The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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In 1980, a year after college graduation, I took off on a bicycle ride from Eugene, Oregon, to the town of Florence on the coast, sixty miles away, then north along the Pacific Coast Highway, where the Cascade Mountains meet the sea.
I was not the only bike rider on the highway, and most drivers passed cyclists carefully, though the logging trucks seemed to come a little too close. The smells of the Pacific Ocean on one side of me and the evergreen forests on the other were addictive, and the scenes of rocky beaches, cliffs, sunrises, and sunsets kept me going, though I was often tired and developed saddle sores after the first week. I stopped to talk to other cyclists making similar journeys, sharing stories and a joint or two as we discussed the best locations to set up our tents and portable stoves. I felt a freedom I’d never known before.
One afternoon, looking for a place to sleep, I came across a huge stump, three feet high and fifteen feet across — the remains of a tree that I figured must have been felled at the turn of the century. I could see the notches loggers had cut to insert a springboard — a platform to stand on while sawing a tree by hand.
I leaned my bike against a sapling and walked around the giant stump, feeling the rough, dead bark. The air was rich with the musty odor of the moss that completely covered its top.
I pitched my tent on the stump, the moss making a soft bed. When I pulled myself into my sleeping bag that night, I pictured the tree that had stood there so many years ago, its branches stretching to the sky. I tried to imagine a time when men who cut down trees believed there was an infinite supply. I thought about how little old-growth forest was left in the state and wondered how long it would take to replace what had been lost. I fell asleep to the smells of moss and old wood. It was one of the best nights of my journey.
St. Petersburg, Florida
I grew up on the outskirts of a sleepy town in Germany. It took less than fifteen minutes to walk from our house to the forest. My mother started bringing me there when I was still an infant, packed into a stroller. Later I ambled by her side through the dense canopy of trees.
My favorite part of these excursions was the flowers that appeared in spring and summer: snowdrops, May bells, wood anemones, cowslips. Picking flowers required going off the trail. As I searched underneath trees and in clearings, I thought of Hänsel and Gretel getting lost in the woods. I knew my mother was close by, but the forest still felt like the great unknown. A few steps in the wrong direction and I might be swallowed by the wilderness. When I was a little older, my father pointed out a group of Celtic burial mounds, which solidified my sense that the woods were magical. The border between the familiar and the unfamiliar started just beyond our backyard.
Now I live in Los Angeles, and my kids’ childhoods are very different than mine was. It’s not easy for them to immerse themselves in nature.
One day in late October, my seven-year-old son and I took a stroll in our neighborhood to get away from our computers for a few minutes. We turned onto a shady side street with well-planted lots, and my son asked, “Is this the country? It looks different.”
He jumped up, trying to touch the lower branches of an enormous oak. We found a group of painted stones marking the edge of a garden; one carried the inscription SAFER AT HOME. Under a group of succulents we spotted a herd of miniature plastic dinosaurs seeking shade.
Walking this side street has become part of my son’s pandemic routine. When we arrive, the first thing he does is look for the dinosaurs and the make-believe forest that shelters them.
Los Angeles, California
After a painful breakup I retreated to the woods behind my newly built house. As soon as I reached the spot where the paved road stopped and soft soil began, I felt like I had entered God’s true church. The sound of cars and people faded, leaving only the chirping of birds, the buzz of insects, and the rustle of leaves. As I walked to the rhythm of my breath, I could feel my brow unfurrow, my jaw unclench, my shoulders relax.
I climbed a steep, rocky hill that I came to call simply The Rock. At the top I inhaled the clean air, letting it clear my head. My fury over my partner’s betrayal began to ease.
Reaching a clearing, I ran, swinging my arms at my sides like a child, releasing sorrow and anger from my body.
Every day I took another medicinal hike. Some days I’d don running shoes and sprint up The Rock. As the seasons turned from summer to fall, the burn in my lungs and calves slowly erased the ache in my heart.
By the time the bulldozers reached The Rock, transforming it into four-bedroom McMansions, I no longer mourned my lost lover. Instead I grieved for my woods.
