There is a certain kinship that my family has always shared with the woods. For us, the woods is like another family member, one who is always there to consul and confer, listen and relieve. In fact, when I think of my Grandfather, the woods is the first image that comes to mind. He devoted countless hours exploring and explaining the features of the forest to my sister and me. We spent every season of our childhood in nature’s classroom: tapping maple trees for syrup in the winter, gathering morel mushrooms in the spring, camping out under the stars in the summer, and hunting squirrels in the fall for his famous soup. He’d make tea out of mulberries, salve out of rosehips, and jam out of wild raspberries. For my Grandpa, the woods provided everything he needed in life, without asking for much in return. But he gave back to the woods nonetheless—he gave his time and his energies, his love and respect.
The woods are a place of refuge for many. For my father, the woods provide an escape route from the modern world with all of its trappings and demands. A businessman by day, forced to travel to the city and socialize with the suits, he hastens to return to the quiet serenity of the tall oaks by dusk. You can gauge his happiness by his proximity to the shagbark hickory trees that cover his property. He’d much rather mingle with the Maples than schmooze with the CEOs. And while it’s been his sanctuary for half a century, it’s played a much larger role than simply a retreat. Just as the woods provided sustenance for my grandfather, it’s also provided a livelihood for my father. When the recession hit hard and my Dad had a family to feed and keep warm, he took to the woods for both. Our freezer was always full of deer steaks and our home was always heated by firewood collected and stacked by his own two hands. While the rest of the world is obsessed with Fitbits and iPhones, skinny jeans and ironic T-shirts, my Dad still prefers the comforts of wool and flannel accessorized by his trusty splitting maul and a muzzleloader.
My husband, too, shares a deep connection to the great outdoors. Sixteen years ago he embarked on a grand adventure—to hike the entirety of the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. Beginning in the spring of 2000, he started a journey that few believed he could finish. Those who travel on this famous path are often given trail names by their fellow hikers as a description of their journey. My husband’s trail name was Darkhorse, a reference to the doubts surrounding his abilities to trek the 2,167 miles in one shot. Six months later and forty pounds lighter, he emerged victoriously from the wilderness of Maine and raised a champagne bottle atop Mount Katahdin, celebrating the end of the Trail and the completion of his mission. I firmly believe that much of his drive and ambition as a father and provider comes from the confidence he gained in conquering the wilderness of his youth. Besides, the countless bears and snakes that crossed his path along the trail were probably a good introduction to the three wild animals he would be responsible for raising later in life.
Following the family tradition, my little brother also counts the woods as his closest friend. He hasn’t attended school on November 15 for as long as I can remember and he’d much rather spend his Spring Break clearing new trails than lying on a beach. I remember coming home from college and waking up to the sound of his little green frog boots walking across the kitchen floor. I’d open my eyes to catch a glimpse of his diaper as he escaped around the corner and through the back door before dawn, armed with a plastic shotgun and headed for the backyard. I’d watch through the window as he’d crouch behind a tree and await the perfect shot at an unsuspecting squirrel. And now, immersed in his teenage years, he still prefers the view from his tree stand to the lights of the big city any day of the week. And, what’s even better is that he frequently allows his little nephew to tag along. Forget the pull of the X-Box and the allure of the iPad, my son gladly leaves them behind every time he has a chance to escape to the timbers. A few weeks ago he spent an entire Saturday blazing his own trail in his Papa’s woods. He is so proud of this new path that he named it Vine Trail, an ode to the plants he had to cut through to clear it. What says seven-year-old boy more than dirty hands and muddy boots earned from a day of work in the wilderness?
Yes, a walk in the woods is good for the soul. Sometimes all a body needs is a bit of fresh air and exercise to clear the cobwebs and reboot the spirit. I felt this regeneration myself last weekend as I took a hike with my family on Easter Sunday. As the cousins raced ahead, each climbing the big hill with their little legs in an attempt to be the first kid to reach the campfire site, the parents followed behind at a more leisurely pace, one that is not possible in the car lined streets of the city. And as the generations all reconvened at the top of the hill, we paused for a moment to take in the beauty all around us. Grandbabies watched quietly as a sandhill crane made its majestic descent across the lake below, and they listened intently as their Papa pointed out the different tracks left by the various woodland creatures that had recently visited the site. In that moment I didn’t miss a single thing from the modern world.
So whether you are looking for a place to roam or a place to belong, the woods will provide. Escape the electronics, plug into nature, and trade in your high heels for hiking boots—I promise you’ll find a much stronger connection than any high speed cable can offer.
(Photo courtesy of Caryn DeFreez Photography)