Into a Summer Woods
In fairy tales and fables, woods are often depicted as dark and dangerous...but, in reality, woods can help us connect to a greater spiritual world around us.
For several years when I was young, my parents spent a month every summer vacationing on a tree-filled mountainside in New Hampshire. We stayed at the top of a dirt road that climbed the mountain for a mile or so before turning sharply to the left and coming to a stop at a little run-down house.
Except the road didn’t really run out there at all. Just at the spot where the road turned left, if you looked carefully, you could see an overgrown entrance to the woods, where the road—thick with weeds and full of potholes, but a road all the same—continued on.
Sometimes, when there was nothing else to do or when I just felt like getting away by myself, I’d slip through that secret opening and follow the section of road farther up the mountain. The best times were sunny and windy—when the only clouds in the sky were big white puffy ones that blocked out the sun for just a moment before moving swiftly on overhead.
The higher up the mountain I’d walk, the fainter the road became, until it was just a hint of track running through the oak, maple and birch trees that stretched off in all directions. Ambling along, I’d sometimes hear a sound coming toward me from far away. I’d stop in my tracks and listen. Closer and closer came the sound, until it was all around me…wind. The trees bent and the leaves vibrated. Acorns, suddenly free from the branches above, crashed like hailstones on the soft forest floor.
Something in the moment was both thrilling and strangely comforting. Alone and completely apart from the world of human company, I suddenly felt that I was really not alone at all.
Though I didn’t know it at the time, I was hardly the first person to discover this sense of mystery that can overtake one alone in the forest. “In the woods,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “a man casts off his years and is always a child. Within these plantations of God, a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years. In the woods, we return to reason and faith.”
Naturalist John Muir, who loved nothing better than to disappear into the woods for weeks at a time with no more than a loaf of bread and a sack of tea, often likened the majestic forests of the far West to natural cathedrals—places where God could be found as reliably and powerfully, for those with the eyes to see him, as he could in any church. Muir once climbed a Douglas fir in the middle of a violent storm and rode it out in the tree’s branches. “I kept my lofty perch for hours,” he wrote, “frequently closing my eyes to enjoy the music, or to feast quietly on the delicious fragrance that was streaming past.”