Clayton, New Jersey
Years ago I worked with someone who grew up on an island off the coast of Maine, where I live. The island was dotted with abandoned granite quarries that had filled with springwater and become beloved swimming holes. One of these had a special “dress code”: no swimsuit required. This was before the Internet, when discovering a hidden, clothing-optional swimming hole meant obtaining that secret knowledge from a local. My coworker sketched me a map with rudimentary directions.
One warm July morning I took a ferry to the island, and after walking for an hour I found the path that curved through the woods to a blue-green pool edged by granite outcroppings. I took off my clothes and jumped in. The water was perfectly clear and refreshing, and after my swim I lay on a warm, flat stone, gazed up at the blue sky, and imagined this was what Eden must have felt like.
For twenty years I returned to this spot every summer and met other regulars like me. Each time I felt the thrill of discovery and the generosity of people sharing nature this way. Then, last summer, as I turned off the main road onto that path through the trees, I saw the sign: NO TRESPASSING.
Michael R. Tucker
In 1971 I was fired from my teaching job because of my stance against the Vietnam War. Every time I applied for another position, my former chairman would tell the new school not to hire me. Unemployed, broke, and depressed, I retreated to the family farm.
At that time industrial corn and soybean production was taking over the Midwest, and our cows were no longer profitable. I sold off the cattle and was left with two hundred acres of forest that had been abused by decades of overgrazing. That spring and summer I cleared brush and planted thousands of trees. In the process I found not only peace of mind but the courage to move forward with my life.
Today, at the age of eighty, I walk through that forest and talk to the trees I planted, now thirty to forty feet high. I say, “Thank you.” They answer, No problem, brother.
One night last summer, the fire crew I work for was tasked with a huge operation: lighting up an entire mountainside in California’s Lassen National Forest to halt the progress of a wildfire. We reached the summit at sunset and started burning our way back down as night fell.
The forest floor was treacherously steep and tinder dry. As I made my way back and forth across the mountainside, I could see the fire I’d lit uphill rising into the canopy of the conifers, casting near-daylight illumination. This was not the low-intensity, understory burn we were aiming for. But we had to finish before daybreak, when the wind would pick up and move the main fire toward us, and we’d lose our window of opportunity. We carried on.
Before long, carrying around seventy pounds of tools, fuel, and gear began to take a toll. As fatigue set in, the forest began to feel hostile, even evil. My arms were numb from swinging my torch, my ankles threatened to fold with every step, and my nostrils and eyes streamed and burned from smoke. The dense trees lower on the hillside were filled with cobwebs that clung to my face. As I was pushing through a clump of fir saplings, I suddenly saw a spider so enormous that at first I thought it was a toad caught in a web. For the rest of the night I held my torch in front of my face despite my leaden arms.
Our effort was rewarded in the morning with a rare and precious stay in a hotel. I collapsed onto the bed, but before I fell asleep I was momentarily distracted by the art on the wall of my room. It seemed avant-garde, trippy even, a jumble of strange shapes and colors, somehow familiar yet unrecognizable.
In the afternoon I woke up and realized the strange pictures were photographs of a forest. I felt supremely unsettled by my brain’s recent inability to process the images. I went back to sleep, and all night my dreams were a shadowy reel of fir boughs and hulking cedars and the grasping arms of manzanitas tugging at my shoulders, brushing my face, obscuring my vision.
South Lake Tahoe, California
My eldest daughter participated in a Jewish coming-of-age program that challenged adolescents with “edge” outdoor experiences like tending a fire all night alone. The first event was a parent-child camping trip in the Santa Cruz Mountains. On Shabbat (Saturday) afternoon, the parents had a few hours of free time. I chose to take a walk in the forest to relax.
I did everything I shouldn’t have done: I didn’t tell anyone where I was going. And I didn’t take any water or food or a phone. (But I did bring my book.) I tromped up the hill to a beautiful ocean overlook. When I started to head back to the campsite, I soon realized I was not on the right path. I panicked. I tried to find my way back, but all the trees looked similar, and I was quickly lost.
