Saturday, March 26, 2011

Whose Woods These Are I Think I Know

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not man the less, but Nature more.
~George Gordon, Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

We're spending a few days visiting Thea's grandparents at the start of break before we head to San Francisco for almost a week, and I was walking our dog Beaker around my mother’s yard when I was struck by the power of The Woods in our cultural imagination. There’s just something about a forest, isn’t there? I remember, as a kid, loving to go off into “the woods” that was next to our house. It felt like a place to disappear—from parents, from neighbors, from everyday reality. It was the place to pretend to be Frodo or Aragorn or any other fantasy hero. There were the trees themselves, the undergrowth, the woody vines creeping up some of the trees, the birds and occasional other wildlife, secret places, fallen trees to walk like balance beams. It was a place for the imagination, for play, for escape, for refreshment.

And the funny thing to realize, as I was walking the dog, was that it was, perhaps, 15 yards deep. It barely even deserved to be called woods, though it ran from the road to beyond our property line (granted, our house sat on less than an acre, and the woods ran along the long side of our rectangle). Maybe that was part of its appeal, too. It wasn’t ours. It belonged to our neighbor—our sometimes-crabby neighbor, our sometimes-feuding with my father neighbor. They lived on the other side of our property from the woods, and across another couple acres of open grass (in point of fact, other than the right-of-way represented by the road, it was impossible to leave our property without going onto land owned by that neighbor). But along most of the woods there was an old, rusty fence, and that plus our neighbor’s sometimes-ill-will added, I think, to the allure of the woods, as every forbidden place has an allure to it. You had to either enter through the one area that didn’t either have a fence or a veritable hedge of thorns blocking the way, or you had to make your way over or through the fence. It hadn’t been maintained, so there were places where it had been pushed down or where holes had been made, but it was also a metal fence and it also had a row of barbed wire—rusty barbed wire!—at its top. So it was a barrier, however easily navigated at places. 

As I’ve grown up, though, there’s still a great appeal to woods. I wish that the land we bought had a woods that was really worthwhile—I would love to have a ready source of good firewood and, ideally, a stand of maple trees to tap, to say nothing of the Forest Garden I plan to plant with fruit and nut trees. We already have perhaps 4 acres of woods on our nine-and-a-half, but they’re pretty worthless trees, except for the fact of being trees, which is some value in and of itself. It’s an aesthetic value, and that’s not something to be discounted. 

These beauteous forms,
      Through a long absence, have not been to me
      As is a landscape to a blind man's eye:
      But oft, in lonely rooms, and 'mid the din
      Of towns and cities, I have owed to them
      In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
      Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
      And passing even into my purer mind,
      With tranquil restoration:--feelings too                        30
      Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
      As have no slight or trivial influence
      On that best portion of a good man's life,
      His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
      Of kindness and of love. Nor less, I trust,
      To them I may have owed another gift,
      Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,
      In which the burthen of the mystery,
      In which the heavy and the weary weight
      Of all this unintelligible world,                               40
      Is lightened:--that serene and blessed mood,
      In which the affections gently lead us on,--
      Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
      And even the motion of our human blood
      Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
      In body, and become a living soul:
      While with an eye made quiet by the power
      Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
      We see into the life of things.

 --William Wordsworth, "Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey"


  1. I'm sure you're also familiar with _Into the Woods_. We had four acres growing up, most of it woods, and what a site for playing. We had the best sledding hill, a little hollow, old drainage ditches from former cranberry bog times, plenty of peat, sometimes ducks, sometimes ice-skating, many trails, fallen logs, so much.

  2. Grew up on a 50-acre Connecticut farm which was mostly second-growth woods. I loved the woods for riding and for walking and for sitting on a log (or in a hammock) and reading aloud. Always felt a great deal of kinship with Robert Frost. But I live in California now, with miles to go before I sleep.