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 | 15 minutes (3,727 words)

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.

After college, I eventually arrived in that city of all cities, New York. I loved it. I couldn’t believe it had taken me so long to get there — to the center of the world, so it seemed, with all the great art museums, the great jazz places, the great movie theaters, the great performances of Shakespeare. The city helped me to notice an aspect of myself, the intellectual epicure, that I’d barely noticed before. It was a thrilling discovery. In New York, my brain was fed the richest of foods, my ambitions were fueled, my expectations for myself raised. By then, I’d lived in four other U.S. cities, and I felt sure I’d found the place that beat them all, where I’d stay forever.

The years passed and 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. I couldn’t eat or work, I could barely read or write, and I especially couldn’t sleep more than three hours a night. I couldn’t go out in public without disintegrating into tears — on the subway, in restaurants, at the gym, during a friend’s book party — triggered by the least little thing, like a long wait or a sad song. I was frequently overwhelmed by vertigo that felt as much physical as metaphysical. It felt at times as if I was slipping down some vast mountain into the abyss, unable to stop my steady descent, like a character out of some Edgar Allan Poe horror story. This went on for months and threatened never to end.

As I struggled to regain my bearings that winter, very little helped. Talking to my friends, usually such a reliable mood adjustor, had almost no effect. I pushed myself to jog every day, though I often didn’t have the strength to keep going for more than fifteen or twenty minutes. I tried to meditate and failed. About the only thing that soothed me was spending some part of every morning re-reading Rilke’s “Sonnets to Orpheus” again and again, which brought me as close to prayer as I’d been in a very long time.

Fighting to get some writing done in my apartment one frigid day, I felt my mind starting to slide again. Scared that it would drag me too far down if I didn’t do something fast, I jumped into my jacket and rushed out the door. I was trying to walk away, literally and figuratively, from the sabotage impending. I would’ve gone jogging, except that I didn’t feel I had the time to change my clothes. So I flew out of my place without really knowing where I was headed. I found myself going past the Brooklyn Academy of Music, past Greenlight Bookstore, finally arcing back to the thirty acres of Fort Greene Park. I walked in circles there for a long time, until my toes and fingers began to freeze. That was the day I began to appreciate the power of trees.

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.

“Green space” may not be that much more natural in Brooklyn than in the Jersey suburbs, but won’t a man dying of thirst suck on a sponge? It’s not fair of me to talk like that, considering how much that humble oasis in Fort Greene meant to me. Walking there, with the cold late afternoon air in my cheeks, with the bare branches extending ahead of me across the vast winter sky, I felt more free, less trapped in my apartment and in my head. It felt so good that first time I walked that I went back again and again. Being there, away from all the concrete, neon, and brick, soothed my soul more than anything else could during that devil’s winter. There, instead of being taunted into one dark corner after another by the voices in my head, I went one way, round and round and turtled deep in my jacket, felt better able to listen to what was good in myself.

***

A few months later, still feeling badly shaken by my psychological crash, I leaped at the chance to spend a few weeks alone in the country, house-sitting a ramshackle 1780’s country farmhouse on twenty-five acres. Winding country roads surrounded the property, all of them wonderfully messy, lined with giant shaggy Seuss-like trees. Being a bit shaggy myself, I felt at home in that un-manicured part of the world. (I haven’t owned a comb in a decade, and if I’ve ever had a fashion hero, it was Janis Joplin.) Any time I drove anywhere, I saw trees and trees — and more trees! — so thick that they hid from view the driveways, the cars, the follies of humankind. The privacy and peace those trees provided was a blessed relief after the crowds and chaos of New York, not to mention the city heat.

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.


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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.

***

Though I’d agreed to stay only one month in the old farmhouse, I’d been there a year when my father died unexpectedly. My charismatic, soulful, tortured father, who’d raised my sister and me alone since the death of our mother from cancer, in our childhood. My father had never recovered from losing the love of his life. He’d also never recovered from a much earlier wound: witnessing the tragic death of his younger brother. The 8-year-old boy was stretched out rigid on the laps of my father and his father when he died of lockjaw on Christmas Day, shortly after the end of World War II, in their impoverished Irish fishing village. (How does a child recover from something like that?) Depression dogged my father — his family, and ours — ever after.

Before my sister called me at noon that Monday to tell me that our father was gone, it had been a perfect September morning: sky endlessly blue, trees still huge bulbs of green. Out on my jog I’d twirled under the cotton-ball clouds, looking up and thinking, I wish I could get Dad here, and help him take in this medicine! Yet I also knew he’d never come. We’d walk a minute and his legs would bother him, or his stomach; he wouldn’t understand; he’d hector me for trying to force something on him beyond his ken. He’d loved the birds and rabbits and chipmunks in the prim yard of my childhood home, where he lived till his last day. He’d cluck like a little kid at the small animals — clucking, my father, a hulking construction-working man who’d been in more than one fistfight. But liking sweet fuzzy creatures is easier than liking wilderness and trees. (I should know.) And I think for my father the denatured represented safety and success and calm, whereas nature was largely something to fear and avoid.