That’s when I did something else I shouldn’t have: I started to run. Though I knew the campground was near the top of the mountain, I ran downhill. The path finally hit a road, and I frantically waved at passing cars. The very nice people inside waved back and drove on. Finally a beat-up truck pulled over. I breathlessly told the young driver my predicament, and he kindly drove me around until I recognized a landmark and we found the camp.
By the time I got back, it was dark, and the group was just starting to eat dinner. Nobody had noticed that I had been gone. Though I had made it back unscathed, I couldn’t stop thinking about all the what-ifs. I felt both very lucky and very, very stupid.
Like my daughter, I, too, had an “edge” experience that trip.
San Rafael, California
In 1955, when I was ten, my family moved to an Oregon farm so green that moss grew on the front steps of the house. My first encounter with the woods was a stand of Douglas firs out past the pig pasture. I was afraid of the dark, dank spaces between the tall trees, and so I steered clear, gazing from a safe distance. I had read fairy tales of creatures that lived in the woods and would get you if you entered.
Sixty-five years later I live on a Douglas-fir farm. Tall trees cover our hundreds of acres. The forest floor is a carpet of sword ferns, mosses, lichen, and assorted mushrooms.
Over the years we have engaged in the logging and replanting of thousands of trees. I’ve never gotten used to the sound of chain saws and the thunderous crash of trees falling at logging time. I know the trees communicate somehow, and surely they mourn the sudden deaths of their companions of the last forty to seventy years. Unable to run, they have to hope the chain saw will pass them by, but of course it does not. These days logging means clear-cutting. Afterward the woods are altered for decades. The ferns cry for shade, and the red-tailed hawks scream overhead, looking for last year’s nesting site.
The felled trees are taken to the mill, where huge saws slice them into lumber. And for what? I get a check — big or small, depending on the amount the mill pays per thousand board feet that week. The money goes into the bank, then comes out again to pay for the logging, hauling, replanting, and taxes, with a few dollars left over. Why is money more important than live trees that give us oxygen, shade, beauty, soil stabilization, and animal habitats? I am left with a graveyard to gaze upon. I rationalize that the trees were going to die soon and had to be harvested; that trees are just a crop, like strawberries. And isn’t the sunlight I can now see over the stumps lovely?
The woods should have been scared of me in 1955, not the other way around.
Scotts Mills, Oregon
When I was seventeen and studying abroad, a group of university mates and I went on a road trip through Mexico. We jumped off waterfalls in Jalisco, sunbathed on the nude beaches of Guerrero, and nibbled on spiced crickets in Oaxacan markets.
One day we stopped at a reserve in Michoacán to catch a glimpse of the monarch-butterfly migration. As we hiked through the reserve, the terrain gradually changed from open fields to dense forest with pine needles and moss coating the trail. We slowed down, taking in the stillness, the cool air, and the cathedral of towering trees overhead. It was such a contrast to the activity and heat we had become accustomed to. It was also the first time I started to long for home and the rain and green forests of Washington State.
I was the youngest member of the group and wanted to seem independent, so I kept these thoughts to myself. Much to my surprise, my friends began reminiscing about their own forests, from the humbling redwoods of California to the deciduous trees of France. Despite being from vastly different regions, we all suddenly felt at home in those woods.
San Juan Islands, Washington
Just outside Mesa, Arizona, is a sign: ENTERING TONTO NATIONAL FOREST.
I used to chuckle and point it out to visitors and friends. It’s not that the sign is wrong — it does, in fact, mark the boundary of Tonto National Forest. It’s just that I was a recent transplant from New England, and the sunbaked desert grassland dotted with rocks and spindly ocotillo shrubs couldn’t have been farther from my idea of a forest. The only wood anywhere nearby was the post that sign was nailed to.
I might have continued laughing at the sign if not for a hip injury that forced me to slow my runs to a hiking pace. I found myself noticing details of the landscape I’d missed before. Each bush — fuzzy cholla, saguaro, hackberry — housed birds: blue-throated hummingbirds, belted kingfishers, phainopeplas, and dozens of others. Some sat quietly in protected spots; others sang. The hummingbirds darted around with no more than a moment of inactivity. None of them seemed upset about the lack of trees.
