I believe in the woods. I grew up in a remote part of western New York State. Across the road from our house was a forest that went on for miles. I would come home from school, put on my play-clothes, cross that road, and vanish.
From the time I could walk, I spent countless hours in the woods, usually alone, miles from home. I built tree forts, dammed up creeks, climbed trees, explored, hiked, skied, camped. In the late evenings, from my bedroom window, I would watch the sun going down, the light filtered through branches and leaves. At night, the woods were absolutely black — you could not see your hands six inches in front of your eyes. In winter, they were silent, magical, beautiful, and brutally cold.
I learned a lot.
I learned, first of all, that I was a visitor. I could come and go, but the life in the woods was there before I arrived, and would go on after I left. I could watch, but I couldn’t participate. It wasn’t mine. I couldn’t own it, and I wasn’t supposed to.
I learned that I had to adapt myself to the woods — they weren’t going to adapt to me. I often saw evidence of people who, a hundred years ago, tried to farm the woods — stone walls, ancient remnants of orchards. The people were gone, but the woods were still there. I learned about silence. I learned about being alone. I learned about being independent. I learned about being absolutely, completely free. I could do anything I wanted, and nobody would ever know, or care. Ever. To an eight year-old boy, that’s a magical, powerful concept. I grew up with it.
I experienced things without anyone telling me what it meant, or how I should feel, or what to do next. If I felt like taking an axe with me, and taking down trees and building a cabin, I could. I could start a forest fire. I could go swimming. I could sing, dream, pretend, and I could do it all I wanted.
Today, I’m an adult. I have children. I pay bills, and go to PTA meetings, and carry a cell phone. Yet, I still have the feeling that it’s all kind of ridiculous. Wherever I go, and whatever I do, I carry the memory of the woods with me. That memory sustains me, in the face of some of the frequently frustrating, pointless and silly things about living in a California suburb. Until the day I die, I will know that if I need to, I can always cross the road, again, and just disappear into the woods. I’m not being romantic here — I’ve done it. And when I need to, I still do.
Peter Darling is a marketing consultant specializing in working with law firms. He lives in northern California, and still spends a lot of time outdoors. Darling writes a blog titled Business Development
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