On a brilliant afternoon in autumn, without so much as a watch to keep time, I stepped outside the door of my cabin and onto a path in the woods.
Unplugged, disconnected, determined to hold off extraneous distractions, even and especially extraneous thought, I became aware of the sound of my feet crunching through the foliage, and the wind, hurrying more leaves to the ground.
This was not going to be a power walk, guided by target heart rates, distance-per-minute and iPhone playlists. I wanted, instead, to wander, with curiosity my guide.
Deeper and deeper into the Great Lakes woods of north-central Michigan a day’s drive from home and all the people, places and things vying for a woman’s attention, I felt like a wide-eyed child discovering a different world of which I am also a part.
I discovered the ordinary, the strange and the heretofore unnoticed – perfect, snow-white mushrooms hidden among the leaves, their caps like wafers of nonpareils candy. I took note of puffy galls, red as Christmas ornaments, on the stalks of a stand of tall weeds. I considered the many Charlie Brown saplings in the towering forest and marveled at their determination to take their rightful place among the granddaddy pines. Climbing over gnarled, fallen ash, beech, pine and birch, I considered how the dying remains of old trees quickly turn to rich orange – sumptuous compost now for new growth. I took note of moss, lichen and fungi clinging to the bark, like barnacles to a boat, a toddler to her mother. And I remembered how nature likes to mimic nature.
During the two and a half weeks I spent away from home, a gift to myself after launching the last of my three children into college, I rested, watched movies and took photographs. Inside the coziness of a rustic cabin retreat on 200 acres of forestland, I made pots of vegetable soup and colored in one of those mindful drawing books. I also allowed myself to sit with the conflicted heart of a mother whose young adult children are on the hunt now, for new stories, new homes, new chambers in their own hearts. In their meandering vision quests, they are now in, now out, now in the house again. And I am trying to hold steady in the storm.
But it was the woods I came for, the woods that took me back to a time and place a thousand miles and decades away, when wild, spontaneous exploration was my job, when my childhood backyard was big as two football fields, and the South Carolina pine woods behind them, a secret garden of endless imaginings and possibilities.
In the golden autumn of these Michigan woods, far from the social constructs of my ordered life, I remembered what it was to run freely like a child. I sang, like my best friend and I used to, playing along the creek that wound through my neighborhood, pretending we were Maria in “The Sound of Music.” I ran my hand along the top of a squat young pine and, gently bending a twig, called forth a scent, and a memory, when I would lie, daydreaming, on the floor of the treehouse my father built high in the fragrant evergreens of my childhood.
I also cried like a child.
Sitting on a thick carpet of pine needles, I lamented the trappings of modern life that keep us from this world that also surrounds us. I grieved for the land, desecrated and endangered because of this disassociation. More than anything, I wept with remembering. Resting on the face of this venerable earth, these wise, enduring trees making a cathedral ceiling above my head, I was the wandering child now, come home again.
There’s a reason that Thoreau took to the woods, why there are parks systems in this country, why we beg our children to go outside, why Walt Whitman said the secret to being a good person is “to grow in the open air, and to eat and sleep with the earth.”
As for me, I didn’t know precisely why I went to the woods. I didn’t know what I went to find, and why I will likely return.
But then that’s the point, I suppose – and the beauty – of the woods.
I believe they’re finding me.
Debra-Lynn B. Hook of Kent, Ohio, has been writing about family life since 1988. Visit her website at debralynnhook.com; email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or join her Facebook discussion at Debra-Lynn Hook: Bringing Up Mommy.