This essay first aired on December 18, 2015
Sometimes the best way to connect is to disconnect. That’s what Kent, Ohio-based writer and photographer Debra-Lynn Hook found out during a sojourn to the Michigan woods. It was a gift to herself, after sending her third — and youngest — child to college.
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On a brilliant afternoon in late autumn, without so much as a watch to keep time, I stepped outside the door of my cabin and onto a path in the woods.
This would be no power walk, guided by target heart rates, distance-per-minute and iPhone playlists.
I wanted instead to wander.
And so, hearing the whoosh of a large bird’s wings, I stopped to watch her lift her heavy body skyward. I heard popping, cracking noises above my head. And I turned my eyes to study the tops of tall pines swaying like giraffe’s necks in the wind. I heard the sounds of a burbling brook.
I squatted beside it to watch a solitary leaf float, then dip, then catch itself on a log. Disconnected from e-mails and text pings and what’s next on my calendar, I opened my eyes and suddenly could see — snow-white mushrooms hidden among the leaves; a shoulder-high stand of weeds, topped with red puffballs like Christmas ornaments; tiny Charlie Brown saplings, determined to take their place among the granddaddy pines.
During my two and a half weeks in a rustic cabin on 200 acres of forestland, I rested, watched movies, and took photographs. I made pots of vegetable soup and colored in one of those mindful coloring books. I also allowed myself to sit with the conflicted heart of a mother whose three young-adult children are struggling to take their leave. And I am trying to hold steady in the storm.
But it was the woods I came for, the woods that took me back to a time and a place a thousand miles and decades away.
In the golden Michigan light, I ran and skipped like a child. I sang, like my best friend and I used to, playing along the creek that wound through our neighborhood, pretending we were Maria in “The Sound of Music.” I brushed my hand along the top of a squat young pine and gently bending a twig, called forth a scent, and a memory, when I would lie, daydreaming, on the floor of the treehouse my father built.
I also cried like a child.
Sitting on a thick carpet of pine needles, I lamented the trappings of modern life that separate us from this world we also belong to. I grieved for the land, desecrated and endangered because of this disassociation. More than anything, I wept with a sense of relief. Resting on the face of this venerable earth, these wise, enduring trees making a cathedral ceiling above my head, I was the wandering child now, come home again.
There’s a reason Thoreau took to the woods, why there are parks systems in this country, why we beg our children to go outside.
As for me, I didn’t know precisely why I went to the woods, what exactly I went to find, and why I will likely return again and again.
But then that’s the point—and the beauty, I suppose—of the woods.
I believe they’re finding me.