It took me years to move beyond the idea of a forest as a verdant canopy and see this burnt-looking golden landscape as a thriving, diverse ecosystem. I still point out the sign to visitors, but not as a punchline. If they seem confused by the lack of trees, I pull over at the next trailhead and take them for a walk through the forest, watching, listening, hoping they have more imagination than I once did.
Carson City, Nevada
For the past two months I’ve been working on a tree-cutting crew for Anchorage’s Parks and Recreation Department. It’s a temporary job funded by the CARES Act: putting chain saws in the hands of the unemployed. We’ve been cleaning up the forests, taking down dead spruce trees so they don’t become tinder for wildfires. We cut the felled trees into logs and drop loads of free firewood in neighborhoods all over the city. Community members are grateful for it. Some enterprising folks turn around and sell the wood to make a little extra money.
My workday starts at 7 AM. Our crew stands in a circle to receive work assignments from our foreman. It reminds me of the huddles before my high-school soccer games, except now I’m thirty-two and the only woman in a group of men.
This morning we drive to our location for the day, a park on the south side of town, situated on a bluff bordering a protected estuary where sandhill cranes nest in the summer and beluga whales swim offshore. At this time of year it is all ice and snow. We park and wait in our trucks until 10 AM, when it’s light enough for us to work.
It’s a gift to watch the sunrise slowly replace the darkened sky: black becomes indigo, then a pale winter’s day.
While spending the summers of my youth in Maine, I often heard others describe nature as their church. I longed for the forest to turn me into someone outdoorsy like them, weathered and unafraid. I returned to the wilderness countless times and even trained as a guide in my twenties, in hopes of achieving a Zen-like state that would relieve the anxiety and panic I felt in my everyday life.
That transformation never came. For me, to be in the woods is not to be at ease; it’s to be on edge, constantly aware that I’m one of countless creatures who are trying to stay alive for as long as they can.
My anxiety at least feels natural in a place that rewards alarm with survival. After years of returning to the forest, I cherish being someplace where I can be afraid without wondering why.
My dog Beezus turns left through the trees while her companion, Marley, walks on his leash by my side. Both have arthritis. We have hiked these woods together every morning for five years, but these days the dogs can handle only an hour or so before it’s time to head home for breakfast.
I have three teenagers and my partner is working remotely, so I am never home alone. I hadn’t realized how much I valued working in a quiet house until it was taken away by people running to the printer, telling me about TikTok videos, or waiting until the minute I get on a work call to ask questions. I cannot answer e-mails during breakfast or write during lunch because someone is always there, needing to talk to me.
We are all healthy as of this writing. We have food. We have Internet access. My county has given me a way to be helpful by assisting our most vulnerable neighbors, a privilege I never take for granted. And yet there is no space in my head. I have grown forgetful. My own thoughts are crowded out by OPF: Other People’s Feelings.
This hour in the woods is my only time alone, and I take it even on days of twelve-degree weather. When I get home, there will be someone who is sad, someone who is pretending not to be lonely, someone who wants to tell me a riddle, someone who informs me I’m mean even while asking me for help — an endless conveyor belt of need in my home, my county, this world.
In the woods I step off that belt, if only for an hour.
My son has autism. When he was in middle school, his father and I signed him up for the cross-country team, one of the few sports in the public-school system that welcomes all comers.
At some point nearly every cross-country racecourse goes through the woods, and spectators lose track of the runners. Everyone anxiously awaits the first sign of the leader emerging from the woods, followed by the chasers, still hoping for their shot to pull ahead. After that comes the bulk of the runners, referred to as the “pack.” Many minutes later come the stragglers, who are doing well just to finish. My son, who has no competitive instinct, was always a straggler — often last or next to last. So I never got too excited when the first runners appeared from the woods. We were just thrilled he was getting exercise and being part of a team.
At a meet halfway through the season, I was standing on the sidelines, chatting with another mom when the lead runners came out of the woods. Eventually came the pack. I eyed the group lazily, knowing I had minutes more to wait. Then, to my astonishment, I spotted my son right there in the middle!
