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Returning to the Woods

I could not be a poet without the natural world. Someone else could. But not me. For me the door to the woods is the door to the temple.
-Mary Oliver, Upstream

There are times when I desire to get lost. Walk out the back door, climb over the fence and escape the modern world and the humans that inhabit it. I have always been a solitary soul. I spend too much time inside of my head, and without something to observe and attempt to draw conclusions from, I tend to get restless. I can spend hours walking hillsides and valleys looking for nothing in particular. Often I walk along the roadside, jotting down notes if I have pen and paper on me, or try my best to commit something to my faulty memory. My perfect day would involve watching a cliff swallow building a nest under a bridge that crosses the river. Or seeing a young doe hurrying her young across a country road on a late summer evening. What I gather from the earth does not have a market value. It cannot be bought, it cannot be sold. It is there for the taking, but you have to be there, be open and observant to receive the messages, the lessons that the natural world provides. Science, art, literature, philosophy, and religion draw inspiration from the wonders of nature, though all of these disciplines have their own ideas of how it came to be and what it all means. We can take these ideas and throw them against the wall and see which ones stick, or we can simply be present and mindful of our surroundings, and find our own meaning in the leaves and rocks and water. I am an observer of these things-- an observer of life in all of its forms. I have no answers, but I have plenty of questions, and if the day comes when I stop questioning life, I hope to catch a ride on the wind, cross over the river, fade out of this life and into another. And maybe on the other side find more questions to ask.

The natural world has always been the centerpiece of my writing, whether it be poetry, fiction or nonfiction pieces like this. I have stacks and stacks of stories and poems and letters that are not fit to be read by anyone, and I hope they never will be. But if I were to go through all of that work-- all the failed magazine articles, opening chapters of novels that fell apart after twenty pages, dark humor pieces so twisted that I should probably burn them-- there is this common theme. No matter how hard I try, I cannot get away from it. I never set out to be a "Nature" writer, it just happens every time I sit down and scratch something out. I wrote a story recently about a missed connection between an estranged husband and wife, set in a coffee shop in the city, but there it was-- the slate gray sky and the humid smell of grass and the sound of water spouting from the fountains and the impending bad weather, with the lightning streaking from cloud to cloud. The story wouldn't have worked for me if that hadn't been in there. That was just as important to me as the human emotions of loss and hurt and pain was.

When I started writing, I had the idea that with all the world at my fingertips, I would never draw a blank as to what to write about. I learned early on that it wasn't so true. I tried to write magazine articles like the ones I read in Field and Stream and Outdoor Life, but I found out fast how hard that is to do. When I started trying to write fiction, I realized how easy it is to fall flat on the page. I discovered how hard writing was, especially for someone like me who was basically self taught. I had written poetry in some shape or form from the time I discovered Frost and Whitman and Sandburg in English class in high school. I was a struggling guitar player who wasn't very good, but I'd compose something sounding more like a sonnet than a song and try to put music to it in the back room of our house while I was all alone. Even then, the words I wrote were about things I knew, things that were closest to my heart. I wrote verses about the trees and the rivers and the sun breaking the silhouette of a mountain ridge. I wrote a song one time about a coon hound, and to this day, I think it is quite possibly the dumbest thing I have ever heard.

A few years back, I hit some roadblocks on my life's journey. I was right in the middle of my thirties, a time I thought that I would finally start to figure things out. I was making a little headway in my writing, and even though I knew it would never be as good as the writing in the numerous books, magazines and journals I had read over the years, I was as determined as ever. Funny how determination terminates when you hit a brick wall. Up until that point, the only mental illness I had ever faced was the delusions of wanting to be a writer; that, and thinking I was a decent guitar player. But when it hit me, it hit me, and I was powerless against the force of my despair. Among the many things I lost in that dark place, my sense of self had been erased. I didn't know if I would make it through the next day, because along with the black hole of despair came anxiety. I couldn't think of what I wanted to say to my own family in person, much less be creative on the page. Something else that was lost during that time that also attributed to my disassociation with myself was the loss of connection with the natural world. I didn't want to hike or hunt or fish anymore. I didn't even care if I looked out the window at the kids playing outside. My emotions were mixed up, and fear took over in the place of wonderment and my lost sense of adventure.

But from somewhere deep inside of me, this ember was still there, to my surprise, it hadn't been completely snuffed out. It was like after I thought all was lost, God was showing me that I had a part of myself deep down inside that would never die. It didn't happen over night, in fact, it's something that I have had to work on daily, ever since. Gradually, I began to go outside again. Sit among the trees and the ancient rocks. I started back fishing again. Taking a walk in the woods, I found, would clear my mind, even if only for a little while. Every little bit helped. One day I sat down and I started writing again. It wasn't very good, but it was a start. I started taking note of things again, close observation of the tiniest details, and I attempted to write them down. Even when I'd go into restaurants or convenience stores, I'd listen to the language, how different people talked. Sometimes I'd write an overheard conversation down, just to try and get the rhythm of how people talk. I was able to get out of my own head (for a little while) so that I could be present in the life of my family and friends.

 Of all the things I've learned from nature, learning to stop and listen and observe has helped me tremendously over the past few years. The natural world has a way of healing us when medication and a shrink can't. Had I known that the answer to my prayers were right outside my back door, maybe I could have started the healing process months and months before I did. Maybe not. Either way, I'm glad that I have found my way. I have a long way to go, we all do. Life is full of obstacles and trials, and each one of us has our own way of coping. For some it is prayer and meditation, for others, it is exercise and a change of lifestyle. Sad to say, many turn to their addictions just to deal. My approach to wellness-- mentally, physically, and spiritually-- comes from a walk in the woods. A place to sit underneath an oak tree, or on top of Bald Rock, where I can see the the foothills roll away in all directions from the Blue Ridge Escarpment. Time in nature-- even if it is in your own back yard or on an apartment rooftop, watching a vine climbing up the cracks in the brick--is time well spent. My return to the woods has helped me return to myself, and return to my place in the world.


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