At the Edge of the Woods: Why Writers Need Wilderness
The Forest is Full of Stories
Stories live in the woods. Forests are dark, dense places of mystery. It is easy to get lost there: in our minds, on our feet. Writers pine for residencies that put them in the wilderness, with the mountains and water and trees in sight, as an escape from their everyday lives.
“At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things,” Thoreau wrote in Walden, “we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.” We can never have enough of our myths. In “Walking,” Thoreau says “In Literature it is only the wild that attracts us.” That makes me think of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and his pure hymn to the outdoors, “Inversnaid”:
What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be let, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.
Pair those lines with Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s wonderful “The Secret of Soil”:
The secret of soil is that it is alive—
a step in the forest means
you are carried on the back
of a thousand bugs.
I like to think of Nezhukumatathil as our contemporary poet laureate of wonder. Her sense of wonder in the poem begins with “my old encyclopedia set,” a longing for minerals and gemstones that she wanted to consume: “I wanted my mouth to fill / with light, a rush of rind / and pepper.” Her poetry call us to get outside and touch the natural world. That’s a healthy prescription for writers.
A forest spans behind my house. Beyond the shed and the swingset, there’s the treeline, and then the thick woods. Bears emerge, confused. They pace along the high grass, and then settle back into the brush. Deer drift across the lawn. They stare down our miniature dachshund, who barks at them from the deck. His mouth dry, he drinks, and then seems to accept their ghostly presence.
In the distance, vultures make rings around carrion. Closer, purple martins swoop around me while I mow the lawn. They dive for bugs loosed by the tractor. Foxes, nimble and silent during the day, make what sounds like screams in the night.
“I love the woods because I will never fully know or understand what they contain.”
Snow quiets everything. After a good fall, I head into the woods with my wife and daughters. We follow a hunter’s path that ends at his tree stand. After that we head for the stream, given new life by the snow. Ice curls over both sides, and the girls pitch snowballs into the flow.
The stream curls along a slouched chicken-wire fence, leading to a horse farm at one edge of the woods. We watch them walk around the paddock while the snow continues to fall, but the canopy of the woods slows the flakes. They sprinkle down rather than churn.
The same measure of sentimentality that makes me write in the first place makes those trips into the forest an exercise in rejuvenation. I spend my working days in a classroom without windows to the outside world, so to return home is a gift. Sussex County, New Jersey is tucked in the northwest corner of the state, with Pennsylvania on one side, New York on the other. This is not the New Jersey most people know.
When we eat dinner, we look into the woods, and we have always told our daughters stories of bears and caves and sunlight twisting down into a clearing. We have raised them on stories, because that is how we were raised.
The woods breathe life into stories. We think we know what is there, but there are always surprises. During the day, we near the woods without care. At night, the woods are transformed. In the winter months, lights from the horse farm sneak between the bare trees, but during the summer, when the woods are thick, they are like a second world. When our girls ask us what is out there, we have a thousand possibilities of story.
I love the woods because I will never fully know or understand what they contain. Such lack of certainty is healthy for writing. Writers might believe that they are in control because they can string together sentences, but syntax is delusion. We are secondary to this world. We are no match for the wind; we can’t beat the sun.
Why would we try?
Living near the woods has reminded me of the intense and strange power of imagination. If I ever stop wondering about the world—if I ever think I know all of the secrets of the woods—I should stop writing. Until then, I’ll head into the forest, thankful and ready.