“My son’s in the pack!” I shouted, tears welling up in my eyes.
“Mine is, too!” the other mother said.
I wanted to convey to her the enormity of this moment for us and all the struggle that had come before, but instead I smiled and enjoyed the feeling of being a mom whose child was like any other.
My liaison with him began in a campground in the Pacific Northwest, where our families vacationed together each summer. Amid the days of hiking and kayaking and the nights of sipping whiskey and singing campfire songs, we developed a mutual admiration.
Together with our partners and children, we’d spend weekends exploring caves and trails, but occasionally we’d find ourselves alone in the woods, sharing a deeper conversation. Several years into these gatherings, he began kissing the crown of my head before heading to his family’s tent in the evening.
As the years passed, those kisses slowly evolved into excuses to gently touch each other — his hand on the small of my back, mine grazing his abdomen. Our trips to the woods together became more frequent, stolen moments away from the realities of our lives.
Our last few hikes together were punctuated by text messages and missed calls from his partner. I was beginning to think our attachment was little more than midlife-crisis escapism.
When my father died, we spent the night together in the forest, but we were lying to ourselves and to each other.
I don’t escape into the woods anymore.
Fifty years ago, when I was in graduate school and my wife was a public-school teacher, we bought a twenty-acre plot of wooded land in the rolling hills of southern Indiana. Before we forked over the five-hundred-dollar down payment, we discovered on the property a century-old, dilapidated log cabin still sturdy enough for restoration.
When summer vacation arrived, we set up a tent to live in and began work on restoring the cabin, inviting our friends to visit and perhaps give us a hand with cleaning a log, framing a window, or clearing overgrowth.
We would build a campfire on most nights, and those who came to help often stayed. Our conversations ranged from jobs (or the lack thereof), to the war in Vietnam (which had every man our age living in fear of being drafted), to dreams for the future. Our camaraderie and the natural beauty of the woods offered some reprieve from anxiety.
As these evening gatherings grew, people brought food and drink to share: Shelley’s Irish soda bread, John’s home brew. Muscular Bill, who made heaving logs look easy, shared his homemade desserts.
The locals turned out to be helpful as well. Hilda, who ran the hardware store, was a saint with her advice, but only if we adhered to the local custom of sharing a little gossip before doing business. She even gave us leftover roofing shingles. An architect friend designed our multicolored roof, which became a local landmark. At the sawmill the sawyers taught us which was the down side of a board and why we should know the difference. Even the guy from the rural electric co-op came by after hours.
Especially important were the old men who gathered daily on the bench in front of the courthouse. We’d been told they knew the secret recipe for log preservation and needed to be approached with humility. After several days of saying hello, we mustered the courage to ask about it. The answer: half paraffin oil and half creosote.
By the end of the summer we had a rustic but livable log cabin and a wide circle of friends and acquaintances: aspiring potters, carpenters, architects, painters, writers. Those friendships have endured, even in these days of COVID, when our interactions are frequently on Zoom. At some point our conversations always return to that time in our lives, the days of meaningful work and the nights breaking bread around a campfire in the woods.
F. Richard Thomas
Las Cruces, New Mexico
My job as an outdoor-education leader hardly paid anything. I was running low on cash for Christmas presents, so my mother suggested my present could be to give our family a guided nature walk in the woods.
On Christmas Day seven of us donned snowshoes and headed for the trail. I showed my family the “flat, friendly” needles of firs and the “spiky, square” ones of spruce. I pointed out elk-antler rubbings and fox tracks. While I had them distracted with hot drinks and snacks, I scampered down the trail to find some snowshoe-hare prints. I pulled a small bag from my pocket and emptied it by the tracks. Then I headed back to the group.
When we reached the hare’s prints, I pointed them out and exclaimed, “Look, there’s scat, too!”
They gathered around as I knelt to examine the pile, explaining that the scat could tell us how long ago the hare had passed through. I picked up a piece between my thumb and forefinger. “Fresh!” I declared as my family groaned.
