Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Always in the Woods

Many years ago I worked at a canoe camp for a few summers. We took teenaged kids, sometimes only a few years younger than ourselves, “on the trail” for a week or two in the BWCA and occasionally further north into the wilds of North Ontario. We’d arrive back at camp worn out but exhilarated by our adventures, take a blistering sauna, enjoy a hearty meal with real meat and real potatoes, and then engage in a ceremonial evening around a fire in the camp’s oldest log structure. On one occasion my fellow counselor (we typically went out in pairs) gave an introductory speech as we sat in the dark in rickety canvas chairs with the light of the fire flickering in our faces. He concluded his little peroration to the campers with the remark, “…so wherever you go in life from this point on, you’ll always be in the woods.”

I can’t say whether it was exhaustion, the utter relaxation brought about by the food and the sauna, or the smoke from the fire, but when I heard those words, “you’ll always be in the woods,” I had to muster every bit of self-control at my disposal not to burst out laughing. The expression “in the woods” (as you probably know) has the same idiomatic sense as “out in left field.” Today we would say that someone who’s “in the woods” is essentially clueless.

That’s not what my friend meant, of course. He was trying to suggest that the experience of being in the woods affects us at an elemental level, giving us a radically different perspective on life, not through brilliant intellectual constructs but viscerally, in ways we can’t describe and seldom feel the need to. Perhaps it’s odd that I should remember that trivial event, but it’s stayed with me like a Zen koan, and I’ve even come to believe that the deepening in perspective that we derive from being outdoors is related to the condition of being clueless—in a good way. I guess the joke’s on me.

During those years when I spent my summers in the North Woods, I also worked at the Bell Museum of National History on the campus of the University of Minnesota. I’d sit on the tile floor in front of those beautiful dioramas of timber wolves, elk, and moose, surrounded by obstreperous grade school kids, one of whom would invariably raise his (or her) hand as if to ask a question, and then say, “My daddy shot one of those.”

I spent some idle hours in the museum's break room with the other guides, too, and discovered that most of them were not much like me. I eventually developed a scheme to describe the varieties of nature-enthusiasm: Some people cultivate a relationship with nature through hunting, fishing, and woodcraft; some satisfy the need to work out-of-doors through scientific research, examining pond samples or charting the growing season of the dwarf trout lily; some enthusiasts see nature largely as a playing field on which to pursue extreme sports; and some take an entirely poetic stance, exploiting nature as an environment within which to probe life’s mysteries in solitude and silence, and perhaps also as a font of metaphor for moral truth.

These approaches are not mutually exclusive, of course. It seems to me that nowadays we sometimes place too much emphasis on ecological analysis, which may leave us with the unpleasant impression that nature will do just fine—just so long as we’re not there. Only rarely do we catch wind, at parks and government-funded nature centers, of the long tradition of reverence toward nature, both poetic and metaphysical, that extends back through time from the Romantic poets of the late eighteenth-century through the Neo-Platonists of the Renaissance to the Pre-Socratic philosophers of ancient times. Not to mention the strain that reaches back in a different but perhaps more interesting direction to the Druids.

Perhaps it’s significant that the word Plato uses to describe the primordial stuff of matter actually means “wood.” (to be continued)

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