In the week after my father’s death, I stayed at my sister’s in the suburbs. I found a place to run — the only pleasantly unkempt dirt road around, lined by blessedly messy trees. It ended at a brook. Jogging there every morning helped keep me sane and ordered, though often I had to stop because I was crying too hard to breathe. I agonized: How could this have happened? Why hadn’t I agreed to go visit my father sooner, during that last conversation we’d had, two nights before he died? Why had we almost gotten into yet another fight that night? Why did we fight so much? Why hadn’t I ever grown up? Why hadn’t I understood better that he’d never had enough parenting himself? What was wrong with me?

One day that week, as I stopped by the water to catch my breath, I startled an enormous bird, or maybe he startled me. This exotic otherworldly creature glided up out of the water on huge wings, his long neck stretching out in front of him. He flew past me above the stream three times, gaining altitude as he went, before settling in the top of a tree behind me. I don’t believe in the supernatural, but I believe I can read my own meaning into that majestic great blue heron who seemed to say, I will watch over you now.

A few months later — still feeling badly shaken by my psychological crash — I leapt at the chance to spend a few weeks alone in the country, house-sitting a ramshackle 1780’s country farmhouse on twenty-five acres.

I believe too that the bird opened me for a true epiphany. My feelings of guilt had been making a very convincing argument that if I tried to stop listening to them, I’d be doing my father a disloyalty. They’d been arguing that if I let myself off the hook, or felt less responsible about my father’s death, I’d betray him. But really, guilt isn’t loyalty. It’s a kind of treachery to the self, a dark angel. Of course we should examine the past and learn from it. But guilt is a punishment, not a lesson, and to let myself succumb to it would be to give the forces of death another victory. My father would’ve wanted nothing more than for me to beat them. My greater responsibility was to life.

That said, recognizing the validity of an idea is easier than living, easier than thinking, and feeling, accordingly. And after that week at my sister’s, I was scared to return to my lonesome life in a huge farmhouse that was as empty as my life was. No job, no boyfriend, no social life, nothing. How was I going to start to live again? And for what? I knew very little, except that I had the trees; I kept thinking that. The trees, the trees, like some magical chant. As terrified as I was to return to my life, I couldn’t wait to see the trees again. Every day that passed I thought, Oh, please, trees, please, hold on. Wait for me. I’ll be back soon. Don’t change too much without me.

***

My friend Tim came to shepherd me through my return. We hiked a little every day, in and out. We took it very easy. I kept seeing things I felt I had to share with Tim — these bright berries or that glowing yellow sugar maple, this exquisite fluorescent red salamander or the tree trunk gnawed to a pencil point by beavers. Weren’t these things just so wonderful? Tim agreed that they were, saying, “The way you’re noticing all this through your tears seems like a good sign.”

After Tim left, I continued hiking every evening on my own, same as I’d done before my life had changed utterly, a mere two weeks earlier. But now, for the first time since I’d started solo hiking, I began to lose my way again and again as night fell. I’d forget to pay attention to the blazes; I’d watch the ground, continuing along whatever part of it looked most beaten down; I’d look up eventually to discover I was in the middle of a dark wood — when, according to my watch, I should’ve been back where I’d started by then. I had no smartphone or GPS, so I’d freak out a little, sometimes a lot. My heart would go wild as I imagined all the worst possible ends — having to sleep out there, getting attacked by a coyote or a bear, or getting attacked by a rabid human. But then I’d start bushwhacking, and after a lot of thrashing around in the dark, I’d come to a road and eventually make my way back to my car.

I kept getting lost, though, so often that I had to wonder what my subconscious was doing. My sister would probably tell you I’m just the plain old worst at directions, and she wouldn’t be wrong. But I think it’s also possible that I needed to prove to myself that although I was now utterly without a map in the world, utterly marooned without my father, I’d find a way back. I’d reorient myself. A North Star would appear, inside. I’d keep going. I’d survive.

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.

“Peace comes dropping slow,” Yeats wrote. And for me, that fall, it dropped with the leaves. I began to appreciate something the Epicurean philosopher Lucretius observed: We have no consciousness of ourselves or anything else before we’re born, so why should it be terrifying to contemplate that we’ll have none again once we die? And my father too, now that he was dead, he had no consciousness of himself or of me, either. His suffering was over; he’d never again feel it or remember it. He was beyond peace.

We’re all dwarfed by time, and space, and by the trees. The giant plants of the Hudson Valley had been growing in that soil for decades before I came to be, maybe even a full hundred years before, maybe more; they could very well keep growing for at least as long after I’m gone. And they were mere plants, yet not mere at all, being bigger and stronger and older than I was. They had the power to humble me without humiliating me. Among them, I could accept my own insignificance, despite the fact that I’m someone who so much wants to feel important and powerful, like anyone else in this culture of the individual. But in the woods, no one saw me. No one knew I was there. In a sense, I failed to exist. And guess what? It didn’t really matter. I didn’t really matter. The world went on. Among the trees, I recognized myself for the speck of dust I more or less am, but that awareness didn’t devastate me. Instead, it helped me to live.

To philosophize is to prepare to die, they say. But to walk in the woods is too.

* * *

Maura Kelly lives on a two-hundred-acre farm near The Catskills, where she takes care of a horse. She is writing a novel.

Editor: Sari Botton