“What’s also interesting,” I continued, “is that you can tell what the animal has been eating.” My family started to back away as I pulled apart the piece of scat and reported finding grasses and berries inside.
Then I told them how to determine if the hare was a female or a male. “See, there’s a musky taste to the scat of a male. . . .” I popped a piece into my mouth and chewed thoughtfully. My father started hitting me on the back and yelling, “Spit that out, Son!”
Laughing, I told them the truth: they were chocolate-covered raisins.
Twenty-five years later my family still hikes together in the woods occasionally, and when someone sees scat on the trail, they always joke, “Keep moving, or Gregg will end up eating it!”
“Granite” Gregg Cruger
The residential areas in Olympia, Washington, are punctuated with greenbelts — patches of forest with creeks and wetlands. I live in one of eight condos next to a greenbelt.
When my husband and I first moved in, I wanted to walk in the woods, but neighbors told us there were homeless people living there — or “houseless people,” as I’ve learned to call them. When winter came, we could see their tents through the trees. Olympia has many such encampments. A group named Just Housing Olympia (JHO) advocates for the city and property owners to let houseless people be and works with local groups to provide for their basic needs.
Several students from the nearby college lived in one of our condo units, and they befriended a few of the houseless people in the woods and invited some of them in. Neighbors feared that these guests would steal and do drugs. They put up NO TRESPASSING signs on our access road. I felt stuck in the middle — sympathetic toward the houseless people, but afraid to lose our privacy and safety.
I knew Tye, the coordinator of JHO, through my local peace-and-justice group, and she offered to bring my housed and houseless neighbors together to talk about how to coexist. Instead of taking her up on it, I donated money and a tent to JHO.
At the end of the summer there was a fire in our woods. Luckily the fire department put it out quickly. The houseless encampment was suddenly empty. I texted Tye, who found the people and said they were unhurt and would be back soon. My neighbors just rolled their eyes. I met with a concerned-citizens group, and we put together an effort to collect fire extinguishers, large boxes of baking soda, and propane stoves for safe cooking. JHO distributed them to the people in the encampments.
Because of COVID-19 there is an eviction moratorium in Washington, but when it ends, I’m told, we can expect many more people in our woods, because they have no money to pay their rent. I want to get involved in working for affordable housing, to give people other options besides living in encampments, but I still don’t feel safe enough to walk in the woods.
Jean Gant Delastrada
Throughout my childhood I found refuge among the oak, the cedar, and the pitch pine, creating my own little world beneath their branches. Then, in my mid-twenties, I found myself in a long-term, long-distance relationship that had lost its spark. I was unhappy and lonely but still loved the man deeply.
One June weekend I visited an old friend who lived alone in a small cabin he’d built with his two hands. He and I got lost together in our own little world beneath the oak, the cedar, and the pitch pine. We built fires, swam in rivers, identified birds by their songs, and shared heartaches and a blanket beneath a blue-black solstice sky.
When I left, I was wracked with guilt for having shared such an intimate weekend with this man. Though our encounter had been mostly innocent, the emotional bond we’d shared was undeniably profound. I was left unsure of who the “real” me was: this woman clinging to a strained relationship, or that untethered girl among the trees, returned to the world of her youth.
When I was in high school, my family moved to the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. I had lived in more-arid eastern Oregon for many years and was used to trekking easily through open forest without underbrush blocking my progress. The towering trees and thick, mossy undergrowth near our new home seemed suffocating to me. “How does anyone walk through all of this?” I asked, rubbing my allergy-swollen eyes as I passed clump after clump of hay-fever-causing daisies.
Many years have passed since my introduction to these old-growth forests, and I have learned to appreciate their beauty. Hiking the cool, fern-lined trails is now a pleasure. I find peace in the dappled shade, the breathtaking vistas from the tops of the ridges, the mountains towering above me. I thrill in the discovery of the first trilliums and lady’s slippers of spring. I sit by the streams and waterfalls and let my mind wander.
