremony of innocence I come to identify with the slaughtered lamb, seeing the realities of the beautiful national park through different eyes as the days go by, and I am grateful that it is my scout who so gently wields the knife to dismember my ignorance, as his gracious smile reveals an optimism and hope that binds us all.
* Names have been changed given the politically sensitive nature of this content.