I have been a bad tree-herder this past month. For weeks now, the weather has been gray, chill, gloomy rain. The weather forecasts have taken on a certain monotony: “And in tomorrow’s forecast, we predict… rain! Followed by showers, and then a chance of… rain!”
But it is green out there, and though I didn’t make it out for my walk this afternoon, tonight at twilight, I went back into my woods.
(I say, “my woods.” Of course, even if I did hold legal title to them, it would be far more accurate to describe me as “their girl.”)
It was darker under the canopy of leaves than it was out in the yard. But the path is very clear near my house, and I wasn’t afraid of getting lost. A little afraid of a close encounter with a bear or a fisher-cat, either of which might haunt those woods in the near-dark, but also hopeful that, after months of seeing nothing but their wedge-print tracks, I might finally spy a deer again. (Even after one ate one of my baby apple trees, I did not see it. Only the aftermath.)
Under the leaves it was far more humid than in the rest of the world, almost a hothouse steam. Ferns had grown up almost to my waist in the weeks since my last walk, and with all the trees in full leaf now, the forest bears about as much resemblance to the woods of winter as an oil painting does to a charcoal sketch. Same shapes… but nothing like the same emotion.
There were birds, of course. A cardinal flew past me in a brilliant flicker, and I could a woodpecker high over my head. The little stream is flowing briskly, and I wonder–what is it about the sound of running water that has such power over human hearts?
And then, there was the smell. After weeks living in the human world, surrounded by human smells of cooking–or even of mown grass and gardens–it was as if I were rediscovering the entire sense of smell. Earth. Water. Leaves… but more than that, the smell of a whole ecology, a neighborhood of living things, of a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
I have heard it said that there are chemicals in healthy soil that act as anti-depressants on human beings, and that can maintain our health. I cannot doubt it. Last year I suffered from a painful and fairly disabling back injury, and for months I could not sit without pain, or lie for very long. Walking, even with a cane, was the only way to truly ease my pain, and I walked everywhere–the long hallways in the school where I teach, all the streets and sidewalks of the neighborhoods near my home. But I noticed then, and I do not think it was imagination alone, that it was walking in the woods that gave the most relief.
Something in us longs to be part of the natural world, woven into the balanced whole.
Nothing I have done all week has been as heartening as my twilight walk.
When I emerged again from the tunnel of the woods path, I sat for a while, perched at the edge of my garden. I had not seen a single deer–or a bear, or heard or seen any sign of an animal larger than a squirrel or a bird. But as I set beneath the darkening sky, listening to the last of the spring peepers and the first of the summer crickets, watching bats drawing their irregular circles in the air above me, I was content. Mosquito-bitten, and with a hitch-hiking tick I discovered when I got home, but content.
I have a woods–or they have me. And if it is not always dramatic or problem-free to belong to a place, still, it is what my heart requires.