November 19, 2017


Finally Seeing the Forest for the Trees : After a spate of trauma and loss, Maura Kelly retreats to the Hudson Valley where she is converted into a nature person. (Maura Kelly | Longreads | November 2017, Longreads)

Growing up in suburban New Jersey, I never got the whole nature thing. In my middle-class town, surrounded by neatly engineered housing developments, the little "nature" I knew was unnatural. The grass of the boxy lawns, stripped of dandelions, shined a uniform pesticide green. The most memorable tree of my youth lived like a caged beast in an indoor shopping mall; Shel Silverstein would've wept to see it, imprisoned between the food court escalator and a fake waterfall with wishful pennies glittering on its floor. In my state, even the ocean was tainted; the beaches of the Jersey Shore were a riot of oversized umbrellas and slick men in banana hammocks blasting their boomboxes. One summer, so much trash washed up on the sand that it made headlines, hypodermic needles and all. The Garden State, so-called, but it wasn't exactly Eden. Since I never went to summer camp, since my parents had no country hideaway, I was a kid who thought the Great Outdoors wasn't all that great. A tree by any other name was just as boring as every other tree.

All that began to change slowly during my undergraduate years in a postcard-perfect New England town. There I began to understand how beautiful nature could be. I still didn't want to commune with it or anything. (Camping seemed like a fantastically bad idea; why anyone would want to sleep on the cold hard ground in a place without a proper toilet was beyond me.) But the trees surrounding my campus and the mountains around my college town pleased my eye in a way that was new to me. There, in New Hampshire, I also went on the first hikes of my life. But despite my burgeoning Romantic sensibility, I saw those excursions up the mountain as little more than a chance to exercise while hanging out with friends. As for opportunities to stop and smell the pine needles, I was determined to avoid them. All I wanted was to rush to the top of Mount Cube and race back down again -- fast enough to burn some calories -- and I got annoyed when anyone tried to slow me down to ooh-and-ah over some dumb mushroom. [...]

One sticky day, I was jogging along a well-shaded stretch of blacktop when I noticed, on the rough trunk of a big red maple, a white slap of paint. A "blaze," a trail marker. Wasn't it? But no, it couldn't be. Because there was no trail anywhere around here. Or was there?

Looking closer, I saw it: a wide path there at the foot of the maple. I doubt I would've even stopped except that I'd been thinking for days how I should try to find an unpaved road where I could run. My knees were feeling squeaky, and dirt is easier on your joints than asphalt. Trying to make up my mind about whether I should try the trail, I treaded water, jogging in place, not wanting to sacrifice my elevated heart rate. But even just standing at the start of the trail, the cloud of colder air hovering around the trees was so deliciously cool that I had to dive in.

Because this path was so easy to miss, so vaguely marked as to be almost invisible, I expected it to be some skimpy thing. Surely, the wooded area I'd happened into could not be all that thick or deep; otherwise, it would be marked by a signpost and a dirt parking spot for cars. And yet, it sure seemed thick and deep. Fantastically tall trees were all I could see stretching ahead of me, and to my left and right. No more than a few minutes in it became clear that a vast wilderness was indeed hidden away right there, just beyond the road lined with wild raspberries where I jogged every morning. This alternate world that sprung up out of nowhere astounded me. I suddenly understood how a storyteller might conjure up a book like The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.

After a few minutes' jogging, I glanced back to where I'd begun and saw that the road had utterly vanished, swallowed up by verdant foliage. How strange, that I could so quickly leave behind what seemed like the whole world. It scared me a bit. And the path was so rocky and uneven, too, that I worried I'd twist an ankle. I hurried back to the safety of the road to finish my jog. Still, I'd seen enough of that Narnia that I had to see more, so I returned that night a couple hours before sunset, to take it slow and explore.

The trail went up, over, down, in an ever-changing landscape, through thick bushes, past vast shaded fern meadows, along a marsh brilliant with crimson flowers. Here and there meandered remnants of stonewalls, piled up by farmers hundreds of years ago, before they learned that the farming was better out west. Other than those lines of rock, though, I could see no civilization, hear no civilization, think no civilization. The whooshing birds, the humming brook, the whispering grasses, this miracle of silence, swept my head clean. The rich mineral smell of the air -- my lungs expanded with it, and my spirit too. "Who would have thought my shriveled heart/Could have recovered greenness?" as the poet George Herbert said. Not I, captain, not I!

I began taking short hikes every evening during what movie people call the "magic hour," when the light is most mercurial and affecting, soft and slowly dying. As I soon discovered, my walking spot was part of the mammoth Appalachian Trail, the longest hiker's footpath in the world. The Trail ran all through the town where I now lived, providing easy access to at least a dozen different entry points. I tried them all. Walking this bit or that, I got to know the names of things. The shrubs were mountain laurel, the slender red blooms were cardinal flowers, the trees with the pale bark like peeling paint were birch. One evening I saw a strange ornament hanging from a bush: an ashen gray pagoda, like a birdhouse, so intricate I was sure it had to be a work of human art. Yet it looked truly ancient. Had it survived some fire during the days of Lao-tze? I described this fascinating thing to anyone who would listen. (I'd once done the same with a song from a Chanel No. 5 commercial, asking and asking till I discovered it was Nina Simone singing.) I'd grope for ways to describe this objet d'art -- like an old lantern, almost? Origami, almost? Like it was made out of paper? Then someone said: "A paper wasp's nest." And yes, it was!

I had what I half-jokingly call "my nervous breakdown." Half-jokingly, though it was no joke. A perfect storm of events -- a break-up, a career disappointment, a professional trauma -- knocked me down.
But the real power of those woods came simply from the trees. Whatever effect Fort Greene Park had on me was multiplied exponentially in the seemingly endless forest that surrounded the A.T. All the pop guru talk of "being present" had done little more than chafe me before, but in the woods being present came, well, naturally. There, I wasn't thinking about the more fabulous places I could be or should be, or the more fabulous person. I was just so content to be there, in that restorative place, which re-charged my soul like sleep re-charges the body.

I never started hiking with any special plan or goal other than getting out of the woods before the dark set in. Very rarely did I walk to an outlook or vantage point. Maybe putting one foot in front of the other was enough to distract the anxious part of my mind, to trick it into feeling useful and busy, thereby freeing up some higher part of my consciousness for calm reflection on my life. In the woods, I didn't forget about all the things that were troubling me -- my existential loneliness, the crushing disappointments of my life -- but I could think about them without being knocked down by emotion. I began to effortlessly understand all this mindfulness stuff: The things that passed through my head weren't as much of a big deal as they so often seemed. My thoughts came from me, but were not me. They weren't permanent or final; they often weren't an accurate reflection of reality, either. All of which is to say that during my first summer in the Hudson Valley, I really started to get the whole nature thing -- just in time to help me withstand the tragedy speeding towards me from the future.

Posted by at November 19, 2017 6:29 AM