In the woods

We drive two-lane country roads, smooth pavements and wide ditches, trees surrounding us. The hills are slow and gentle.

We go up and down, up and down without noticing until I look back and see the ripples.

The earth is soft.

It is full of undramatic beauty, the kind that doesn’t need to be made into a calendar to feel good about itself. It just is: here, quiet, content, profound. Soft-spoken beauty, easy to overlook if you want cliffside scenic views, jagged peaks, endless horizons, and other postcard-able scenes.

Here there are not scenes but surroundings, and that’s why this part of the country doesn’t work for postcards. It’s not one piece of it that gets you but how it keeps going, how it creeps up slow behind you, how it keeps rolling out in front of you. The generosity of it. The acceptance in it: of you, of the world, of being unnoticed, of just being.

The greens move from light to dark from the road out.

First the bright yellow green grass in the ditches, dotted now by Queen Anne’s Lace and Black-eyed Susans. The green darkens as it moves up the privets and vines—some you don’t want to touch, careful—then the shy dogwoods peeking out under maples and young oaks, then the darker green of the conifers: astringent cedars, pines tall and fragile and sticky. And here, the greens blur into something less distinct than trees, something wider and wilder: the woods.

Some people grew up in the forest, on the plains, by the river. Others, who had and still have my pity, grew up “in town.” Some people, apparently, grew up in places exotic and mysterious to childhood-me: the ocean, the mountains, the jungle, the city.

I grew up in the woods.

The woods always started somewhere just beyond where you lived: at the edge of the yard, on the property line, over the fence, past the gully, behind the shed.

The yard might have trees but the yard did not have the woods.

The woods have their own existence, hold their own peace. You can come into the woods and they can come into you. But you cannot take the woods out with you. You cannot tame the woods into a suburban yard or neatly cropped landscape.

The woods are trailing, dangly, messy, full of spiderwebs and twigs and broken fence posts and rusty, half-buried car parts and slightly dangerous hollows and thorns and ankle-twisting holes and sounds.

So many sounds, each one telling part of a story. Sounds that slither in and whisper and hint, that half-speak and half-sing a history. Sounds that point sideways at unknown worlds always just behind you, just there, in the shadow, close. If you demand more, the sounds and stories fade. You get further away. If you breathe deep and take what you get, you get more.

Walk quietly and notice the moss on the rock. See how the sunlight turns the leaf from green to yellow. Feel the give, the layers and layers of browned pine needles beneath your feet. Put your hand on the bark: the rough pine bark with deep grooves and ridges. The sugary sweet, peeling sycamore.

Here is the story. Here is the history and the meaning of it all.

You cannot bring it out into fenced yards and neat porches. You cannot chase it down like a deer or call it out like a dog. You must go to it: quiet, respectful, listening, humble. Sit down for a moment or a year or a childhood or lifetime—however long it takes—and listen. The woods will tell you all you need to know.