I have been cuddling up lately to the woodstove and giving thanks for my good fortune in being able to do so. When we could finally afford to buy our own land, my wife and I were determined to get a tract that had a woodlot on it and fortunately we were able to do that. My thinking, even in the early seventies was that I wanted my own source of fuel and in my mind, that meant some established woodland so I could commence staying warm immediately. But thinking about that while sitting by the fire, I was overcome by what I believe everyone refers to today as an epiphany. I realized that practical considerations about staying warm were probably not the real reason I wanted to live in the woods. It was suddenly apparent to me that I had spent almost all my life in or next to groves of trees. Even when I went to work in Philadelphia, we found, in the suburbs, a house that had a wild tree grove at the back end of it. And most mornings, by choice, I walked through woodland to get to the train that took me into the city. Even out my office window, there was Washington Square, a grove of trees for sure, smack dab in the middle of the city.
Before that we lived in an enchanting grove in a log cabin in the countryside near Indiana University. Before that, the seminary schools in Indiana, Michigan and Minnesota were all located in or next to woodland. And before that, I haunted the woodlots on and contiguous to our home farm. I wasn’t intentionally picking out these places. I was not captain of my ship but just drifting along trying to stay sane in what was for me a rather insane world. Unwittingly, I think, I gravitated toward woodland because it was always my sanctuary, my retreat from human turmoil.
Then, as I sat by the woodstove, I realized something even more intriguing. Most of the people I know and admire, among them a few quite famous people, also have or had this seemingly seminal attraction to the forest. Mark Twain is my favorite writer, and all you have to do is read his essay about the tree groves on his boyhood farm to know how important woodland was to him. (It’s in the new Autobiography of Mark Twain on pages 214- 220.) Here is part of a sentence from page 220: “I was ashamed and also lost; and it was while wandering in the woods hunting for myself that I found a deserted log cabin…” etc. This very same exact experience happened to me! Andrew Wyeth, my favorite painter, loved the forests of Maine. He told me that even blindfolded, he could tell what kind of evergreen he was standing under by the sound the wind made blowing through it. I did not know Alfred Kinsey, who had owned the log cabin and woodland we lived in when I was attending Indiana University, but I much admired his resolve in investigating sexual matters few others had the courage to consider at his time. Not many people know this but his hobby was filling his grove with wildflowers from all over Indiana. Wendell Berry, my friend, is a great lover of woodland. He does most of his writing in a cabin in the woods. My other hero, Harlin Hubbard, lived in the woods along the Ohio River in a house he built from the trees around him. Also I much admire Scott and Helen Nearing who not only lived in the woods but made a living from it. Current heroes and champion market gardeners, Andy Reinhart and Jan Dawson, live in the woods and a make a living from a clearing on the edge of it.
So I venture to ask: how many of you reading this live in or next to woodland? Or would if you could? Can you articulate your affinity for trees? Is it something that is in all humans, but perhaps stronger in some than others? Is it practical security or philosophical sanctuary that draws us to the woods? If pioneer diaries can be believed, when Americans were clearing the forest primeval, lots of people, perhaps most, disliked the gloom of the deep forest and could not wait to clear it away. Then, at some point, something in us said we were going too far.
Give me something to think about. Make me come down with another confounded epiphany.