On September 8, 2020, my tranquil woods became part of the largest wildfire in Oregon’s history. My house was spared, unlike dozens belonging to friends, family, and neighbors, but I can no longer find peace in the forest. The burned trees have been cut down and hauled away, leaving bare, black scars everywhere I turn.
Nature will heal, but I will not live long enough to see her full beauty return. Neither will my children. Though heartbroken, I will learn to love this new landscape, just as I came to love the old one.
Mill City, Oregon
When my father passed away, I was out doing what I loved most: hiking. I had flown from my home in California to Washington State for a ten-day expedition deep into the woods, to a wonderful hot spring I had discovered on a previous trip. When my father died suddenly, no one could reach me.
I wasn’t at all close to my father, who was a distant, unemotional man. I also avoided my unbalanced, toxic mother. I’d had minimal contact with them since graduating from college. To this day I could not come up with more than a couple of sentences to describe my father.
When my trip ended, the friend who picked me up at the airport in San Francisco told me what had happened. I immediately booked a flight to Massachusetts, where my extended family lived. My brother and an aunt, both in tears, met me when I arrived. When I didn’t cry, I think they thought I was in shock, but the reality is that my father’s death just did not affect me deeply. I had not loved him, and his passing did not seem tragic. He was eighty and in good health until the end. My mother was in an Alzheimer’s ward and did not recognize him anymore, so his demise would not upset her.
I went through the funeral without mourning. From the cemetery I drove forty miles to Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond. It is not a particularly beautiful pond as ponds go, but it’s important to me. My first and only dog learned to swim there, and in college I used to go skinny-dipping there at night. I still read Walden every year. As I walked contemplatively around the pond, it occurred to me that, as far as I knew, my father had never walked by a pond or through a forest in his life. I think he would have considered it a waste of time.
That any man could live eighty years without the experience of hiking through the woods seemed so tragic to me that I knelt on the ground and cried.
At the prison where I am incarcerated I work in the laundry for twenty-eight cents an hour. Every day on my lunch break I stand patiently in line with a hundred other men to receive a bag containing two vacuum-sealed packages of bologna, four slices of bread, and a green apple. Sometimes in the bottom of the bag I find a half-baked, semisweet lump of flour that I’m told is a cookie.
There are two options for where to spend my thirty-minute lunch: in the break room amid never-ending arguments over LeBron James, or who held the title of the biggest cocaine dealer in Durham, North Carolina, during the eighties, or who killed Tupac; or outside at the picnic table with a group of men colorfully describing their attitude toward the guards. When the weather is nice, this is where I usually go.
Thirty yards from our seating area stands a small patch of pine, poplar, and birch trees with long, hairy vines wrapped around their trunks. There is nothing dense about these woods. In the winter, when the trees’ limbs are bare, brake lights wink between them like fireflies. Yet they are surprisingly full of life.
The other men and I roll the bread from our lunches into balls that we hurl over the perimeter fence in hopes of luring wildlife to the edge of the woods. To date a red fox, two smoky-eyed raccoons, a young deer, and a bird have accepted our meager offerings.
For thirty minutes every day I get lost in those woods. I stay silent and simply look. I’ve learned to identify a squirrel’s nest. I’ve trained my eyes to spot auburn-breasted hawks perched in the high limbs.
Sometime during my break, the drone of dryers and washers will fade to a whisper. The fences will vanish. And I’ll feel free. I am here in the woods, waiting for that moment to arrive.
Clinton, North Carolina
After a decade-long break, I recently renewed my subscription to The Sun. The July 2021 issue arrived the same day as two other magazines I subscribe to. I scanned the contents of those — parenting advice, vaccine denialism, Congressional horse-trading, popstar lawsuits, a profile of Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Nothing of interest to me, but I would likely feel compelled read it so as not to be “out of touch.”
Then I picked up The Sun with the Readers Write on “The Woods.” Though I grew up in a heavily forested part of the U.S., I now live in a coastal city. I like where I live, but I miss the shaded, leafy countryside of my childhood. Reading others’ accounts of their experiences with the woods was as refreshing as going on a walk there myself. Feeling gratitude at being let through the gates of others’ memories, I sat, contented, among my people again.